Skool Haze: Part 2

Image by twobee at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image by twobee at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Just how does a white teacher communicate identity and belonging to a black child or teen? Is their legitimate concern enough? Are a set of classroom guidelines and good intent enough to fill in the chasm of “who am I in relation to what you are?” Is the fact that they’re there enough? If a child doesn’t understand the power and pain of their skin color, how will a white teacher assist with this? How can a white teacher provide a young black male with the tools to survive when that teacher has no concept of the child’s reality and/or destiny?

See where I’m going with these questions? White people can’t teach identity to black people regardless of what their intent is. Nope, can’t be done. So it isn’t a question of is harm being done to our kids, it’s more a question of how do we mitigate the damage? What do those white eyes see when they look at our black children? Are they peering across the great divide of privilege and looking at blacks like they think they will never amount to anything?

I can say from the truth of my own life that white teachers give up on black kids, and they do it routinely. Sometimes it’s because they are unable to recognize intellect in any other population other than their own, and sometimes it’s because they can’t comprehend the import of being entrusted with black children. They look at their students and quietly categorize them and then funnel them to whatever they believe their potential to be. Simply because one chooses to teach or feels they have the aptitude doesn’t mean they have the skill to work with populations other than their own.

Mr. Hagen was a good white teacher, for good white kids. But for his black students, he was sorely lacking in empathy and understanding. These traits can only be cultivated in a teacher who is intellectually curious and courageous enough to step outside of their whiteness to see the true challenges of all of their students. It’s clear there will never be enough black teachers, but there is no end to bad white teachers. This is a sad and inexcusable deficit, and the response to this should be in keeping with the need. The fact is white teachers have a hard time understanding their kids of color, and this is a lack of knowledge and experience we can’t afford. These teachers should be exposed to as many aspects of the student’s life as possible.

I’ve met many people who were well-meaning, but who were singularly unqualified to do the jobs that were gifted to them through privilege. Teachers, social workers, doctors, lawyers and politicians – all horrendously bad at their jobs but are well protected by their skin color – ensconced in a strata of unearned benefits. This is the sad mirage of social good: People get so caught up in helping, they forget that working with these populations takes training and the willingness to be introspective. To teach and to help, one must be absolutely ready to learn.

Immersing young black kids in a white cultural experience they will never have full access to is an unavoidable and abusive act. It sets these kids up to think they will never be good enough because they aren’t white. America’s prisons are filled with men who thought that they weren’t good enough either. They were systematically taught to live up to no expectations.

But in the end, you know what scares me more than white teachers? White social workers who work in tandem with them and who collectively think that the key to balancing a social ill is a program or a guilt-laden vocabulary that will have no effect on anyone who doesn’t innately care anyway. The unconscious analyses of whites scare me, because privilege is so easy to forget if it’s the sea you swim in.

There’s nothing more dangerous than people who think they know what they’re doing simply because they care.

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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?

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.

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.

Our Mission, Vision & Values

An organization’s Mission, Vision and Values statements are its heart and soul.

Ideally, they define what we do, how we do it, and why.

And they are our DNA, the imprint that we pass on to all staff, volunteers and program participants. Want to know what makes Solid Ground unique? How are we distinguished from partner agencies? Look at our Mission, Vision and Values.

As part of an ongoing new strategic planning process, Solid Ground has just revised these statements. They move beyond addressing poverty to calling out racism and other oppressions that are fundamental contributors to poverty, homelessness and hunger.

“Our previous Mission, Vision and Values statements were written over 10 years ago and as such, did not reflect the major shifts in direction which have taken place,” says Solid Ground Board Chair, Lauren McGowan.

“The new statements speak to our strong commitment to working collaboratively in the communities we serve and to ending racism and other oppressions that keep people poor. They are a direct result of the work we have been doing at Solid Ground to undo institutional racism in our organization and in the community.”

The changes were developed through an extensive process that involved staff  at all levels of the agency, Board members and program participants.

“These new statements are the building blocks for the Strategic Plan we will complete in December,” says McGowan. “They represent both a track record of providing innovative and effective services to people in need and our aspirations for the future. As our community continues to struggle though this challenging economic climate, Solid Ground is committed to ensuring that everyone has access to food, housing, transportation and justice.”

SOLID GROUND’S MISSION, VISION & VALUES

MISSION
Solid Ground works to end poverty and undo racism and other oppressions that are root causes of poverty.

VISION
Solid Ground believes our community can move beyond poverty and oppression to a place where all people have access to quality housing, nutritious food, equal justice and opportunities to thrive.

VALUES
Solid Ground is committed to working with compassion, integrity, accountability, creativity and an anti-oppression approach to end homelessness, hunger, inequality and other barriers to social justice. We value collaboration and leadership from the communities we serve.

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