How to talk to other white people about race (& why it’s necessary)

Kayla Blau, author.

Kayla Blau, author

This post was authored by Kayla Blau, Children’s Advocate with Solid Ground’s Broadview Shelter & Transitional Housing. It originally appeared in The Seattle Globalist and is reprinted with their permission.

We’ve all been there. Enjoying a family dinner and great-aunt Sally makes a snide remark about “Mexicans taking our jobs.”

Not wanting to make waves at a family gathering, my typical pattern would be to let it slide and stay silent. I’d roll my eyes and text my “conscious” friend about the experience, leaving the comments hanging triumphantly in the air.

And what had my silence done? Absolutely nothing but perpetuate the racist culture I claimed to want to dismantle.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Great-aunt Sally is just old and ignorant! But every racist joke, comment, dynamic, or law that goes unchecked, especially by white people, reinforces and perpetuates a racist society. It normalizes racism. It becomes accepted and expected. It gives the illusion that racism ended with the signing of the Civil Rights Act, when people of color are still being targeted and murdered by the police.

While overt racism appears to have lessened in the past 50 years, it is still extremely active and deep-rooted in our society’s psyche.

It usually freaks other white people out when I use the term “white supremacy” to explain how our society accepts racism, but it simply puts a name to the oppressive structure that means, for example, that we don’t have to fear being shot while walking in the dark wearing a hoody, while others do.

After learning the brutal reality of racism and privilege, white folk (myself included) often lament, “what can I do? I can’t accept these injustices…what can I do about them?”

This is literally it: Talking to other white folks about race, and, more specifically about whiteness, is one concrete way to undo racism as a white person. Unlike at a black-led march — this is where our white voices are needed.

Conversations with loved ones are tough. It is something I continue to struggle with in my own family and friends.

But we must push through discomfort to talk about race, even with great-aunt Sally, even when it feels completely unproductive and frustrating.

I mean honestly, people of color have enough to worry about to talk to a defensive white person about race. It can be extremely re-traumatizing for a person of color to have to justify their oppression to a white person, and it really is not their responsibility to do so.

Whether we like it or not, white people created racial oppression, therefore white people need to be part of the movement to undo it.

After much trial and error, here are a few tips about how to talk about race with other white people, drawn from my experiences of talking to my white family and friends, learning from other anti-racist white people, and advice from mentors of diverse backgrounds:

Educate Yourself First

Because white people are so uncomfortable with naming and discussing race, conversations can easily become argumentative or defensive.

The hope is to avoid calling the person you’re talking to racist and storming out (been there). I’ve found it helpful to educate myself about the real racial history of our country (spoiler alert: there was a genocide here, not a corn-filled dinner party), reflect on my own connection to whiteness and racism, and remove judgment of other’s understanding of race and privilege.

If we were raised and socialized in the U.S., we have all been receiving unconscious (and sometimes blatant) messages about white superiority and negative stereotypes about people of color since birth.

While it’s easy to dismiss other white folk as racist or bigoted, it is unfair to negate our responsibility to view every conversation about race as an opportunity to educate and learn, while processing the extremely complex emotions that come with it.

When I first started talking to my 62-year-old Jewish father about race, I would often leave the conversation feeling deflated and frustrated. When I told him Native Americans were mass murdered, he would respond with doubt and denial.

It wasn’t until we visited an indigenous peoples museum with facts of ethnic cleansing (over 90,000 indigenous people were murdered by white settlers) and displacement (hundreds more died on the Trail of Tears after false treaties were signed) that he began to open his eyes to the deception of the white narrative of U.S history.

Only then could we begin to have honest conversations about our country’s patterns of genocide, displacement, and racial oppression. Because he responds more to fact and logic than emotion and storytelling, the wall of white fragility was broken.

That being said, the more educated you are, the better equipped you’ll be in having discussions based in fact and analysis, rather than defensiveness and judgment. Plus, exposing yourself to the racial history that was not taught to us in school will only deepen your own understanding, allowing linkages to be made between your own family history and racism (which is difficult but necessary work in itself).

If you are personally connected to the person you’re talking to, try to tailor your approach to engage them in difficult conversations based on their personality and what would resonate with them (i.e., documentaries, intersectionality to other forms of oppression, mixed-media, art, scientific reasoning, etc.).

With all the accessibility of resources, we must educate ourselves and our community if we truly want to work for change.

Use Non-Violent Communication Skills

During an incredibly insightful event, “Dear White Allies: A Training,” put on by Black Lives Matter DMV, participants were urged to use non-violent communication skills to do effective racial justice work in white communities. Too often white people shut down due to discomfort during conversations about white supremacy, and claim to be victims when called out on our privilege.

One way to use non-violent communication skills to remediate this is “connect before you correct,” meaning, make a human connection with someone before calling them in on their ignorance.

For example, instead of leading with, “you ignorant asshole, ‘black man’ is not synonymous with thug,” try leading with, “I hear you saying that black men are all criminals. Why do you think that is?” And continue the conversation to tease out their perceptions and stereotypes based on media portrayal, for instance.

Meet ignorance with compassion. I’m not advocating coddling white people, nor lessening the message to make white people less uncomfortable. The message should still be loud and clear, but altering the way it is messaged can be extremely useful in impact. I’ve found people respond to and learn from compassion and self-reflection, and shut down when met with judgment.

In a very frustrating conversation with a co-worker about Israel and Palestine, he continuously justified Israeli occupation with “how violent Islam is.”

My knee-jerk reaction was to call him ignorant and walk away (which I did). My other co-workers shared our frustrations with him among one another for a few weeks, but never really addressed it with him.

It wasn’t until I heard him share his sentiments with a Muslim student that I realized my comfort level was less important than any damage he could do with our students. I asked him to elaborate on where his perception of Islam came from. He thought for a moment, and uncovered the truth that his only interaction with Islam was what he’d heard after 9/11.

Taking advantage of a teaching moment, my other co-workers and I researched the 5 Pillars of Islam with him and the impact of occupation on Palestinians. While this wasn’t a magic wand for years of prejudice, at the very least he began to question his assumptions.

Calling someone ignorant and walking away doesn’t necessarily have the same effect.

Make it Personal

During a particularly challenging conversation with my dad about the Confederate flag and the nine lives lost in Charleston, it seemed like nothing was getting through to him about the weight of such a racist attack.

“Just to play devil’s advocate,” he ventured, as he often plays during our conversations about race, “isn’t the flag part of the South’s history? What’s the big deal?”

After a few failed attempts at reasoning with him, I asked him how he would feel if he saw the Swastika on bumper stickers and street corners, let alone at his state’s capitol, knowing that his father was a victim in the Holocaust.

He immediately understood, as if the window to empathy was locked somewhere in his own connotation of oppression.

While no two oppressions are the same, by linking his own history to symbols of oppression his awareness was heightened. Others have used their experiences with homophobia, sexism, or other intersectional identities to relate to oppression as a system, thus allowing space to recognize our role as beneficiaries of racism through our whiteness.

Take the Time, Do the Work

Whatever you do, keep the conversation going. Invite your friends and family members to conversation groups, movie screenings, black-led events, and community forums about racial justice to keep them looped in and accountable. Share articles and novels written by people of color. Attend undoing racism trainings. Interrupt negative stereotypes of people of color in the media by offering holistic narratives. Urge friends and family to listen to people of color when they recount their experiences. Continue processing, talking, and organizing your community.

It is all too easy to slip into the apathetic and numb existence of whiteness, to not feel connected to racism because we benefit from it.

We are at a critical tipping point in history, thanks to the media and accessibility of information. White people are beginning to “wake up.” We can’t afford to let this movement pass by without engaging our white community and supporting POC-led movements against racism and oppression.

To be sure, having one conversation about race will not solve racism. We’re looking at 400+ years of racial oppression, genocide, and violence, and unpacking the painful and visceral implications of white supremacy will take time and work and commitment.

It will be messy and frustrating and liberating but, above all, necessary to undo racism.

June 2015: The best & worst of times

If a single month can embody the best and worst of our nation, then I think June 2015 is such a month. I was numb from the horrific murders of nine innocents in Charleston, SC, and disappointed by southern conservatives’ defense of the historically controversial Confederate flag.

A week and half later, I was filled with relief by the Supreme Court’s ruling that over six million United States residents will not lose their affordable health care. The possibility of losing affordable health care was a result of political battles by persons with copious amounts of power and privilege, ironically, many of whom already benefit from government-provided health care.June FYI

Two days later, my belief in the importance of equality was affirmed by the wisdom of the United States Supreme Court as they ruled that same-sex partners have the legal right to be married and for those marriages to be recognized in all parts of our country. All of this, and in just the last two weeks of June.

The design of our federal government to maintain a healthy balance of power is exquisite. The recent rulings by the Supreme Court regarding free speech, Affordable Health Care, fair housing and marriage equality underscore the historic and continuing role that our independent judiciary has in changing our systems to address oppressions in favor of equality and equitable opportunities.

As I reflect upon the killing of African Americans while worshiping in church by someone heralding the hateful symbolism of white supremacy, playing politics to deny low-income persons the benefits of a rich and prosperous nation, and the continuing resistance to recognition of the rights of some to have legal and recognized loving relationships, I come to the conclusion that we are in a fundamental struggle for the soul of our nation. Our struggles in the 21st century are painfully reminiscent of the civil rights struggles of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. What is clear to me is that the same race, societal, economic and health inequities that birthed the community action movement remain relevant and ripe five decades later.

With this degree of challenge and change, we are exposed to too many 21st century soundbites and much too short on serious civic discourse. We need more thought-provoking and actionable input to encourage and support forward movement. In the month of June, I did hear several statements worthy of sharing with you:

As a nation, we are addicted to incarceration.” -Kimberly Ambrose, UW School of Law, Director of the Race & Justice Clinic: Governing for Racial Equity Conference

“I’m preparing my children for the world while I’m preparing the world for my children.” -Craig Sims, Chief Criminal Division, Seattle City Attorney’s Office: Governing for Racial Equity Conference

“For all the houses we had, I never had a home.” -Jason, an adult Moth Radio participant, sharing his childhood experience with homelessness since age seven: Committee to End Homeless Conference

“Racist teachers? Not intentionally. But as a district, if we know this is going on, why haven’t we taken any real steps to address it as a system?” -Ted Howard, Principal of Garfield High School in Seattle, reflecting on disparities in school discipline correlated to race

This is both the best and the worst of times. While some work has been done, some changes made and some goals realized, there is no room or time for complacency. June 2015 was another call to action, bringing focus and attention to serious issues requiring serious people who are committed to action. I’m glad that at Solid Ground, we are those people.

Juneteenth: Were the slaves truly freed?

It was 1865 and the anguish of America’s greatest sin still lingered in the daily lives of African Americans. Even after a civil war to liberate them claimed some 620,000 lives – even after all of that bloodshed – the shackles of servitude were still fastened tightly in place. President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation just a few short years before on September 22, 1862, and it went into full effect on January 1, 1863 – yet enforcement of “emancipation” had not yet reached Texas slaves.

Emancipation, Published by S. Bott

Word was finally delivered to them in Galveston on June 19, 1865 by Union Major General Gordon Granger and 2,000 federal troops in the form of General Order No. 3. For slaves, the words of the order were loud and clear. They were finally free, and their first reactions captured the magnitude of the moment, which was expressed in exaltation, jubilation and terror. The war and subsequent events freed many slaves, but Texas remained a stronghold from the proclamation’s final impact until that day. The state’s refusal to enter into the war coupled with few troops within its borders allowed it to ignore Lincoln’s decree. But freed slave Felix Haywood spoke about the feeling of that day in an interview:

“Soldiers, all of a sudden, was everywhere – comin’ in bunches, crossin’ and walkin’ and ridin’. Everyone was a-singin’. We was all walkin’ on golden clouds. Hallejujah! Everybody went wild. We all felt like heroes and nobody had made us that way but ourselves. We was free. Just like that, we was free.”

Juneteenth

The name Juneteenth, which is June 19th, was adopted and represented what for many became a day when Thomas Jefferson’s words finally found purchase: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” There was joyous celebration and singing. The years that followed Juneteenth would be a time for former slaves to celebrate a day they perceived to be liberating. Barbecues, baseball and outdoor activities were common; political speeches and achievement were emphasized as well.

But were they truly free?

Proclamations & declarations don’t free people or make them more independent.

History has shown us that time and again that the desire for and attainment of freedom is deeper than a declaration or a proclamation. Although it is within the human ability to write down our noblest aspirations, it’s also completely human to fail to live up to them. The mere idea of trying to attain freedom is a grind, a struggle, and a moral conundrum at times. That date had a profound meaning in the minds of the newly freed slaves; for them it was the realization of something long dreamt about, yet seemed so far off it was impossible.

Juneteenth captured the exhilaration of the moment of freedom, but slaves were far from free as they faced new hurdles that for all intents and purposes extended their bondage and the bondage of succeeding generations of African Americans.

  • Black Codes – Returned the rigid social controls of slavery.
  • Jim Crow – Kept African Americans from accessing public facilities unless specifically designated for them, i.e., “Whites Only/Blacks Only.”
  • Institutional Racism – Rigs the system at a fundamental level to keep white culture/people at the very top and make them less accountable for their actions.
  • Prisons – The ultimate outcome of institutional racism is the creation of an apparatus to house a permanent slave class (inmates), recruited under the rubric of “criminal justice.”

Haywood also talked about the realization that merely proclaiming someone free doesn’t make them free: “We knowed freedom was on us, but we didn’t know what was to come with it. We thought we was goin’ to git rich like the white folks. We thought we was goin’ to be richer than the white folks, ’cause we was stronger and knowed how to work, and the whites didn’t and they didn’t have us to work for them anymore. But it didn’t turn out that way. We soon found out that freedom could make folks proud but it didn’t make them rich.”

Fair questions for all Americans to ask about this important historical event are, were the slaves truly freed after the war, and were the shackles they wore symbolic of the power of the white-dominated institutions that would keep them in place regardless? And if they weren’t freed in 1865, when were they, and what was the event that freed them? Are African Americans free today?

Additional resources about the “freeing” of slaves and Juneteenth:

‘Locking young people up doesn’t work’

This opinion piece by James Williams was originally published as SUNDAY DISCOURSE: WHERE WE GO FROM HERE (3 BASIC TRUTHS). (Reposted with permission of the South Seattle Emerald.)

THERE IS A BETTER WAY.

AfAm male behind fenceLocking young people up doesn’t work. It doesn’t keep communities safe. In the 90s, incarceration rates skyrocketed nationwide but had no discernible effects as far as reducing crime rates. Locking young people up doesn’t set them up for success later in life or help them work through whatever problems they are dealing with. The skills it takes to survive and be respected behind bars are much different than the ones young people need to thrive on the outside.

In too many instances, by locking young people up we are preparing them for a life path of poverty and reoccurring incarceration.

When a person does come home and turn their life around, it is not the bars and bricks that had the positive impact on them. Usually it means they met someone in there who talked to them and helped them to understand life better. Or it means they used the time to sit down, sort their thoughts out, and make a plan.

We should find better ways to connect resources like positive mentors and life skills like meditation and conflict resolution to the youth who most need them.

Community led Prevention and Alternative to Detention programs do work. When we get it right, virtually all resources will be poured into Community led Prevention programs. Every child, like every person, has potential to do great good or great bad. When we get it right, resources will go to unlocking that great potential before serious mistakes are made.

Examples of community led prevention are the Africatown Center for Education & Innovation and First Place Scholars Charter School. Africatown offers a wide array of after-school and summer programing for youth in the Rainier Valley. History, culture, and self-pride are part of every curriculum. First Place welcomes students from some of the county’s most turbulent situations with an understanding that we all have the potential to be geniuses and a commitment to provide whatever wrap-around services, mentors, or family counseling are needed. These models are working to help our youth grow as part of a healthy and thriving community.

Models such as this need to be supported and scaled up while remaining under the leadership of communities most affected by problems they seek to solve.

In the present moment, Community led Alternative to Detention programs are essential. Models such as 4Culture and the 180 Program currently exist within the King County Juvenile Justice system. 4Culture is an art-based diversionary program which links young people with like-minded artists who mentor them and coach them over a four-month period. Diversion 180 is a program that allows juveniles with minor offenses to have charges dropped in exchange for attending a four-hour seminar on growing up and recovering from mistakes, facilitated by adults with similar backgrounds.

COUNTY IS BUILDING A BRIDGE TO NOWHERE.

In essence, on February 9th the Council communicated to the world, “Youth Jails today, Youth Jails tomorrow, and Youth Jails forever.” For more than one reason, this situation begs comparison with when George Wallace was Governor of Alabama and uttered the line, “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”  The vote was the realization of community liaison Claudia Balducci’s repeated promise that, “We are going to build the jail. No matter what people say and do, we are going to build the jail.”

It is widely recognized that the the war on drugs was lost. Locking ever-increasing numbers of people up did not reduce the availability of narcotics on the street. The country is turning a corner now, we are starting to move down another path. Now, marijuana has been legalized in several states. Organizations such as ACLU-WA are receiving $10 million grants to find ways of bringing down mass incarceration numbers. The total number of juveniles incarcerated in King County is around half of what it was 10 years ago.

Mass incarceration is a failed solution of the past, not the future. Public officials who support this project will be remembered by future generations as leaders who built a bridge to nowhere. Completing the proposed building is a favor to developers and prison building companies more than any effort to improve public safety or help families and young people.

THE FUTURE IS NOW.

In his 1964 speech titled “Message to the Grassroots,” Malcolm X talked about a change that was taking place in the mood of the black community. Some say the speech is about differences in leadership style. I say it is more of a speech about generations, inevitable change, and the baton of leadership.

Talking to the leaders of the 40s and 50s who felt change was being demanding in unreasonable chunks during the 1960s, Malcolm told them that the young people of that day were tired of going along to get along and demanded tangible change. He was proved right by increased levels of militancy and impossible-to-ignore demands for change that came from black leaders and community organizations in the late 60s and early 70s. We understand where Malcolm was coming from because we are in a similar situation today.

Speaking to ones who have carried the torch of leadership for Seattle’s most oppressed populations during recent decades, I want them to know the leaders of the 2020s and 2030s have awakened. These young leaders believe true justice and a better future is possible for all of us.

The next generation is not trading in the welfare of the community for awards or position. It is understood how the politics of respectability and going along to get along have not worked for most people. You are witnessing the awakening of tomorrow’s leaders and the coming of age for a new generation. There is no going back. Nothing will ever be the same.

THREE THINGS YOU CAN DO (to help Ending the Prison Industrial Complex):

  • Call ACLU-WA at 206.624.2184 and tell them 10% of their grant to fight Mass Incarceration from Floyd Jones should be used to fund community led-prevention & alternatives to detention models.

The chains of black history

Image by David Castillo Dominici | FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image by David Castillo Dominici | FreeDigitalPhotos.net

From my perspective as an African American, the month of February can be enlightening, inspiring and painful at the same time. I’m not sure if I understand the words “black history?” When I say them, they evoke feelings of separateness from the totality of human truth. It’s carved out and deliberate but only special in terms of its place on the calendar.

For me to review black history is not only an acknowledgement that African Americans helped build this country with many great contributions, but that some of those courageous efforts were soaked in bloody oppression. I don’t want to dwell on this stuff, but it always floats to the top if one looks honestly.

When I look at black history, I see a struggle that is linked from the chained slaves aboard slave ships to the modern day African American who is supposed to be “free” – who may get up and look at themselves in the mirror and think they have it better than the generations before them. But deep down, they still see the commonality between themselves and their chained forebears, people that were fastened to their station in life with little to no hope of escape.

From that point of view, I see a history littered with civil rights icons and people that have struggled even to their very deaths to see justice. And so I ask, why have many of the people recognized in black history month had to be tempered in the hot oven of oppression? Why? I keep asking myself this, but whatever answer I come up with is wholly unsatisfying because it ends with more questions.

My thought is, don’t separate black history from human truth, because the fact is history isn’t clean, and can’t be. We learn by seeing the totality of the picture, not just a portion or what we feel is acceptable. Make no mistake, if we digress from honesty we fool ourselves into thinking past events are far removed from the present, and we doom ourselves to struggle and mediocrity.

Black history can’t exist without white history and how they have played against each other. If we don’t accept our shared history of privilege and oppression, we will never know ourselves as a community, nor will we end poverty. We can’t look at black history without examining the connections to the white world around us, its beauty, sacrifice and brutality.  February is black and white history month, right?

“The Mountaintop”: Reflections on Dr. King’s Legacy

April 3, 1968 was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last speech, and much like an artist whose work is only truly seen after they’ve passed, so began the career of one of America’s greatest leaders. The groundwork for what would become Dr. King’s legacy had already been clearly laid in Montgomery with the bus boycotts, in the Selma voting rights movement to his famed march on Washington in 1963 where he delivered his “I Have a Dream”  speech. But truly great leaders have ways of speaking to the human condition both in life and most especially in death. They find ways to push us to wrestle with our collective conscience, they get us to see that our individual worlds are far bigger than we imagine, and they ask us to look beyond the present to a future that could be if we just believed.

1989_MLK-edited

Dr. King conjured a reality firm in his understanding but fanciful in ours. He saw the civil rights struggle in its totality, its ebbs and flows, its setbacks and ultimate victory. But isn’t that what “prophets” do? They stand in the present looking into some other world yet to come? They try to persuade us to hold on and assure us that what we’re seeing isn’t all there is, that it’ll get better.

In his “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” speech, Dr. King takes his audience on a journey through history as uniquely seen by him.

From his final speech:

Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world. And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the Promised Land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there.”

Dr. King used religious imagery to describe how he viewed history, its eventual arc towards justice and how he would more than likely not see it with us. (Prophets seldom bask in their accolades, they speak their truth and then they fade so their words can live on.) But these lines are particularly striking as we see a man moving fluidly through history to a point of its uncertainty to eventual justice:

I would move on by Greece and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon. And I would watch them around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality. But I wouldn’t stop there.

I would go on, even to the great heyday of the Roman Empire. And I would see developments around there, through various emperors and leaders. But I wouldn’t stop there.

I would even come up to the day of the Renaissance, and get a quick picture of all that the Renaissance did for the cultural and aesthetic life of man. But I wouldn’t stop there.

I would even go by the way that the man for whom I am named had his habitat. And I would watch Martin Luther as he tacked his 95 theses on the door at the church of Wittenberg. But I wouldn’t stop there.

I would come on up even to 1863, and watch a vacillating President by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. But I wouldn’t stop there.

I would even come up to the early thirties, and see a man grappling with the problems of the bankruptcy of his nation. And come with an eloquent cry that we have nothing to fear but ‘fear itself.’ But I wouldn’t stop there.

Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.’

Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the 20th century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding.”

Although Dr. King’s appearance at the Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters) was in support of local sanitation workers, the effect of the moment leaped out and across history’s pages. He saw the Promised Land as clearly as we see the here and now. It was all real to him then because he knew that sustained intelligent and humane resistance moves mountains. People can’t just look at the world and sigh, they have to be willing to give up some of the cynicism and believe a better world is possible.

It is the fate of some to walk along history’s periphery as it moves outward, where events swirl like an unpredictable vortex as they did in the ‘60s, and their full implications are impossible to fathom. It is here along these folds of probabilities not yet fully conceived of or realized that Dr. King walked freely. That’s part of King’s magic: He was able to help us as a society conceive of something reality clearly didn’t lend itself to in ‘68. He saw beyond the water cannons, biting dogs, and threat to life and limb to the “better angels of our natures.”

The last lines of his speech:

And so I’m happy, tonight.
I’m not worried about anything.
I’m not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!!”

With those words ended the “Mountaintop” speech on the last day in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but they also opened a window into a man who was resolved to allow events to occur even though the outcome surely meant his death.

Dr. King’s dream is like humanity’s relentless quest for perfection: We strive and continue towards it, even though we may never attain it, but it’s in the striving we become better people.

Lessons from the cutting edge

Edna Sadberry, former program supervisor for Pathways and the MLK VISTA program.

Edna Sadberry, former Program Supervisor for the Pathway to Career Corps and MLK VISTA programs.

Over 40 years, Solid Ground and our forebear the Fremont Public Association have helped incubate many of our community’s most effective responses to poverty. These include the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), the Economic Opportunity Institute, Community Voice Mail (now called ConnectUp), FareStart, the Washington State Housing Trust Fund, and many others.

Unfortunately not every good idea is successful in the marketplace of nonprofit programming.

Sometimes a principal funder pulls out, such as when the federal Corporation for National & Community Service discontinued funding the Washington Reading Corps, which ended our demonstrated success at closing the achievement gap through literacy tutoring and support for elementary school students.

Other times, the business model does not pencil out, which is what happened with our Working Wheels program, an attempt to provide low-cost cars to people living on low-incomes who needed a reliable vehicle to get or maintain a job.

Sometimes the program design itself is not sustainable. A few years ago Solid Ground pioneered a new National Service model, Pathway to Career Corps (Pathways), designed to provide underserved young people from communities of color a training- and work-based model to prepare themselves for higher education or the workforce.

While designed by experienced, successful National Service Program Managers, Pathways proved unable to meet all of the challenges faced by its team in the first year, according to Program Supervisor Edna Sadberry. Looking at a large fundraising goal to support a second year, Solid Ground’s Board of Directors chose to close the program.

Sadberry went on to manage Solid Ground’s Martin Luther King VISTA program, a National Service-based program Solid Ground ran from the late 1980s until 2014, which was a groundbreaking effort to infuse anti-oppression analysis, training and action into the service model. Though the legacy of MLK VISTA’s work was incredibly powerful, this anti-oppression focus was ultimately not in alignment with state National Service leaders’ priorities, and the program was forced to shut its doors this past summer.

What lessons can we learn from these program closures, and how do we incorporate Solid Ground’s commitment to anti-racism and anti-oppression principles in our anti-poverty work?

In this video, MLK VISTA and Pathways Program Supervisor Edna Sadberry shares some of her insights, learned on the cutting edge.

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