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.

Standing with Ferguson

This post was published in print in the Big Picture News insert to Solid Ground’s November 2014 Groundviews newsletter and online on our website.

Gordon McHenry, Jr. with his son Austin in Olympia, WA on MLK Day 2014

Gordon McHenry, Jr. with his son Austin in Olympia, WA on MLK Day 2014

Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a white policeman in Ferguson, MO on August 9, 2014 wasn’t really an unusual event. Black men (and women, adolescents and children) have been subject to violent discriminatory police practices throughout our nation’s history.

Despite the rage and fear felt by participants, the response of the citizens of Ferguson to stand up to this police brutality has been unusual and noteworthy for its display of courage, organizing brilliance, peaceful protests and perseverance.

Solid Ground stands firmly behind the people of Ferguson and those organizing around our country to end police brutality and bring equity to our justice system.

We have a legacy of working in the community and with the Seattle Police Department to deescalate tensions in communities of color. And while we lost funding to continue this work through the JustServe AmeriCorps program a few years ago, we remain focused on the importance of continuing to counter institutional racism playing out in our current policing environment.

For white folks, it might be impossible to imagine how blacks in this country react in the presence of police because of the way we are daily profiled. Even now, as a black man working in a position of leadership and authority – a trained attorney who lives squarely in the privileges of education, class and status – I find myself reacting to the police with a deeply emotional response of apprehension and anxiety. They are a source of conflict or even danger to me and my family, rather than a source of support/resources. This is not a rational response; it wells up from deep inside, buoyed by generational trauma and reinforced by the experience of black people throughout our history.

As a father, I grieve for having to pass this trauma on to my children.

And so, sadly, Michael Brown’s death could almost have been expected. Another day, another black man gunned down. We remember a handful of their names and stories, but just a handful. Remarkably, Michael Brown’s death has outlasted our myopic news cycle and continues to serve as a rallying point for people organizing against police brutality.

It’s important that organizations like Solid Ground continue to shine a light exposing police brutality wherever it occurs.

Ferguson is a place we’re seeing on television, but the reality is Ferguson is a state of mind, and minds can be changed if they’re informed.

October 22 was a National Day of Action Against Police Brutality, which Solid Ground endorsed and participated in. I am hopeful that this kind of public protest can be a catalyst for meaningful change in our community.

Solid Ground stewards a neighborhood of people living in our housing at Sand Point, who are working hard to lift themselves out of homelessness and poverty. The young people there, whether of color or not, are brilliant, compassionate and inspirational. They are the antidote to the prevailing stereotype of black youth and youth of color as “dangerous thugs.”

Solid Ground is committed to understanding and countering racism, because we know that racism is a root cause of poverty.

Undoing racism is a key to unlocking the door to some particular forms and patterns of poverty established during the earliest history of this country when people of specific racial groups were identified as commodities (e.g., African slaves, Chinese railroad workers, Native Americans and others). Our institutions haven’t changed much over the years – and they are still structured in a way that excludes women and people of color.

But equal justice should exclude no one. The people of Ferguson and many other communities are staking their lives on it. People of Seattle: Let us join them!

Aftermath of Ferguson sheds light on racist bias

Clay Smith

Clay Smith

Editor’s Note: The shooting of an unarmed black teen, Michael Brown, by a white police officer in Ferguson, MO – and the reactions that racist act generated across the county – have been the subject of important conversations among Solid Ground staff and others committed to calling out and undoing institutional racism. Here Clay Smith, Case Manager at our Phyllis Gutiérrez Kenney Place, weighs in on how racist perceptions of black youth are barriers to justice. Please post your thoughts in the comments section that follows.

I was awake early this morning and came across this article on the Huffington Post: Grand Jury In Ferguson Shooting Investigated For Misconduct. It started me thinking about the discussions I’ve been having with white friends of mine, and about perceptions of minorities generally. Here’s the tweet that’s causing some real concern that “justice” is once more going to be denied:

Screen shoot of tweets

Screen shoot of tweets

Some people I’ve had some rather heated discussions about this case with seem oblivious to the idea that shooting an unarmed teen should be scrutinized to the highest degree. It’s as if they can’t see every person should be given the benefit of the doubt before deadly force is used. I’d almost term this as a racial “blind spot,” where perfectly reasonable people suspend all logic to excuse terrible policing. This idea that because the police act, that somehow they must have been justified regardless of how ludicrous the situation may be. It started me thinking about how our young men and boys are perceived by some non-blacks: Black Boys Viewed as Older, Less Innocent Than Whites, Research Finds. From the article:

Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection. Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.” ~Phillip Atiba Goff, PhD, University of California, Los Angeles

I think it’s more than probable that some of the white jurors in this grand jury stand very firmly with Officer Wilson. Also from the article:

Researchers tested 176 police officers, mostly white males, average age 37, in large urban areas, to determine their levels of two distinct types of bias – prejudice and unconscious dehumanization of black people by comparing them to apes. To test for prejudice, researchers had officers complete a widely used psychological questionnaire with statements such as ‘It is likely that blacks will bring violence to neighborhoods when they move in.’ To determine officers’ dehumanization of blacks, the researchers gave them a psychological task in which they paired blacks and whites with large cats, such as lions, or with apes. Researchers reviewed police officers’ personnel records to determine use of force while on duty and found that those who dehumanized blacks were more likely to have used force against a black child in custody than officers who did not dehumanize blacks. The study described use of force as takedown or wrist lock; kicking or punching; striking with a blunt object; using a police dog, restraints or hobbling; or using tear gas, electric shock or killing. Only dehumanization and not police officers’ prejudice against blacks – conscious or not – was linked to violent encounters with black children in custody, according to the study.”

I shudder to think that there are armed officers out there that see blacks as something less than human, therefore react accordingly. But I think we are coming to a point where people can no longer excuse these types of behaviors because they are patently lacking empathy and understanding of the community. The exception: The Story Behind A Shocking Dash Cam Video That Landed An Officer In Jail.

When the decision is made to send a white cop into a neighborhood he or she is not part of with little to no training on the population, incidents like the one in Ferguson will continue to happen. It’s just very bad policing to send people into situations that will put them and the population they serve at risk. But in the end, I don’t think the grand jury will be able to see Michael Brown as a human being; that isn’t a leap some are prepared to make.

Just sayin’….

Clay

‘It’s a broken system that’s not working’: Proposed new youth jail will increase incarceration of youth of color

In 2012, King County, WA voters passed a levy initiative to fund the construction of a new Children and Family Justice Center. Given the fact that 100% of taxpayer money will be used for the construction of the facility – not for maintaining or creating services – it’s hard to think of this facility as anything other than a reinforcement of the school-to-prison pipeline, a widespread pattern in the US of pushing students, especially those already at a disadvantage, out of school and into our criminal justice system.

In King County, African-American and white youth commit crime at the same rates, yet about 40% of detained youth are African American, and they are twice as likely to be arrested and referred to court as white youth. Incarcerating youth without providing diversion or reintegration programs increases the chances of recidivism, thus continuing the revolving door of our criminal justice system – statewide and nationally.

“It’s by design to start that process off early,” says Ardell Shaw, intern for Solid Ground’s Statewide Poverty Action Network. He describes how this affects kids later in life: “A person has a felony on their record. Now they may repeat this cycle, and when they get out, they have huge amounts of fines to pay. The system creates enough stress where they perpetuate recidivism and keep that cycle going.”

New Youth Jail, King County, institutional racism, african american incarceration, king county juvenile infographic

Infographic created by Solid Ground

Now that we’ve gone over some statistics, imagine how these numbers will change after the jail is built. The county is going to have to justify spending a quarter of a billion dollars on this project somehow. Their justification will come in the form of incarcerating more youth, especially targeting youth of color.

“The purpose for building it isn’t about the renovations, it’s to put more bodies in it. Particularly African-American bodies,” says Ardell. “When it first came out they tried to glamorize it as a ‘family center’ instead of calling it what it actually was.” A youth jail.

What can you do about it?

1)     “Make calls. Support us when we have meetings.” Ardell is referring to the No New Youth Jail campaign, which is strongly backed by Youth Undoing Institutional Racism, The People’s Institute Northwest, and the Black Prisoners’ Caucus among other organizations, including Solid Ground.

2)     Call King County and City of Seattle council members Bruce Harrell, Mike O’Brien, Kathy Lambert and Dow Constantine to say you support the demands to defer this money elsewhere.

3)     Also, Ardell encourages us to talk about it. “Make people aware that it is a waste of taxpayers’ money. That money could be spent other ways. The juvenile system is broken and they DON’T fix problems in the current system.”

“You have to deal with what the issue is, why they got into trouble in the first place,” explains Ardell. “They’re not just committing crimes to commit crimes. There are other factors … So if we can get to the base root of what that is, then we stand a better chance. Then we let the kids know there is a possibility. They need to find a way to correct their system and really offer these kids help. Not just probation, but help.”

New jail not best way to address youth crime

NoNewYouthJail_webSolid Ground is joining a broad coalition of community groups led by End the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) and Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR) campaigning for community-based alternatives to building a new mega-sized youth jail in Seattle-King County.

While we recognize the need to renovate or replace the existing youth jail, we support the No New Youth Jail Campaign’s efforts to slow down the process and bring community leadership into prominence as we chart better ways to address youth crime. We believe the $210 million allocated for building a new youth jail could be invested with more impact through a modest facility upgrade, community-based prevention and diversion strategies, as well as the use of restorative justice practices for youth.

Youth crime is down in King County and the current facility is often not at full capacity. Therefore, we question the wisdom of building a larger jail, which would only reinforce criminalization as a strategy to deal with troubled youth. As an active member in the Equity in Education Coalition in Washington State, we are concerned about failings in our education system that disproportionately impact students of color and funnel kids into the school-to-prison pipeline.

We know from 40 years of experience as a service provider that disadvantaged families and youth need access to a broad range of wraparound services to overcome structural barriers to their success. These interventions and resources are more successful when offered before people get into trouble, not when they are already in jail.

Solid Ground is committed to undoing racism and other oppressions by examining institutional practices and policies that trap people in poverty and hold communities back. Investing $210 million in a mega-jail for youth would clearly reinforce institutional practices and policies that have wreaked havoc on communities of color and people living on low incomes. We look forward to supporting efforts to develop more proactive approaches to reducing crime and supporting youth in creating meaningful roles in our community.

More on the campaign is available on the No New Youth Jail blog.

Genesis of anti-racism work at Solid Ground

Because racism is a root cause of poverty, Solid Ground works to undo institutional racism both internally at Solid Ground and in the broader community. In this brief video, former Executive Director Cheryl Cobbs Murphy tells the story of how this nonprofit human services agency became committed to anti-racism social change organizing.

Cheryl Cobbs Murphy 2007

Cheryl Cobbs Murphy with Ron Chisom at the 2007 Seattle Human Services Coalition’s awards ceremony

Solid Ground committed to this work in 2001, and over the last 13 years we have:

  • Trained staff in Undoing Institutional Racism and cultural competency.
  • Formed a multi-racial, staff-driven Anti-Racism Committee (ARC) to organize internally and identify and prioritize anti-racism actions to better serve our clients.
  • Engaged staff and community members to recognize and take action against racism in our own lives and communities.

In 2007, the Seattle Human Services Coalition recognized Solid Ground’s anti-racism work, presenting Executive Director Cheryl Cobbs Murphy the inaugural Ron Chisom Anti-Racism Award.

May Day march brings community & action to the streets

SolidGroundBannerEditedThe first day of May is one when we feel relief knowing that our harsh winter weather is over and we eagerly await beautiful blooms in spring and (hopefully) bountiful harvests in summer. Traditionally in the past, a “May Day Basket” filled with Easter-like treats and flowers may have been left at a neighbor’s doorstep; a gesture meant to deepen community ties by sharing the celebration of spring and its promise of new beginnings. However, this ritual is slowly fading.

The promise of spring also informs the century-old International Workers’ Day, May 1st is also a day in which activists demand social change, especially as they pertain to immigrants’ rights. The origins of this day trace back to the late 19th century when thousands of workers in Chicago organized, demanding an eight-hour work day, fair wages and safe working conditions. A bomb was thrown into the crowd of picketers (the culprit is still unknown) which spurred a shooting frenzy with police, killing over a dozen people and wounding dozens more. This tragedy became known as the Haymarket Massacre, one that propelled the first day of May forward to unite those in solidarity, never forgetting those that lost their lives in Chicago over 100 years ago.

While violence has marred recent Seattle May Days, this year’s events started peacefully with a rally at Judkins Park, where thousands congregated, assembling signs and conversing with familiar faces. Shortly after 3pm, we were off on our 2.5-mile trek to downtown Seattle, during which temperatures reached up to the mid-80s. Thousands more joined the march as the crowd proceeded down Jackson to Boren Street.

People held signs that read “Health Care is a Human Right” supporting a single payer national health program and “¡Sí se puede!” (“Yes, we can!”), observing the United Farm Workers’ rallying cry so many years ago. Chants like, “Obama! Escucha! Estamos en la lucha!” (Obama! Listen! We are in the fight!) – calling upon the President to curb the over 2 million record deportations that have occurred under his administration – and “What do we want? 15! When do we want it? Now!”— demanding a livable wage of $15 per hour in Seattle proper (and eventually across America) – were heard throughout the march.

But the message seemed disjointed and all over the place, like too many options on the social justice menu. An all-encompassing rally demanding justice for all facets of inequality? Could the statements be confused for a chaotic and unfocused purpose?

“It was an important day of coming together around issues that affect everyone,” says Leah Grupp-Williams, Food Resources Program Assistant at Solid Ground. In the past, Leah has helped organize the May Day March with the May 1 Action Coalition. This year she planned a group from Solid Ground to attend the march. When asked why this march is so important to her, she replied, “Our current immigration policy is an example of how racism thrives in this country. And it’s important for Solid Ground to continue to have a presence in grass roots struggles.”

Another member of the Solid Ground team who attended the march offered his personal connection to the rally. Gordon Pun, Facilities Manager at Solid Ground, states, “I am an immigrant who wanted to be in the U.S. I wanted a better future and freedom in the U.S. …an opportunity to grow.” As he recounts his own experiences, he also relates his story to current immigration issues. “I see the struggle that immigrants have to [endure]. I see why immigrants have to cross the border. I feel bad that the families have to break up. That’s really sad.”

Even though he has a direct affinity with those cries for comprehensive and inclusive immigration reform, Gordon still agrees with the notion that there may be a community sentiment after all. “Everyone has their own reasons for being at the march,” he says.

And isn’t it true? That we all have our own reasons for all-encompassing advocacy? Whether your family is threatened with deportation every day of your life, a friend is living at poverty level because they make minimum wage, or your coworker just filed for bankruptcy because they couldn’t pay their medical bills, we all know someone. We might even be living it. But whether the former or the latter are the case, one has to feel a sense of unity and collective emotion to witness so much participation in a movement that is focused on helping out fellow Americans who are, in essence, strangers. To see them in good health. To prosper and live without fear of separation from their families.

Knowing these issues still plague our people, how can such things that anger and outrage us at times also make us happy in some ways? Happy that thousands came together for the same altruistic purpose. Happy that destructive behavior and obscenities were largely absent among thousands of people within the cramped streets of Seattle. Happy that that feeling of community, which is few and far between for some, showed its face on that warm, sunny, first day of May.

 

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Solid Ground Stands Against Racism

2014StandAgainstRacism-cropped

 

On the last Friday of April, Solid Ground participated in the YWCA’s annual Stand Against Racism event. We joined other social justice organizations to gather as a community, to take the time to reflect on the serious challenge of our work to end racism, and to celebrate the richness of our diversity. We took a stand against racism at the same time that many pundits assert that the United States has evolved into a “post-racial” society – based on having elected an African-American president. We know that race still matters and continues to be leveraged by those with power and privilege. We must continue our work to undo the adverse impacts of racism and oppression in order to shape a more equitable and just tomorrow.

Some actively try to turn back the clock of progress, including Cliven Bundy, an anti-federal government property rights activist in rural Nevada, who has become a darling of conservatives precisely because of his anti-federal government principles. Just days prior to the Stand Against Racism, he offered his opinions on “the problem of the Negro” by stating: “…they abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

And on the day after our Stand Against Racism event, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, a professional basketball team with over 70% African-American players, told his mistress “…don’t bring blacks to my games.” When she pointed out that he is the owner of a team that is mostly black, he stated “…I support them, I give them food and clothes and homes…”

One hundred fifty-one years after slavery was abolished, we still have persons with power and privilege who not only have a slave owner’s mentality but also the audacity to publicly promote their racist views. These misguided and dangerous people are not only comfortable living in our sordid past – they seem to feel the need to advocate turning back the clock.

At our Stand Against Racism event, the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us that:

…the ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”

Taking a Stand Against Racism is the voice of good people committed to undoing the negative and wrongful impacts of racism and oppression.

Visit our Anti-Racism Initiative (ARI) webpage for more information on how Solid Ground strives to stand against racism every day of the year.

 

Shifting perceptions on RACE

Kahla Bell-Kato is a Communications Intern with Solid Ground.

RACE: Are We So Different?  image

Courtesy of American Anthropological Association and Science Museum of Minnesota.

A major part of Solid Ground’s work involves understanding how concepts of race and racism affect our communities as well as our organization. In order to promote ongoing awareness and education about racism, members of the agency’s Anti-Racism Initiative (ARI) attended the exhibit RACE: Are We So Different? at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. As the agency’s new Communications Intern, I was invited to attend with the group.

Developed by the Science Museum of Minnesota in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association, RACE: Are We So Different? features interactive quizzes, multimedia presentations, images and artifacts designed to break down social, historical and scientifically flawed concepts about race.

One of the first aspects of the exhibit I came across brought me face to face with America’s modern race classifications presented through the United States Census. The display asks visitors to select between four choices of race classifications to be used for the Census. The first three options introduce various ways to obtain race statistics such as checking a box or filling in the blank – one being the race category question from the 2010 Census. The final option votes to remove the race question completely.

As a recent graduate, I appreciate statistics. At this point of my experience with the exhibit, I believed we weren’t quite ready to remove the race question from the Census. Statistics gained from the Census root out disparities within the system in order to provide equal employment opportunities, allocate funds for education, housing and medical services, as well as determine gaps in wages and financial inconsistencies such as meeting credit needs. I wondered how we could fight racism without having the numbers to prove race still plays a part in our policies.

With this in mind, I selected option three, which asks those filling out the Census to write in their race, ethnicity or ancestry in a blank rather than select from predetermined race categories. I was in the minority. Over 39,000 people who visited the exhibit voted to remove the race question completely from the Census. I would discover why, as I made my way around the rest of the exhibit.

Americans tend to believe that racial categories have remained unchanged throughout the centuries. However, after leaving the Census display, I was taken on a journey through the History of Race in the U.S.A. section of the exhibit that describes the changing perceptions of skin color throughout the implementation of the U.S. Census.

Image from RACE Exhibit of people wearing t-shirts describing their race classifications in the Census over time

Image from RACE Exhibit of people wearing t-shirts describing their race classifications in the Census over time. Courtesy of American Anthropological Association and Science Museum of Minnesota.

Classifications of race have been fluid throughout the history of the United States, clearly demonstrating how race is a cultural construct – rather than innate biological and genetic differences – designed by beliefs commonly held at the time of classification. These race classifications were created to justify the oppression and mistreatment of specific groups of people.

Race categories in the Census contain far more meaning than simply indicating the color of one’s skin; they denote a history of dominance, repression and racist stereotypes about who a person is or isn’t based solely on race. For example, the 2010 Census combined a total of 53 questions originally featured on the 2000 Census long form questionnaire to a mere 10 questions. Once questions regarding work, income, transportation and education are removed, one can assume that the race question – which constitutes one-fifth of the 2010 Census – becomes a catch-all for determining a person’s socioeconomic status.

I realize that the history of racism is too embedded within the Census and in each racial category to allow it to remain. While statistics can be beneficial, in my view the negative implications of racial categories hurt more than help. The Census does not create racism so much as it mirrors how we think about race. Race is cultural. We created it, and yet we continue to perpetuate the belief that race is a real thing that separates us and makes us different from each other. We are not so different.

If we continue to preserve this false notion by presenting race classifications in the Census or any other questionnaire, then we will continue to declare that we deserve different treatment and access to opportunity based on our skin color. However, if we change what we believe about race, then the policies will change along with it. Education is the key to understanding what race is, and more importantly, what race is not.

Seattle Jobs Assistance Ordinance bans the box

Ban-the-Box

An employer must have a legitimate business reason for denying employment.

In June 2013, the Seattle City Council unanimously passed the Jobs Assistance Ordinance to ensure that individuals with a criminal background have a fair shot at finding employment. This ordinance increases public safety and serves the entire community by giving people who are reentering society after being incarcerated the opportunity to find jobs, obtain stable housing, and reduce the likelihood of reoffending.

The Jobs Assistance Ordinance provides guidelines around when an employer in the City of Seattle can use criminal convictions to make hiring decisions. Previously it was legal for employers to directly ask on an application whether a person has a criminal background. Marking “yes” in that checkbox often meant that employers would not consider the applicant or take the time to find out if they were a qualified candidate.

What does the Jobs Assistance Ordinance do?

Essentially the ordinance will “ban the box,” meaning that job applications cannot ask whether you have an arrest or conviction record. Employers must wait to ask about previous criminal records until after there has been an initial screening or interview. Also, arrest records cannot be used to deny employment, as there is no conviction to indicate that the person was actually guilty of the crime.

In addition, employers can no longer advertise a job or use hiring practices that automatically exclude individuals who have a criminal record. For example, Seattle employers cannot advertise in a job posting “no criminal backgrounds” or “felons need not apply” in order to discourage people with a criminal record from applying.

How can criminal records be used in the hiring process?

The ordinance will go into effect on November 1, 2013. Employers may still decide not to offer a job based on a criminal record that will interfere with a person’s ability to perform the job or will create a risk to the employer or business. An employer must have a legitimate business reason for denying employment.

The ordinance requires employers to consider the following before making a decision in the hiring process:

  1. The seriousness of the criminal conviction or pending criminal charge
  2. The number and types of criminal convictions or pending criminal charges
  3. The time that has passed since the criminal conviction
  4. Information related to the individual’s rehabilitation or good conduct, provided by the individual
  5. The specific duties and responsibilities of the position and the person’s qualifications for the position
  6. The place and manner in which the position will be performed

What should I do if I suspect I’ve been denied employment unfairly because of a criminal record?

Contact the Seattle Office for Civil Rights at 206.684.4500 to file a complaint or request an investigation. The Office for Civil Rights has the ability to investigate and work with employers to understand the new ordinance. They will provide education around hiring practices to encourage compliance, and in circumstances where several violations occur in one year, they can potentially require that employers pay a fine to the applicant that was turned down from the job.

How can I find out more about the Jobs Assistance Ordinance?

The City of Seattle has the entire Jobs Assistance Ordinance posted on their website along with a news release. Check out the segment on KUOW including an interview with Merf Ehman of Columbia Legal Services!

Solid Ground supports teaching youth about racism and social justice!

FISTS-smallSolid Ground is lending support to the issue playing out at The Center School, where teacher Jon Greenberg was directed to discontinue the racism section of his Citizenship and Social Justice course.

Greenberg is well-known to the Solid Ground community. He is a former Penny Harvest Coach, and his students have been powerful advocates for people living on low incomes, people of color, and others facing oppressive barriers to full participation in our community.

Below you will see a message from Gordon McHenry, Jr., Solid Ground’s President & CEO, to the Seattle Public Schools Superintendent, Assistant Superintendent and Ombudsman, calling on the district to keep race and social justice units in the curriculum. This statement reflects Solid Ground’s commitment to engage on these issues in the community. Thanks to everyone who brought information and perspective to our process.

Superintendent Banda, Assistant Superintendent Tolley, and Ombudsman McGlone:

Solid Ground is a King County based community action agency. Our mission is to eliminate poverty and undo racism and other forms of oppression that are the root causes of poverty. We provide direct services including several programs where we are a partner of the Seattle School District. We value and appreciate working with SPS to educate and develop our youth.

We support the teaching of a curriculum that engages students in discussions of race, gender and class, with a focus on understanding white privilege. There is a continued need for this kind of curriculum as students live in a more and more diverse community and as employers place a growing emphasis on students who can work well in a global marketplace. As you evaluate the situation at Center School, we urge the District to ensure that race and social justice remains a part of the curriculum. It is important to support those teachers who educate our youth on topics like race, gender and class that continue to be a source of struggle for our society. Thank you.

Best Regards,

Gordon A. McHenry, Jr.
President & CEO, Solid Ground

Undoing Racism®: Seeking our ‘growing edge’

People's Institute for Survival and Beyond logoStarting in 2001, Solid Ground began sending staff members through a transformational training created by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond called Undoing Racism® (UR). Today, all of our permanent, full-time staff are required to attend. The workshop takes place over two intensive, eight-hour days. Participants learn the history of racism in the US and reflect on how that legacy continues to play out in our society and institutions. 

The UR training also hits deeply personal chords, and each individual takes away different learnings based on our racial/ethnic and socioeconomic background, gender, age and life experiences. As human service providers, the training helps us examine the connection between racism and poverty, and identify ways we can work to remove some of the barriers people face in accessing our services and other community opportunities.

Undoing Racism & the Solid Ground community

A wide spectrum of the Solid Ground community participated in the UR workshop in December 2012, including: line staff and managers from all of Solid Ground’s various locations; a Board member who once served as an AmeriCorps Member through Solid Ground; current AmeriCorps Members who also have accessed Solid Ground services; and our agency’s two top leaders – Gordon McHenry, Jr., President & CEO, and Sandi Cutler, COSO (Chief Operating & Strategy Officer). The People’s Institute welcomes past workshop attendees to retake UR for free – so some of us were experiencing it for a second or third time, while for others, it was a first.

Roshni Sampath, Grant Writer

Roshni Sampath, Grant Writer

Grant Writer Roshni Sampath joined Solid Ground in July 2012 and was drawn to the agency, in part, because of our stated anti-racism values. This was her first UR training.

She says, “One of the nicest things about going through the training was that it felt like I was getting on the same page as other people in the organization – despite our roles and our location – and it made me really value and appreciate the need for all new staff to go through this. But what made it stronger was that returning staff were going through it – that there was a real mixed group.”

The UR training helped bring clarity, which Roshni says is “one of the hardest things to feel when trying to talk about race and analyze it. My head gets cloudy. It’s almost like I’m seeing the blueprint of a city from up top, and it’s clear, and then the clouds roll in, and I can’t remember what I just saw, even if I just saw it.”

Liz Reed Hawk, Web Administrator & Publications Specialist

Liz Reed Hawk, Web Administrator & Publications Specialist

I joined Solid Ground in 2001, and my current role is Web Administrator & Publications Specialist. As a college-educated white woman from a middle class background, the UR training gives me a basis to understand that I have access to opportunities and unearned privileges – and that these benefits affect how I walk in the world and impact those around me. UR gives me tools to begin to examine my privilege so I can attempt to use it to undo instead of reinforce oppressions.

As a part of Solid Ground’s Communications team, I need an awareness that my learned dominant culture perspective is not the end-all, be-all. I want to be held accountable for the way I communicate about our work and how I share people’s stories. I recognize the delicate balance between helping to give voice to someone who may feel disenfranchised versus “exploiting” or invading someone’s privacy in the name of telling a powerful story to benefit Solid Ground. UR has taught me to question both my own motives and how I approach my work.

Senait Brown, Community Organizer, Statewide Poverty Action Network

Senait Brown, Community Organizer, Statewide Poverty Action Network

For the past three years, Senait Brown has been a Community Organizer with the Statewide Poverty Action Network. She says, “One goal in going through these trainings is trying to reach what they call ‘your growing edge,’ the place where you feel uncomfortable,” so you can move beyond it to make change. Since this was Senait’s second time attending UR, she wasn’t sure where her growing edge would be. She hit it, she says, “…when we started talking about the organizing component of doing anti-racism work. We’re not doing organizing work if folks aren’t able to stand on their own when we’re gone.”

Senait feels we need to “stop saying that we’re going to empower somebody else; we don’t have the ability to do that. They have to empower themselves. I have to create opportunities for people to learn, to be prepared for when they’re going to organize themselves. They’re going to come to the table on their own, on their own terms.”

This lesson really hit home during the Dec. 2012 UR thanks to the active participation of two Washington Reading Corps (WRC) AmeriCorps Members who also live in Solid Ground’s permanent housing at Brettler Family Place. These confident women gave candid feedback about their experiences as Solid Ground “clients” who are now giving a year of service to the agency, and how they have struggled to assert their voices and self-determination along the way.

"Penni," a Washington Reading Corps (WRC) AmeriCorps Member

“Penni,” a Washington Reading Corps (WRC) AmeriCorps Member

“Penni” (who originally shared her story in On an upward continuum, Nov. 2011) is now in her second year as a WRC AmeriCorps Member, and has taken the UR training several times. She says, “Given the opportunity, I would retake this training every year. It offers a space to have conversations about racism in a way that challenges everyday thinking, stretches our perspectives, and builds community from a place of revolutionary love – something that I truly believe we can never have enough of.”

Penni describes what the training means from her vantage point:  “Being a white woman working in a nonprofit serving primarily students of color, and also being a white mother to two biracial children, I have to not only be aware of my whiteness [i.e. privilege], but also understand it and where it comes from, how it manifests, and what I need to do and understand about myself in order to undo those manifestations that perpetuate the cycle of racism.”

Applying Undoing Racism Principles in our day-to-day work

Mona Bayyuk, Seattle Housing Stabilization Services Case Manager

Mona Bayyuk, Seattle Housing Stabilization Services Case Manager

Originally from Jordan, Mona Bayyuk moved to the US with her family as a teenager. She was just a few days into her Case Manager position with Seattle Housing Stabilization Services when she attended UR. She says, “It was definitely a huge eye opener, because although I had attended diversity courses in both my undergrad as well as graduate studies – and discussed as well as addressed the implications of being from a minority group and the effects of racial profiling – we never addressed ‘race’ and its impact on individuals.

“As a social worker with a passion to serve those who struggle with inequality and unjust systems, it never occurred to me that I too was contributing to these systems, because as one of the trainers mentioned, in my position I play the role of a ‘Gate Keeper.’ This training is very relevant to my work at Solid Ground, because I will always serve and work with individuals from diverse ethnic backgrounds who are struggling to overcome various barriers that are beyond their control and prevent them from accessing their basic human rights.”

Samantha Dyess, Apple Corps Program Supervisor

Samantha Dyess, Apple Corps Program Supervisor

For Samantha Dyess, Program Supervisor of the Apple Corps program since June 2012, “My biggest ah-ha moment was in our discussion on dissecting program implementation. I realized how we – meaning social service agencies – implement programs is racist when we don’t include the community in the decision-making process. Attending UR had a significant effect on me, both personally and professionally. All at the same time I felt angry, sad, paralyzed and motivated. But mostly I felt awakened – as if my memory had suddenly returned after years of forgetting.”

Samantha adds, “I feel that the workshop is of utmost importance to my daily work here at Solid Ground. From my personal interactions with staff and clients, to programmatic decisions, this workshop has helped me align my values and establish priorities for my program. I can now really begin to view everything my program does through an anti-racist lens.”

Roshni sums up the importance of UR Principles in simple terms. “These ideas,” she says, “we live our lives in them.” And I have to agree with her: Undoing racism is never done; it’s a lifelong process that embraces and affirms our humanity if we choose to embrace and commit to the work.

Thanks for shining light into the darkness!

Art by Rainer Waldman Adkins

Art by Rainer Waldman Adkins

The winter solstice is one of the most powerful days of the year. In this darkest moment, the cold and gray cast a heavy shadow on the realities our clients face every day. And yet, the solstice promises the return of light to our world. It rekindles hope based on the reality that life-giving energy outshines the darkest days.

It is a time that many of the world’s traditions call out for pause, reflection and re-commitment. And so, all of us at Solid Ground would like to pause to thank members of our community for your dedication to our work to overcome poverty and racism.

Together we face many dark times. But we know they are overcome by the radiant smiles of children learning to read, or digging in the soil while learning how food is grown; by the joyous gasps of parents opening doors to their new homes, and the satisfied sighs of riders reaching their destination.

Through our work and your support, we kindle light, hope and thousands of better futures. Thank you. Have a warm and safe holiday season!

We need YOU: Join the Washington Reading Corps!

WRC logoWant to make a long-term difference in kids’ lives? Consider a year of service with the Washington Reading Corps (WRC) of King County!

WRC is a statewide program that helps struggling preschool to elementary students improve their reading skills and succeed in school. WRC believes access to education and closing the achievement gap are key social justice issues with far ranging consequences directly related to our mission to end poverty and undo racism. Literacy is one of the most important factors in school success, and our goal is to ensure that all students can read by the end of 3rd grade. We also support family and community involvement in schools.

Solid Ground coordinates the WRC of King County, which serves over 1,600 students a year at more than 20 schools and community sites. Since 1997, WRC has boosted the literacy skills of close to 150,000 students statewide. Each year we place stipended AmeriCorps Members to tutor and coordinate family literacy events at WRC sites across King County.

During your year of service as a stipended, full-time AmeriCorps Member with WRC, you’ll receive extensive para-educator reading training to:

  • Tutor struggling readers, both one-to-one and in small groups.
  • Coordinate Family Literacy Nights to engage families in their children’s schools.
  • Develop analyses of institutionalized racism and low literacy, and their connection to poverty.
  • Recruit, train and support community volunteers.

Solid Ground’s WRC program is unique in the level of training Members receive in understanding and developing the skill set to be an active member of the anti-racism and social justice communities. In turn, AmeriCorps Members help recruit and train community volunteers and provide one-to-one and small-group tutoring for students.

Former WRC Member Quentin D. Ergane Johnson describes the Reading Corps experience for people considering a year of service:

Former WRC Member Quentin D. Ergane Johnson I would tell them that it would be challenging, but it would be the best challenge they’ve ever had of their lives. I would tell them the reward of a child’s smile is immeasurable, and you can’t even understand unless you get one. I would tell them that there’s something really magical when your students start to really understand words and language – when they really start to get it. Oh, there’s nothing like it!”

How to become a Washington Reading Corps (WRC) Member:

WRC of King County is currently seeking full-time Members for the 2012/13 school year. Benefits include:

  • bi-weekly living allowance totalling $1,050/month
  • $5,550 education award at the end of your year of service
  • health coverage

To apply, go to the My AmeriCorps website and use the Seattle WRC Listing ID #: 5006, and visit the WRC ‘s webpage for more information.

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