What It Will Take
-Hanif Fazal, CEO
I was recently facilitating a Racial Equity Institute for educators. During one of our sessions a history teacher reflected, “We continue to subscribe to the false narrative that this country was built by the people and for the people…”. Later that night as I reflected on that statement I was reminded of a conversation with another educator and friend who is deeply engaged in racial equity work at her school and within her school district. She was recounting a trip she made to a World War II museum down in the south. As she was describing the exhibits in the museum, I noticed something was missing from her description, so I decided to ask. “How did they depict the Japanese Internment, or did they do anything to acknowledge that aspect of the war?” Her response was one that was unfortunately to be expected: “They left that out.”
In so many ways the reflections from both educators describe a question that has been driving my work and our work at the Center for Equity and Inclusion (CEI). How do we find our collective empowerment in a system designed for our oppression? Translated: The history teacher was right. The foundation of this country was never built by all people nor designed to serve all people. No hyperbole here, just being factual. This is the 1878 Carlisle school mission to “Kill the Indian, Save the Child”, this is slavery, this is mass lynching, this is the Chinese Exclusion Act, this is the Dred Scott Decision, this is our supreme court constructing whiteness, by literally ruling on who is white and who is not white (Takoa Ozawa v. United States and Bhagat Singh Thind), this is science constructing a racial hierarchy that placed Caucasians on the top, this is the Trail of Tears and the attempted genocide of Native Americans, this is the theft of land from Mexico, this is Jim Crow, this is something that was woven mercilessly into the fabric of our country. A factual examination of history as the history teacher was inferring, makes it easy to see that our country never included non-white communities in it’s initial design, in fact many “Americans” went to great social and legal lengths to ensure non-white people couldn’t participate in, or help build and maintain our country’s, laws, institutions, institution’s policies, culture, or cultural norms. As the all too familiar sign stated: “Whites Only.”
We as a country continually suggest and want to believe that just because our country’s foundation is built on racism and white supremacy, that doesn’t necessarily have any impact in today’s world. These suggestions continue to be asserted in the face of data that says otherwise-increasing wealth gap disparities (Whites hold 12 times the wealth of African Americans, 10 times that of Latinos), education achievement gaps at almost every measure and mass incarceration disparities that have devastated the African American community and communities of color. The red lining of yesterday has left us segregated geographically and created a net worth gap that seems difficult to recover from; whites right now are living in neighborhoods that are roughly 80% white, the homeownership rate for whites is 71% while for blacks it is 41.9%, Latino’s 45.2% and Native Americans 51%. Name the social success indicator and you will most likely find a racial disparity connected to it. Socially we continue to be divided as well; divided by how we feel about our country and divided by how we feel about the institutions that serve and sustain our country. The non-stop issues with Policing are a prime example of this.
My friend and colleague’s experience at the museum is quintessential of the way in which this foundation maintains a hold today. Think about this for a second. How do you have a World War II museum and not depict the Japanese Internment? Who made the decision to depict the war and time period in this manner? Do you think the Japanese community was included in the initial design of the museum? What or who informed and supported that decision? Dive deeper, what must the experience be of Japanese Americans, or even the broader Asian community as they walk through that museum? As one teacher of Asian decent stated in a recent training of mine, “our experience is found in a small box, on a single page, in the corner of a history book-if at all”. What is the collective and on-going impact of completely marginalizing an entire culture’s experience of this country? As people of color in general, who experience this type of marginalization daily, what are we consuming and how is it impacting how we see and experience ourselves, our worth, our place in this society?
Dive even deeper, what must the experience be for white people as they live in a culture that demands of its individuals and institutions that we depict our history and our current state, through a lens of “American Exceptionalism” when this is far from the truth. What is the collective impact of having your story told in a manner that rewrites the attempted genocide of Native Americans as “Manifest Destiny”, the massive theft of land from Mexico as a “treaty”, that allows for a walk through a World War II museum that ends with a feeling of pride, victory, and patriotism, to have your suburban home and lifestyle be attributed solely to hard work and personal responsibility? To have mass incarceration happening around you but rarely experience what is happening or notice how you are contributing to it. We could go on, and on… How have white people benefitted-actually profited from this current and historical arrangement? How are they participating both consciously and unconsciously in this arrangement every day. AND just as importantly, how has it cost them?
Let me be clear. This is NOT an attempt to ascribe the USA as a horrible country or white US Americans as bad human beings, nor is it an attempt to ascribe non-white folks as complete victims. Rather it is an attempt at questioning our history as it has been taught to us, our present as it has been repackaged and our unconscious participation in it all. It comes from an understanding that until we address the foundation that this country is built on, our past will always be our present.
This of course leads to the inevitable questions: what can anyone really do about this? Where do you even start? We at CEI, along with racial equity leaders across our country and a growing number of people across racial backgrounds, professions, and cultural backgrounds-every day people- are beginning to answer those questions together.
In August, we launched a year long process with 50 educators, who came together to build a common understanding of the foundation of our country which opened the door to the ultimate question we need to be sitting in: “If not this, then what?” This question is positioning teachers and school building leaders to learn how to build in their students — through their classroom environments, curriculum and instruction — a strong sense of cultural identity and an ability to navigate cultures different than their own. It is pushing counselors and support staff to develop accountable but less exclusionary forms of discipline, it is having educators re-think how to engage non-white and white families, and challenging teachers to create not just more culturally relevant but more culturally inclusive curriculum and instruction.
We are working with for- profit, non-profit and philanthropic organizations in moving through a transformative process that challenges them to apply an equity lens onto every aspect of their organizations. This has lead to more inclusive hiring practices, new ways of fundraising, more culturally responsive services, diversified leadership, more equitable grant making processes, and new strategies to market services. It is having them learn language and protocols that assist them in talking about and locating in a productive manner how institutional, cultural, and individual racism is showing up in their organizations. Most importantly it is having them work together to not just dismantle the racism they are now able to locate, but begin building new more inclusive and equitable organizations.
In November we will open our doors to the general public and support every day individuals in unpacking issues of racial equity and integrating this work with their friends, families, and communities. There is so much we can do.
This country may not have been built by the people, for the people, but what if in the next chapter of this country we were able to rebuild a country that IS?
We at the Center for Equity and Inclusion are focused on participating in the rebuilding effort. We believe this is our generation’s path to Civil Rights: Supporting a significant shift in our collective consciousness that creates the will, passion, and commitment to developing more just and inclusive institutional policies, cultural narratives, and individual behaviors. We believe that a macro level change will be the result of thousands and thousands of micro changes. In other words, social change will happen in workplaces, families, communities and one on one relationships — in small cells that are constantly expanding. This ultimately means that you, the reader, really matter; that all of us have influence and we must learn how to exercise this influence on behalf of something bigger. It means that moment to moment we get to choose to contribute to a more inclusive state or continue perpetuating the status quo. Our collective choices add up.
This long, hard, grind, that requires on-going challenging conversations and shifting consciousness person by person, organization by organization; is our generations “Long Walk to Freedom”, our Peace and Reconciliation process. It is the legacy we leave behind for our children, and the honoring of our fore mothers and fathers. It is our turn to take the necessary steps that lead to a country that is truly free.