Sarah describes herself as a mom, an activist, a racial equity coach, and a White person who is actively supporting the work of individuals who by virtue of the color of their skin have never known what it’s like to have privilege.
She is one of four core team members of the SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) Battle Creek/Kalamazoo chapter each of whom agreed to talk about the work of their organization but asked that their last names not be used or their photographs taken. They say their request stems from heightened tensions about political unrest and civil rights at the local, state, and national levels.
In an email, to On the Ground Battle Creek,
the group asked that their full names be withheld “for the privacy and security of our SURJ core team and for the safety of Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) individuals and organizations with whom we are in relationship.”
Local SURJ members say they walk alongside those who identify as Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) to assist them in their efforts to make diversity, equity, and inclusion a reality in their lives and in their communities. Theirs is intentionally a supporting role that follows guidelines established by the national SURJ leadership team.
On its national website
, SURJ describes itself as “a national network of groups and individuals working to undermine white supremacy and to work for racial justice. Through community organizing, mobilizing, and education, SURJ moves white people to act as part of a multi-racial majority for justice with passion and accountability.
“We work to connect people across the country while supporting and collaborating with local and national racial justice organizing efforts. SURJ provides a space to build relationships, skills, and political analysis to act for change.”
“It is important to not the lead work but to follow the people who are already doing the work,” says Sarah, who also leads White Caucus gatherings for SURJ. “We build relationships with these groups and people within these groups so we can build mutual trust so when they need something, they know they can count on us to be there for them.”
SURJ has formed relationships with the Burma Center, VOCES, and the local NAACP through showing up for different events, says Kate, another SURJ core member.
“We have people in SURJ who have consistently showed up for the NAACP and different groups in the community to have conversations and know what’s going on,” Kate says. “Through showing up consistently and building relationships we have some integrity so they feel safe calling on us and doing caucus work. Being able to do those kinds of things, we as White people can be better allies and be in better solidarity.
“Doing the caucus work we can unpack some of our own Whiteness and understand how White supremacy can show up in our actions.”
Battle Creek/Kalamazoo SURJ has more than 900 followers on their Facebook page. Depending on the complexity and scale of the “asks” received, various configurations of these individuals show up, donate funds, or lend their expertise. “Our membership just requires that you show up in whatever way that looks like for you,” says Chris, a retired educator, and SURJ core member.
“The cool thing about SURJ is that it’s always growing,” Sarah says. “We have access to several hundred people at any given time.”
Since becoming an official chapter in December 2015, local SURJ members have participated in protests led by BIPOC groups and supported two efforts led by the Michigan Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media. Those efforts successfully helped dismantle racist mascots that had been used by the Paw Paw Public Schools and the removal of a fountain in Kalamazoo.
“When there were calls to participate in a protest, we marched in a parade in Paw Paw,” she says. “A while later we did some work on dismantling the ‘Fountain of the Pioneers’ statue in Bronson Park. SURJ was a part of following the lead and actions of the Michigan Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media in the statue removal and they called us into it.”
In 2018, Kalamazoo City Commissioners voted to remove the statue that featured a European settler with a weapon in his hand towering over a Native American. Their decision came after activists called for its removal to recognize the fountain's impact on indigenous people.
The group’s work in Battle Creek has included a focus on education in which members have been invited to engage in conversations around a specific topic about racial justice and to add their voices to incidences of injustice.
“We collaborated with some local activists in Battle Creek to protest panhandling ordinances and when the Lakeview School District was hiring a new superintendent, because of our focus on equity, our core team members did one-on-one conversations with each member of the school board to make a statement that we’re hoping the school board will continue to have a lens toward racial equity,” Chris says.
The group also hosted virtual forums in the 2020 election cycle with candidates running for elected offices in Battle Creek and Kalamazoo.
“We have a local antiracist platform put out for everyone to see and we did interviews with candidates about racism and what being anti-racist means to them prior to the elections,” Chris says.
Staying in our lane
Pre-COVID, there were several trained facilitators leading in-person caucus sessions. Those sessions were moved to a virtual platform with the number of participants varying. These sessions, which are limited to White people, are held twice a month on a Tuesday. The morning caucus is from 10-11:15 a.m. and the evening one is from 7-8:15 p.m. Word-of-mouth and Facebook are the current means of letting people know when the caucuses are happening, although Kate says individuals also are referred.
“This is a place for White people to process racialized trauma. Basically, as White people there’s the understanding that we as White people unintentionally cause harm and we’re unintentionally programmed by harmful things,” Sarah says. “The caucuses are ‘White only’ so that we don’t continuously create trauma for BIPOC with our stuff and we can speak freely to take accountability for our impact. We ask that people have some idea of equity. We define racism and prejudice plus power. We stay in our lane and only work with White people.”
Chris says that having these meetings twice a month fosters smaller, more intimate groups and more honest conversations.
“We tend to make a practice individually and together and have spaces with other members where we visit and study and remind ourselves of the key aspects of White culture,” says Lindsay, a SURJ core member, community organizer, and social worker.
Besides their own meetings and gatherings, SURJ also has worked with the Battle Creek-based Truth and Titus Collective
, that is dedicated to fostering, co-creating, and sustaining organizational change with equity at the core. That organization provides equity and inclusion training on a long-term basis, equipping individuals with tools, knowledge, and support to move toward being a more equitable, intersectional organization.
Kate says SURJ did a class alongside Truth and Titus, which has referred people to SURJ.
“We have multiple ways for folks to engage, especially now amidst the pandemic,” Lindsay says. “Prior to the pandemic, we were working to hold regular community meetings. Throughout the history of SURJ, in-person meetings have provided important spaces for community building or action.
“We have found ways to engage virtually and ways to operate in solidarity with people of color who are organizing.”
The group has recently come alongside Black Lives Matter in Battle Creek and Kalamazoo and is working to build relationships that may lead to the support role that SURJ seeks with each BIPOC organization with which it works.
“Typically, a lot of times White people have gone into communities and tried to be the White savior,” Chris says. “(That means) as a white person I’m deciding what other people need and presiding over those things.”
SURJ has a deep accountability to BIPOC communities and the efforts of the BIPOC organizations that they support are those that the BIPOC community has indicated are important to them, not ones that SURJ has generated.
“The whole shift from being lifesavers to being accountable is huge for me,” Chris says. “Our biggest focus is doing things to interrupt and disrupt white supremacy cultures.”
“It’s less about our expertise and more about our capability and capacity,” Sarah says. “People in these movements are their own experts. We provide bodies, our homes, and our resources. It’s really about building community and we consider that a revolutionary act in itself. It’s so hard to find people of your own values in churches and religions. It is the relationship and we show up.”
Being there in different ways
Since the start of the pandemic, SURJ has looked to its members to raise funds for BIPOCs, addressing direct needs in the community, in addition to working to end white supremacy and racism. They recently provided contributions to RISE
(Re-Integration to Support Empowerment), a Battle Creek-based organization that on a regular basis provides food, cleaning products, and other items to people in need.
“We created a fundraiser for RISE, an online auction where people donated goods and other people bid on them,” Kate says. “We trusted that people would donate to the place they said they would donate to and they did. When it comes from a place of trust, it’s possible.”
They also currently are offering support to BLM in Kalamazoo by promoting a can drive to raise money. Individuals may drop off their cans at the People’s Food Co-op in Kalamazoo and the funds from the returns will be used by BLM to purchase various items including baby formula and diapers.
These fundraising moments are just that, moments, and mirror the local SURJ’s own stance on how it funds itself.
“When we first started, as a SURJ group we labored and labored over people donating directly to SURJ and being a 501C3 and for a while, we connected with Sprout
,” Chris says. “Suddenly we realized we didn’t need to have money regularly. If we rented space for a program everyone just donated and that’s how we paid. A couple of times we got training from a local Black activist through Truth & Titus and we just crowdsourced and told our membership what our core team was doing and we got the money to pay the trainer.”
Trust and relationships matter way more than money, Sarah says.
“We operate from a place of no funding,” she says. “When there’s a need we believe there’s abundance and we come together.”
Kate says, “It was a really hard decision to come to when we first were getting started and local funders wanted to give us money. We wanted to stay away from the White culture stuff. We wanted to take money in and figure out a way to do that without having strings attached.”
This is how the more than 150 SURJ chapters and affiliates throughout the United States operate. In addition to Battle Creek/Kalamazoo SURJ, Michigan has four other SURJ chapters based in Detroit, Washtenaw County, Grand Haven, and Ann Arbor.
SURJ Battle Creek/Kalamazoo was originally named SURJ Southwest Michigan. Chris says the name change happened last year to better reflect the communities it is serving.
The work, she and her fellow core members say, is intentional and daunting, and important.
“All of our liberation is tied,” Sarah says. “So long as black people die in the street, as long as there are unfair advantages, as long as I wake up every day and am treated differently because of my skin color, it’s important that we work because it’s not justice if everybody is not treated equally.”
Kate says people have to get to a place where they can actually hear and listen to the lived experiences of people of color and believe them instead of questioning their reality and letting them lead rather than presuming to know what’s best for them.
“Because we believe in freedom for everyone, we know that white supremacy has to be dismantled to create equity,” Lindsay says.