Recently, I attended a two-day seminar from the Racial Equity Institute (REI) of Greensboro, North Carolina, that provided a detailed history of the policies and systems in our country that protect privilege, wealth and power for a few. It was eye-opening to learn the repercussions of systems instituted hundreds of years ago, and to be reminded that race truly is a social construct designed to divide and conquer. I have had the opportunity to attend many social justice trainings over the years through my previous work with the YWCA, but this was the first experience that pulled together historical facts and data in this way.
Since this experience, I have spent time vacillating between denial, disbelief and downright queasiness. I found it hard to believe that our ancestors and founding fathers could have intentionally created a structure so focused on building and protecting their wealth and privilege that they either blatantly disregarded others or, worse, intentionally developed a system to separate and isolate. But it happened. Or that people could be treated with such cruelty and disdain, then and now. How can we judge and demean other human beings on differences that are so superficial? How can we remain indifferent at best or, in the worst cases, continue to treat each other with malice and hate?
We claim to be incensed and enraged by historical atrocities like slavery, yet we continue to repeat history or, at the very least, let history repeat itself—even if not in such an overt way. When will we begin to ask about and understand the wide-ranging impact of policies and systems that continue to protect advantage and support oppression? What will it take to accept the facts and begin to change the way we think and work?
There was a churning in my gut when I realized how I continue to play a part in perpetuating the inequity and unfairness in our country. It’s startling how intentional the system of advantage for white people continues to be structured and reinforced. In a workbook provided by REI, there is a quote that illustrates this struggle: “Whites are taught to think their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow ‘them’ to be more like ‘us.’” It takes experiences like this training to wake me up and remind me that I have a job to do and a role to play.
My challenge now is to be sure I think about my position of privilege and how it influences the way I live and work. I must consider my role as a gatekeeper and find ways to be different and to do better in the work of the Foundation. It is so easy to continue on the path of least resistance and to do things the way we always have done them. To quote Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better do better.” Our focus needs to be on how we make the Foundation more equitable, accessible and fair. We need to consider how we hold ourselves and our grantees accountable. Do we truly engage, listen to and represent the community we say we serve? These are just some of the questions that keep me up at night. So please, when you see me, remind me—It is time to do better!
Editor’s Note: The Racial Equity Institute training is part of a “Year of Awareness Building,” supported by the Fund, Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, and a number of other local partners, including Fund members. With sessions offered each month throughout 2017 as well as additional, topical programming like film screenings, the initiative aims to increase shared understanding of racial inequality, foster productive dialogue among community stakeholders and civic leaders, and determine strategies to meaningfully address social barriers to job access. For more information, contact Fund Director of Regional Engagement Kevin Alin, or click here.