The sense of community, of joy, of celebration, and of suffering was palpable. Last week I attended a conference on race in Detroit. My first conference of this type. And despite many years of personal work along with anti-racism trainings and workshops, I realize that I still know very little.
I see and hold the native and First Nation peoples who lived on the lands before us, who cared for it as we do, and lived their lives in community. Here in the Ojai Valley, where I write these words, these are the Chumash people. Today I also honor our diversity, whether that be gender, religion, ethnicity, national origin, age, physical or mental abilities, sexual orientation, gender identity or political affiliation.
The bi-annual conference was created by the organization Race Forward, creators of the fantastic Colorlines publication, and the name of the event was Facing Race: A National Conference. The conference week also celebrated the election of 100 women to Congress, including 40 women of color. Each of our general sessions were started with a music, dance, or words from the local creative community. We also had a “conference weaver” who lead the 3000 people in song. For the opening session, we sang together:
We are the children of ones who did not die
We are the children of the people who can fly
We are the children of the ones who preserver
We are fearless
We are strong
And we’re ready to carry on
This was also one of the only conferences that I’ve attended that truly acknowledged and displayed the richness of the local community. Detroit is an inspiring place where the community works for food justice, water justice, and social justice. We were reminded early on by a local speaker from a nonprofit who said, “if you are a nonprofit, and you don’t have the people you serve on your board, then that’s a change that needs to occur.”
As a white male amidst a predominantly non-white audience, I immediately became aware of my whiteness. An experience that many, if not all, people of color experience on a daily basis. A clear reminder of my privilege and place in society. The other new experience for me was that probably 80-90% of the presenters throughout the conference were people of color. What a gift! The opening plenary featured Rashad Robinson, adrienne maree brown, Favianna Rodriguez, Bree Newsome, and Jeff Chang. These folks inspire and remind us that we need to change the narrative. Furthermore, if we want to move the needle and create narrative change then feeling comfortable isn’t going to help us. We need to step into those spaces where people may disagree or not understand. We live in a society that is organized around a lie and the symbol of white power flies above everything. And through conferences such as this we are building the conditions for people to be free and recognize new possibilities.
The conference offered hundreds of sessions and this created a challenge for each block as I had picked three or four workshops but could only attend one in each block. Here’s what I attended:
It Doesn’t Have to Suck! Easy Management Levers for Anti-Oppression Lovers
This workshop was offered by Bex Ahuja and Tamara Osivwemu from The Management Center. These two were energetic and connected with their audience. I loved too how they set the stage to allow for interactions and questioning by creating an invitation at the beginning. They remind us that bad management disproportionally impacts those on the margins. But even with good management, there is also disproportionate impact if we don’t have an equity lens. We need good management within equity and inclusion lens. Further, the modern definition and understanding of management (command and control) is not built for anti-opression work. Managing with an equity and inclusion lens means there is no neutral path. We can‘t just stand back and do the status quo. Dismantling and removing supremacist power (in my management style) means recognizing and addressing implicit bias, assuming sameness, and the convenient story (it’s not us, it’s them) – these are the pillars of supremacist power. Bringing the race lens allows us to do transformative work instead of temporary work. Bex and Tamara offer a model of goal development that is both inclusive and equitable. Instead of SMART goals, we can have SMARTIE goals. When we re-imagine, we can ask who is this process serving (or not serving), who is this building power for (and who it’s not), and who benefits the most from these outcomes (and who doesn’t). We each have a “Choice Point” in which we have a choice to bring the equity lens to the organization.
Afro-futurism and Black Horror
Tananarive Due, an author and faculty member at UCLA, and Bree Newsome explore the healing power of horror and science fiction as tools for addressing erasure and creating visionary roadmaps to black liberation. A fun discussion that ranged from Black Panther and Get Out to Octavia Butler novels. Following a short presentation from each, they opened it for questions on a wide-ranging number of topics. As an avid reader of genre fiction, I have made a conscious effort to include more narratives written by people of color. For example, in the last year I have read Jade City by Fonda Lee, The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang, The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin, Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon, Everfair by Nisi Shael, The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson, and The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin. Through these stories, new insights and experiences are opened up to help me to grow and learn.
Alignment, Alignment, Alignment! Institutional Changes, Performance Measures, and Population Outcomes
In this session presented by Kien Lee, Nora Liu, and Marcella Hurtado Gomez we learn about measuring racial equity. They have developed an instrument to review structural racism through policies, practices, and procedures that benefit (intentionally or unintentionally) white people in our organizations. The tool proactively seeks to eliminate racial inequities and advance equity. It identifies clear goals, objectives, and measurable outcomes. Developed from Race Forward’s Model of Change (normalizing the work, organizing the work, and operationalize the work). This team offered us six stages for racial equity.
- Articulate the change desired by the community
- Determine the ecosystem and identify and analyze the relevant data
- Engage the community
- Determine organizational strategies to end racial disparities and ensure equitable outcomes to opportunities and resources
- Develop, implement, and evaluate an action plan
- Communicate about the plan’s progress and outcomes – be accountable
Each of these stages has their own process. It is iterative and this means you may go from one to four and then have to return to one again. This could occur anywhere along the path. It may feel overwhelming. It’s not going to change overnight. But we need to know we are on the path.
Flipping the Script: Developing and Deploying a Strategic Narrative for Transformative Change
Gerald Lenoir from the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society presents findings based on the Blueprint for Belonging. This is a project in California to develop and begin to use a strategic narrative. A narrative to challenge the dominate view. The fundamental building blocks are to eliminate racialized inequality, an inclusive and responsive government, and empathy and bridging based identities. The last was the focus of the workshop. We had a great deal of interaction and conversation with others attending the workshop. One group exercise was to come up with a statement of who we are as group. The four of us (strangers) looked for our shared experiences, history, values, and visions for the future. It was a challenging exercise, but we came up with “A group who have all traveled internationally and work in the service to others and believe in justice, equity, compassion, nonviolence, and inclusion. To not causing harm and not pursuing harm. That all needs are met in a healthy society.”
Living History, Building Change, Inspiring People
In addition to the workshops, we had some great keynotes. Getting to laugh with Hari Kondabolu was different for someone like me who doesn’t care for stand-up comedy. He’s able to make us laugh without being disparaging. During the follow-up conversation, Hari also got serious by saying things like “I don’t think we should judge immigrants on how they do or don’t contribute to the economy.” He helped us look at what it means to grow-up in America as the son of an immigrant family. Thank you Hari!
Introduced by Alicia Garcia (#BlackLivesMatter co-founder), we hear the amazing Tarana Burke offer her insights and experiences as the founder of the MeToo movement over a decade ago. She talked of her work with women of color and sexual harassment and sexual violence. She reminded us of some very grime facts at the same time sharing how this has been an issue far longer than Hollywood getting all the attention – “Fuck Hollywood. You can’t take shit that’s mine. The MeToo movement is in our work.” Following her keynote, she was then interviewed by Linda Sarsour, organizer for the Women’s March. We are reminded by Tarana that sexual violence is a police brutality issue, a mass incarceration issue, an economic justice issue, a community health issue, a housing and homelessness issue, an LBTQI+ issue, and a racial justice issue. It is a human rights issue. And sexual violence also happens within the movement community. This is not about awareness. This is about action. What happens after the hashtag. This is not time for debate. It’s time to work. These are hard conversations. Expand your lens to include sexual violence. Find where you fit in. And “possibility is all we may have sometimes.”
As for white allies, we have work to do. We need to do our research. Seek to understand and expand our thinking and our hearts. That’s what I take away from this conference. The lived-experience of hearing and being with people of color for three days is something all white allies should experience. I do believe that we need to be vulnerable. We gotta find joy, people. Even in the struggle. Even in the learning and the mistakes.
And within the movements – race, environment, LBTQI+, sexual violence, women – we need to build bridges to create the larger “we” that links all of us. Step out of our silos. Perhaps as Chris Moore-Backman framed in his book, a movement of movements.
Thank you Santa Barbara City College and the Equal Employment Opportunity Advisory Committee for sending me to Detroit. And thank you for my two colleagues.