Unraveling racism: How Lansing became part of a national grant to implement social justice

Racism is alive and well in America in 2017, and if that statement makes you uncomfortable or angry, there’s a good chance you may be part of the problem. Demonstrations addressing the police killings of unarmed black men have led to violence in major cities across the country, and clashes between activists and hate groups — including the deadly incident in Charlottesville six weeks ago — only seem to exacerbate the problem. Through it all, one divisive question keeps coming up: “Aren’t we past racism?” Five years after the death of Trayvon Martin, which launched the current national conversation on systemic social injustice, the answer is clear: “We’re nowhere close.”

“We look at arrest numbers, we look at courts, (and) you can see racism at the end,” says Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero at a summit in downtown Lansing. “You can see racist results out of a system, even with good people in the system working toward justice. How does that happen?”

Bernero was speaking at the local launch of Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation (TRHT), a five-year process funded by the Michigan-based W.K. Kellogg Foundation designed to “bring about transformational and sustainable change to address the historic and contemporary effects of racism” in America. Nearly 100 people gathered at the Lansing Center on Sept. 12 to learn what they could to unravel the racist practices and processes ingrained into our culture.

“We have to try to change those processes,” Bernero says. “The budget process itself sometimes seems to be institutionally racist, because we always have the money for incarceration, but we don’t have the money for prevention. It’s up to us in this room to dig into that and challenge it … Never did I dream Kellogg would choose Lansing as one of 14 places to invest around the country.”

Last December, Kellogg unveiled its $24-million blueprint for TRHT, and in June it named 14 geographic locations across the U.S. to focus on. Those locations featured racial unrest hotspots such as Baton Rouge, Dallas, and Los Angeles, as well as places such as the State of Alaska. Metro Lansing — which encompasses Lansing, East Lansing, Okemos, and some of the smaller outlying burgs — is part of a swath of Michigan that includes Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, and Flint to receive money. Lansing-based activist Angela Waters Austin spearheaded the effort to bring THRT to Lansing.

“You’d think accepting $1.35 million would be an easy task for a community,” Austin says at the event. “Not so. I had no idea how much of a challenge that actually could be.”

But if anyone knows how to challenge, it’s Austin. She was one of the co-founders of local chapter of the national Black Lives Matter movement, which has emerged as a leading voice in the national conversation on issues pertaining to racism and injustice. Closer to home, Austin has concentrated her efforts on humanitarian and social welfare organizations like One Love Global, the Peace and Prosperity Youth Action Movement, and the My Brothers’ Keeper initiative, for which she secured a dedicated $100,000 in the 2018 City of Lansing budget. In April, the Lansing-based nonprofit Peace Education Center recognized Austin with its highest honor, Peacemaker of the Year. But all that effort almost seems like groundwork to take on the challenge of addressing systemic racism on a national level.

“It’s going to take all of us to transform,” Austin says. “When Kellogg talks about ‘Truth,’ what they mean is the truth that America was founded, and is operated on a false idea of a human hierarchy, of value based on race, ethnicity, and other differences. Kellogg is challenging us to uproot that belief system and to jettison that false narrative. To transform the policies and systems that perpetuate that belief. Clearly this is not something we’re doing to do overnight, but it’s abundantly clear that now is the time.”

Austin is working with dozens of local groups to implement the TRHT system here in Lansing, including establishing partnerships with the Capital Region Community Foundation and MSU’s Office of University Outreach and Engagement

“This university-community partnership is one of the most important ways we can examine and address the timely topic of fairness, respect and equity for every person in Metro Lansing,” says Hiram Fitzgerald, Associate Provost for University Outreach and Engagement . “MSU is committed to an inclusive atmosphere that takes us beyond our various points of view. When we work with communities, we utilize our collective resources effectively and inspire each other to reach a higher level of understanding. These collaborations can create stronger bonds that lead to transformative change.”

But the process of transformation is neither easy nor all that straightforward. It is, by definition, designed to dismantle the invisible frameworks that maintain the status quo, crossing into every level of society: education, the distribution of wealth, fair housing, the criminal justice system, and the very law itself. Over the next five years, TRHT volunteers will convene once a month to tackle questions pertaining to recognizing and calling out examples of racist social constructs, then working to dismantle them and replace them with new systems rooted in true human equality.  

“Metro Lansing will examine the truth of our history and how racial inequities have been perpetuated,” Austin says. “The racial healing process will tap the potential of relationships to lead to the transformation of Metro Lansing, and to a place where there is justice, fairness and racial equity for all. Together we will build the beloved community of our dreams.”

The theme for the opening night was “Teamwork makes the Dream Work.” After obligatory introductions, the assembly was asked to join one of five “transformation teams” that will stick together for five years: The Narrative Change Team will focus on highlighting the ways that a racial hierarchy has been embedded into U.S. society, and then creating new narratives to replace them; the Racial Healing and Relationship Building Team will be facilitated by “circles of trust” that will engage communities in celebrating the differences between us and how those differences make us a more vibrant society; the Separation Team will work to combat all the things that perpetuate inequity, including issues of housing, health, and even arts and culture; the Law Team will seek ways to make sure everyone feels safe and welcome anywhere they go; and the Economy Team will seek approaches that dismantle structured inequity and eliminate barriers to economic opportunity, with the goal of creating an equitable society that enables people to thrive regardless of their race or ethnicity.

The groups were asked to respond to variations on two basic questions: “What would Metro Lansing look like if people were no longer separated by a false belief in a racialized hierarchy of human value?,” and “Who must be involved in order to make the deep and lasting changes we need to make?” Participants were asked to dig deep in their quest to develop meaningful answers, keeping empathy front and center — after all, these are the kinds of conversations that push buttons. Austin gave some helpful hints to avoid unintentional hurt.

“When you hear something that might offend, challenge, (or) frustrate you, use words like ‘oops’ and ‘ouch,’ and explain why you’re having that reaction,” Austin says. “People need to know. We can’t learn and grow if we’re not sharing our experiences with one another. We want to offer some grace and try to recognize that people do things without necessarily understanding, because we all have implicit bias. We have understandings about one another that may hurt, and we need to share that so that we can actually build relationships and allow (us) to make amends.”

After half an hour, each group gave short summaries of their conversations, which provided some basic broad strokes and templates for conversations to come. These were, after all, only the first steps of a multi-year action plan that will shake the foundations of societal injustice that have plagued America’s weakest populations for hundreds of years.

“We’re going to have to unpack our history,” Austin says. “Not just the history of the United States, but the history of Metro Lansing. Why do neighborhoods look the way they look? Why do you live where you live? When you look at your neighbors, who do you see? Who don’t you see? When you go shopping, who do you encounter? When you go out for an evening of recreation, who do you enjoy that with? All of these things matter, things we rarely pay attention to.”

But through Truth, Racial Harmony and Transformation, it seems like those are things that will soon come front and center to attention.

Allan Ross is a frequent contributor to Capital Gains.

Photos © Dave Trumpie

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.

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