Saturday, December 10, 2016

More than a vision, an imperative

Final day at the Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation Summit

The final day of the TRHT Summit starts with a presentation by Manuel Pastor, Professor of Sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity, who directs the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at the University of Southern California. He lays out some of the major cleavages in the country. One is the rapidly shifting demographics. By the end of the decade minorities will be a majority of the workforce. (But net migration from Mexico is actually negative partly due to lower birthrates.) Interestingly, Pastor says “racial anxiety is strongest in regions where demographic change is not happening,” e.g. the Rust Belt. There is also a growing social distance. Racial segregation has decreased in urban areas but income segregation is increasing. Cities are becoming whiter, while suburbs are more diverse but they don’t have the necessary social service infrastructure. Another factor is the racial generation gap. The median age for Latinos is 27 compared with 56 for whites. “Whites don’t see themselves in this younger generation,” says Pastor. 

Pastor also notes that regions that work toward equity have stronger and more resilient growth for everyone. “For example, San Antonio introduced a sales tax to support pre-K education for disadvantaged kids. The leaders of the Chamber of Commerce supported it because they saw it as an investment in the future.”  

The rest of the day is devoted to taking the TRHT guiding principles and the recommendations of five design teams (narrative change, racial healing and relationship building, separation, law and economy) who have developed papers over the past several months, and begin to imagine how they might be applied in communities across the country. 

The Richmond group convened by Initiatives of Change/Hope in the Cities includes representatives of Richmond City Council, the Office of Community Wealth Building, Bon Secours Health Systems, Richmond Hill Community, Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, the American Civil War Museum and the University of Richmond. Other groups are here from Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Buffalo, Dallas, as well as Mississippi, New Mexico and Michigan. Each group spends five hours together working through the process and beginning to develop plans for first steps.

The guiding principles include a commitment to an accurate recounting of history, which has been largely told by the dominant groups in our communities. An atmosphere of forgiveness must be cultivated and people of all backgrounds encouraged to tell their stories without fear of recrimination. Equally important is a clear and compelling vision with ambitious but achievable goals with progress regularly assessed. The process must be fully inclusive, reaching out to non-traditional allies. True healing requires the building of trust; divisive rhetoric and blame and adversarial proceedings are unlikely to produce an atmosphere in which healing and transformation can occur. This transformation must be seen in some form of reparative or restorative justice and policies that foster systemic change.  

Richmond has taken important steps to acknowledge its racial history and to engage a wide range of citizens in honest dialogue. There is a significant network of individuals and institutions who have built relationships of trust – perhaps more than most cities in America. All of the Richmonders at the summit agree that the time is ripe for another major step forward that would enable our community to truly overcome the structural inequities that are the result of the belief in a human hierarchy based on race. In the coming weeks we will be consulting with our various constituents as well as reaching out to new allies as we develop a plan. One resource that may be useful is a business case for racial equity developed by Kellogg. 

The summit has been a time of intensive work, with the daily program starting at 7:00 am and ending at 9:00 pm with scarcely a break. No time to enjoy the beautiful Carlsbad surroundings! But there is a sense of urgency because of the divisive rhetoric of the presidential election and the alarm at what may lie ahead with the incoming administration. 

“This week has proven to me that we can do it!” says Gail Christopher as we wrap up the summit. “It is a vision, but more than a vision it is an imperative.” She announces that Kellogg and its TRHT partners – with a combined reach of more than 200 million people – are responding to the need to bring a different spirit to the country before the Inauguration, by calling for a National Day of Healing on January 17. More details coming soon!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The house that racism built

Day 3 at the Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation Summit 

After a day focused on personal racial healing and relationship building, we focus today on healing the wounds of our society that result from our inherited belief in a racial hierarchy. David Williams from Harvard’s School of Public Health shares data showing the devastating impact of racism on health outcomes for people of color. His presentation entitled “The House that Racism Built” provides overwhelming evidence drawn from multiple studies. 

He highlights residential segregation as America’s “most successful political ideology.” It impacts schools, employment, transportation, public safety – all of which impact health. “It is a truly rigged system based on skin color.” In a city like Richmond, Virginia, there is a 20-year difference in life expectancy between some neighborhoods. Studies show that eliminating residential segregation would result in eliminating disparities in educational achievement, employment, and health, and would reduce by two thirds the number of births by single mothers. Discrimination also leads to feelings of disrespect and to stress that causes health problems such as high blood pressure. Williams recalls W.E.B Du Bois’ remark on “the peculiar indifference to black suffering” in America.

Surveys show that white Americans operate with a very different narrative. One in three reported they were “troubled” by Obama’s election, and because a black man is in the White House they are less willing to support efforts to further reduce inequality. “Research shows that we think with our hearts,” says Williams, therefore we need to develop stories that will “break through the empathy gap.”  

Salin Geevarghese, deputy assistant secretary for international and philanthropic innovation at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, says, "Just putting data out there does not mean that people will draw the right conclusions. We have all witnessed the power of narrative to make data come alive.”

Throughout the day we hear powerful testimonies and reports from teams of community organizers, civil rights activists, academics, and racial healing practitioners who have been working on visions and potential strategies to develop new narratives, to overcome separation and concentrated poverty, to create equitable opportunity and fair economies, and to reconstruct a legal system that delivers justice for all. It is intense and challenging. The energy is high. Panel discussions reflect America in all its racial and ethnic diversity.

As the father of a Georgetown University alumnus, I am particularly interested in the contribution of President John De Gioia who describes the university’s efforts to address its racial history. He notes that America’s universities were complicit in establishing the notion of racial hierarchy. “The very idea of race is the product of colonial scholarship.” However, he stressed the role of higher education in providing a place where we can have “the most rigorous discourse on the most challenging issues.” He expresses alarm that funding support by states for higher education has dropped on average from 65% to 35% and in some states it is less than half that. “We are not providing the level of commitment to public education that is crucial at this time.” Civil society, of which higher education is a vital part, is the “bulwark against authoritarianism.” He says we need a new conversation in America “about what it means to belong here as a people.” 

Much of the conversation is set against the backdrop of the incoming Trump administration and the anticipated assault on voting rights, legal justice, fair housing, and protection for immigrants. However as someone remarked, one result of the election is that there is now a transparency around the discourse on race: “We need to own that space.” And, Gail Christopher reminds us, “You can stand up for values without having a political conversation. These are human rights values. We need a movement that truly stands up for what we believe to be right.” 

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The power of story

Day 2 at the Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation Summit 

“Our beliefs are shaped by the stories we hear,” says Gail Christopher as we embark on a “day of healing” at the TRHT summit. “Today is about stories…When we form a circle we suspend the hierarchy…we are not here to judge but to create a safe and sacred space.” 

We pause to celebrate the remarkable forgiveness ceremony that took place at Standing Rock just twenty-four hours earlier where military veterans made a heartfelt apology to Native people for military action taken against them for centuries. Rituals of forgiveness, says Christopher, can give rise to “heartfelt commitments to change conditions.”

An important step in the healing process is to overcome false narratives that define us. So for most of the day, the entire conference is divided into groups of 20 to 24 people. Each “healing circle” is facilitated by two experienced “healing practitioners” who invite the participants to share a personal story about a time when they overcame, challenged, changed and/or stood up to what they felt was a false narrative about themselves or their identity group, and how that moment influenced them or changed their life and/or the lives of others. It is a powerful experience that one of my colleagues describes as a process of slowing down; of showing up as your authentic self; and of deep listening and being listened to without judgement. 

Later in the afternoon several members of a team working on guidelines and recommendations for a racial healing strategy discuss their experiences of racial healing with the whole conference. They include Elizabeth Medicine Crow of the First Alaska Institute, Jerry Tello of the National Compadres Network, Lloyd Asato of the Asian Pacific Community in Action, and Mee Moua of Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

Some important steps in healing highlighted in the team’s recommendations:
  • Let the voice and spirit of the community be your guide. Listen to the communities and consult with them; ask what they need; seek their ideas and visions and reflect back what you have heard.
  • Validate the practice of racial healing and recognize those who are doing healing work in your communities. Seek guidance and support from those who have done this in other communities. There are many people and organizations who have developed racial healing practices, history walks and rituals, as well as dialogues, community trustbuilding and community organizing. Map these resources, learn from them, amplify them and make connections.
  • Develop a racial healing practitioner network and affirm the necessity for healing by creating healing spaces for ourselves and others. Pay attention to reflection and to self-care, to relationships in our own homes and family life, as we try to heal our communities. Avoid a hierarchy of woundedness. Support each other.
  • Our work is centered on dialogue and connectedness. Recognize that the healing process is for everyone, both the oppressed and the oppressor.
  • Look for ways to connect racial healing to efforts for equitable public policy. Highlight the importance of connecting stories to data as a way to reach people emotionally as well as intellectually and to mobilize them for action in effecting needed structural change.

Tomorrow’s agenda will focus on some of the key areas for where change is needed. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The power of love

Day 1 at the Truth Racial Healing & Transformation Summit

“In Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation the power of love is leveraged to transcend the power of fear,” says the visionary leader of this initiative, Dr. Gail Christopher, senior advisor and vice president at  the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. She is speaking at the opening of a summit that has convened 570 leaders from across the country representing racial healing and justice organizations, faith communities, corporations, academia, government and the arts. 

Fifteen of us have traveled from Richmond, Virginia, to Carlsbad, California, to take part in this historic event. I will be blogging regularly as we experience these days together. On the first evening the attendees are welcomed by Stan Rodriguez of the Santa Ysabel Band of the Lipay Nation. “Hear with your heart,” he tells us. “We are the ancestors of the ones who are to come. What legacy are we going to leave them?” 

Kellogg’s president and CEO, La June Montgomery Tabron, recalls the words of its founder that the only change that is permanent is the change that emerges by the force of the people. And she inspires us with Nelson Mandela’s powerful insight that “No one is born hating another…People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”  

Gail Christopher calls this event “a dream come true…. In this time when there is so much anger and pain, we will together project a different energy into the discourse.” Explaining TRHT, she says (I am paraphrasing here): What do we mean by truth? It is in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. (Of course the founders only meant white men.) Our goal is to bring forth the potential of our democracy for all to be respected and honored. Healing means to move beyond denial to recognize the fundamental fallacy of racial hierarchy and its monumental cost and to come face to face with our true humanity. In the human body, healing takes place naturally when the conditions are right. It is the same in this work: healing comes with trustbuilding, building relationships, creating a new narrative. The transformation is expressed in ending our separation and segregation, reconstructing our legal system and building an economy open to all. “Systems produce exactly what they are designed to produce. The inequalities are there by design.”

Former Mississippi governor William Winter, now 93, but as feisty as ever, is interviewed by Tsi-tsi-ki Felix, a journalist and news anchor with Univision. Winter says of the TRHT initiative, “This is the most important thing that any one of us can be involved in, without exception. We must learn to live with each other.” He says we must renew our determination not to allow the progress in racial justice to be reversed. 

Winter recalls a segregationist governor claiming at a political rally, “If I am elected there will not be any more integration in Mississippi.” A supporter standing next to Winter cheered loudly. “I said to him, ‘You don’t really think he can do that?’ ‘No, but I just like to hear him say it!’” Winter observes that Americans “can get into a lot of trouble when people succumb to believing that which is not so.” 

Winter says that in his travels as one of the commissioners serving President Bill Clinton’s One America initiative in 1997 and 1998 he found that everyone, regardless of race, class or politics,  wanted four things: a good education for their children; a fair shot at a job; a decent house on a safe street; and to be treated with dignity and respect. “Why can’t we devote energy to making these aspirations a reality?” 

The former governor, known for his educational reforms, grew up in “the most segregated corner of the most segregated state in America.” But he had a father and a mother who “taught me not to hate anyone or be unkind to anyone and to try to be fair.”  A pivotal moment was his experience in the newly integrated officer corps in World War II. “I was with very able African American officers.” But on buses in southern towns he got to sit at the front while they had to it at the back. They could not eat at restaurants or go to the movies together. “I said, these things have got to change.” 

I end today reflecting on Gail Christopher’s reference to the concluding words of Lincoln’s immortal second inaugural address: “With malice towards none, with charity for all…” By this he meant love for all, says Christopher. “We are not going to allow this country to descend into hate. We will stand in the presence of divine love to heal the nation.”