Monday, February 16, 2015

Get Ready to "Read All About It!"

Since the first slaves were brought to America in 1619, black men and women were denied even basic education. Due to widespread fear of slave insurrection, many states even passed laws prohibiting teaching African Americans to write and read. Slave owners believed that by denying slaves access to potentially radical ideas of freedom, reflection, community building and communication, they were protecting themselves. However, through a determination to preserver and prosper, African Americans began sharing through voice. Thus, the tradition of oral story telling has arisen as one of the primary means of preserving African American history and values.

In our “Read All About It 2015” program, we will be honoring and celebrating story telling with “The Oral Tradition in African American Culture.” The February 22nd program will feature writer and historian, Dr. Michelle Johnson, who will discuss the work of Zora Neale Hurston. Johnson is the Co-Founder and Executive Director Associate of Fire Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative. As a public scholar, she has done extensive research on the Underground Railroad, creating curriculum and programs for 3rd, 4th and 8th grades as well as compiling a curriculum series on the Underground Railroad and resistance to slavery for the First Congregational Church of Detroit. Johnson has led a community project in Loughman, Florida, researching, interpreting and producing the work of Zora Neale Hurston.

The program will also feature husband and wife duo, Von and Fran Washington, who will perform an Underground Railroad presentation based on a story from the Hackley family, early African American settlers in southwest Michigan. The Washingtons, who have distinguished themselves as writers, educators, directors and producers, operate Washington Productions Incorporated, an organization that exists to “provide an accurate, in-depth view of the African American experience through the performing arts.” Von and Fran have been story-telling together for over 18 years and have performed their stories—most of which present some piece of black history—to over 150,000 children and adults. You can visit their site and learn more about booking them by clicking here.

Mark your calendars for the annual “Read All About It” program scheduled for this Sunday, February 22, 2015 at the Portage District Library, 2:00 p.m. It is free, open to the public and we are so excited to see you!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Let's Chat

"Ugly pockets of conscious bigotry remain in this country, but most discrimination is more insidious. The urge to find and call out the bigot is powerful, and doing so is satisfying. But it is also a way to let ourselves off the hook. Rather than point fingers outward, we should look inward — and examine how, despite best intentions, we discriminate in ways big and small."
-Sendhil Mullainathan

Happy Monday, Kalamazoo. It's a brisk and chilly, chilly day out there! However, the sun is shining, I'm drinking my favorite cup of coffee in town, and all is well. Our Lunchtime Film Showing of "Race--The Power of an Illusion" went well on Thursday. A thanks to all who came out. We had around 35 community members join us for the showing and participate in the dialogue. If you were unable to come, no worries! The Racial Healing Initiative has more conversations coming. Co-sponsored with the Kalamazoo Valley Office of Student Activities and Diversity and Inclusion Committee, we've got four chats scheduled. 

Mark your calendars. All discussions are free and open to the public, and we'd love to have you join us! Acknowledging racism as a systemic problem into which we all play a part is difficult, but necessary. Until then, here's a quick article to get your week rolling. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Race, the Power of an Illusion Showing

Race--The Power of an Illusion
Thursday, January 22
Kalamazoo Valley Museum
Free and open to the public!

Looking for growth? Looking for a chance to connect? Looking for a place to eat your lunch among good company while having a stimulating dialogue about issues that affect you and your community? Well, look no further! 

Please join us this Thursday, January 22 at Noon at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, for a free film showing followed by a facilitated discussion. Presented by the Racial Healing Initiative of the Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society and Kalamazoo Valley Community College's Arcadia Campus Committee for Cultural Understanding, we will be showing a segment of the three-part film "Race--The Power of an Illusion,"  a compelling and influential documentary that questions the idea of race as a reality.

The film explores the ways that race has been built up and how it has shaped the way we related to ourselves and each other.  The documentary shows us that although race is only a social construct, it is a very real system and foundation on which our society has been structured and built. And the consequences of this imagined identifier have been catastrophic for our humanness on a whole--wounding and damaging our humanity in the lingering legacy of centuries of oppression and cruelty. As a social construct, race still exists as the foundation for discrimination and oppression, giving white populations more freedom and access to resources and opportunities, while creating incredible barriers to attaining these same resources for folks of color. 

As we reflect on the film together, we'll be asked to think about race and racism in ways that go beyond individual stereotypes and prejudices, and address the systems, policies and procedures that allow oppression and disparities to thrive between people of different skin colors. 

Until Thursday, check out the website, where you can explore some of these ideas and analysis about race before the showing. The PBS site for "The Power of an Illusion" is a very interactive site where you can look at definitions of race, discover how race is a social construct and not a genetic code, see how people are sorted into races (rightly or wrongly), view the variety of shared traits such as skin and blood type between races, explore a timeline of how American ideas of race have changed over time based on shifting political priorities and much, much more. I highly recommend taking a look at this resource.

See you there!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Dust Tracks on a Road

“Why fear? The stuff of my being is matter, ever changing, ever moving, but never lost; so what need of denominations and creeds to deny myself the comfort of all my fellow men? The wide belt of the universe has no need for finger-rings. I am one with the infinite and need no other assurance.”

Okay, okay, I'll be honest. I haven't read it yet. But, geeze! It sure does look good! 

This month for our Racial Healing Book Club meeting, we will be reading and discussing Zora Neale Hurston's well-loved autobiography "Dust Tracks on a Road." First published in 1942, at the peak of her popularity, this book chronicles Hurston's childhood of poverty in the rural South on to her success as one of the most prominent artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Renowned for her wit, wisdom and audacity, Hurston is routinely considered a pioneer of her time, and one of the greatest geniuses of anthropology and writing in the United States

The Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society holds this Book Club meeting every other month throughout the year. The Race Initiative Book Club is founded out of the SMBHS’s Racial Healing Initiative, which is a program that maintains that the “lingering legacy of historical injustices must be addressed through” four steps: facing history, making connections, healing wounds and taking action. The Book Club is a drop-in club that fits into this structure by opening up a space for people to read and discuss books that promote racial healing and reconciliation. 

Please join us on Thursday, January 15th from 6:30-8:00 pm at Kazoo Books to discuss this historic piece. It is free, open to the public, and we would love to see your face! The book is available at the library or at Kazoo Books for purchase. 
Kazoo Books
2513 Parkview Avenue
Kalmazoo, MI

For more information on our Book Club, check out this article

Friday, January 2, 2015

There's Still Time to View Voices For Social Justice!

voices for social justices

If you're looking for something to do in the chill of the new year, why not visit the Kalamazoo Valley Museum and hear a little bit of wisdom from some local residents who are working to create change?

The Kalamazoo Valley Museum and the Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society are working together to continue the community conversation about race, equity, and social justice in a new project based on oral histories with contemporary residents of Kalamazoo. The project, “Voices for Social Justice,” opened at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum on October 5, 2014 with a panel question and answer session moderated by Earlene McMichael from WMUK Radio, and featured five local social justice activists who were interviewed and highlighted for the project.

The engaging conversation between the panelists and the audience stressed the importance of continuing to fight racism consciously and with full commitment. Despite the often remarked sentiment that we live in a post-racist society, Chéree Thomas, Program Director at Douglass Community Association​, reminded the audience that racism “hasn’t gone anywhere; it just looks different.”

The panel was unanimous in the sentiment that racism is still alive. “No one can  survive in this society without being poisoned,” said Jo Ann Mundy, Executive Director of ERAC/CE.​ Racism wounds not only the oppressed, but also the oppressor. However, according to JR Reynolds, anti-racist activist and columnist for the Battle Creek Inquirer, racism is but one facet of the problems that we face in society. He argues that in order to address social justice issues and fight for equality, one cannot focus on only one of the “isms.” Racism, sexism, able-ism, et cetera are all part of the equation that adds up to injustice and inequality in America. Reynolds says that one cannot work against one ‘ism’ and not be affected by the other issues, and this sentiment was repeated by every panelist. “The crux of justice” is “anti-oppression” as a whole, said Lisa Brock, Academic Director of the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at  Kalamazoo College. We must do it together and “it’s going to take all of us.”

“Voices for Social Justice” can be viewed for free at the KVM now through January 19, 2015. Stop by the Museum to listen to excerpts of interviews in which several local residents speak about their work, ideals, hopes, and dreams for a Kalamazoo community that fully embraces social justice. What does an equitable  society look like? See what a few of your neighbors think, and participate in the conversation.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

10th Annual Summit on Racism Returns to Create More Change

Well, well. Autumn is here, and I am not unaffected. I feel it every year: a sense of calm and reflection, a need to create and grow. To me, there is something remarkable about the season. In fall, the world is grave and magnetic. Leaves open up in new colors, the air vibrates in golden hues, and I am reminded that all of life ebbs and flows. As trees change and shed off the year's weight, so, too, do I. And though many see death in falling leaves (along with the impending doom of winter!), I see the epitome of life. I see time to reassess and begin. A foundation that will break down and create life. I see a chance to grow.

And so, what a phenomenal time to welcome in the 10th annual Summit on Racism! Since 2004, the Summit on Racism has been bringing together caring people from our community who are invested in creating change and eliminating racism in Kalamazoo. This invaluable venue has created space for different community members and organizations to share ideas and pool resources in order to better fight and eradicate institutional racism by taking action, and this year we're continuing the fight.

The Summit on Racism's theme this year is "Empowering ourselves to Transform our Community." We will be looking at ways of addressing racism in our own homes, our schools and in our places of employment. This year's program will feature a panel of representatives from The Whirlpool Corporation, Community Mental Health of Kalamazoo, Open Doors, and the Summit Education Committee--a group that sprang from last years Summit on Racism which has found some success toward creating change in the education systems in Kalamazoo. After the panel discusses how their organizations have successfully implemented racial equity initiatives in their institutions, Summit community members will divide into action network groups to hold a dialogue on racism and develop action steps to reach attainable goals for eliminating racism at home, at school and at work.

The Goals of the 2014 Summit on Racism are:
1. To introduce models of transformation at home, at school, and at work.
2. To continue the community dialogue about race and race relations
3. To generate action steps toward a more just and equitable society.

The Role of Kalamazoo’s Summit on Racism is to:
  • Challenge White Privilege by acknowledging how racism based on mainstream privilege works and to eliminate institutional structures and social practices that thwart equality, equity, and justice for all.
  • Focus on Racism by addressing racism in any proposed community solution to a problem
  • Promote Cultural Competence by fostering general cultural competence among and between groups, and to replace white privilege with multiculturalism as the dominant paradigm.
  • Eliminate Institutional Racism by focusing on changing systems that perpetrate racism.
  • Take Direct Action by engaging in action-oriented initiatives via research or study.

Brought to you by The Racial Healing Initiative of the Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society, in collaboration with the YWCA of Kalamazoo, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, the Fair Housing Center of Kalamazoo, the Community Action Agency, and media sponsor WMUK, the Summit on Racism: Empowering Ourselves to Transform our Community will be held on:

Friday, November 14, 2014, from 7:30 am-Noon at the 
YWCA of Kalamazoo. 
353 E. Michigan 
The event is free and open to the public!

Please join us this year to participate in the dialogue, make connections and develop action plans for eliminating racism. To RSVP, please contact us here at the SMBHS via email: or phone: 269.381.9775

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Healing Together

It is I who Must Begin
~By: Vaclav Havel

It is I who must begin. 
Once I begin, once I try
here and now, 
Right where I am,
not excusing myself
by saying that things
would be easier elsewhere,
without grand speeches and 
ostentatious gestures,
but all the more persistently
to live in harmony
with the "voice of Being," as I 
understand it within myself
as soon as I begin that,
I suddenly discover,
to my surprise, that 
I am neither the only one, 
nor the first, 
nor the most important one
to have set out
upon that road.

Whether all is really lost
or not depends entirely on
whether or not I am lost.

I like to rise early so that I can move about my mornings slowly. Waking past the bewildered moment of first opening my eyes, over to the window to see what the world looks like for the day. I shuffle, serene before real world distractions, breathing in the scent of hot coffee, the unyielding routine of brown eggs. I like to indulge in the quiet and the novelty of the day. M
ost mornings I make a great breakfast and think about the small, simple things that become us: the color of winter morning air, the movement of cold bodies on the street. Taking unspoiled time to experience myself before the influence of my people, my jobs, my obligations. This is the way I like best to experience the world. Slow mornings are my blessings. It is in these moments when I learn the most about myself. It is in these moments that I find the center of it all. And in more recent mornings I've been finding myself reflecting less on simple things, and more, now, on that which is deep, that which is grave and important. I move from the small, to reflecting on the feelings of isolation, devastation, connection, of love. 

This has been inspired in no small part by my recent attendance to the Healing Together Retreat on January 23, 2014. As marked by the SMBHS site, the Racial Healing Retreats, put on by the Racial Healing Initiative of the Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society, are "designed for small, interracial groups of community members who have a desire for personal transformation, connection and community healing. The retreats facilitate a healing journey towards individual and community reconciliation of unresolved trauma caused by issues of race." The Retreat is a full day, facilitated experience that takes place only a couple times a year.

I had been hearing little rumors about this retreat for months by this point, but was still unsure of what to expect. I had, however, been warned about tissue boxes and tears. On the day of the retreat, it was bitter cold outside and heavy with another night of unforgiving snowfall. After having Al, the man I've come to know as my giver of wisdom, help push my car out of the driveway, Donna and I set out into the crisp morning, slowly through the snow. Driving through hilly roads west of town, my little car chugging doubtfully, we arrived a little late and a little busted with the day, not yet 8 o'clock. However, the Fetzer Institute proved to be an instant haven, and my exhaustion quickly gave way to comfort. Warmed by a wood-burning fireplace, the building offered us a view of the rare blue sky through great, wide windows overlooking winter's white scene
a frosted pond, magnificent, old trees. After tea, coffee and a small breakfast, our retreat began. Less than twenty of us sat in a circlea mix of black, white and brown complexions, the aged, the young and those in between. All women, save for the two men who huddled together, overwhelmed, I'm sure, by their small numbers.

After sitting, we were welcomed by two phenomenal facilitators, Beverly Coleman and Caren Dybek, trained in the prestigious Center for Courage and Renewal. Throughout the day, Bev and Caren eased us into this inexplicable space by guiding us through a set of greetings, activities, reflections and small group discussions that allowed us to really dig into both our own experiences with race, and each other's experiences with race. We read poetry (see above!), created our own personal timelines, wrote and spoke. Through the sharing of our stories and perspectives, we were able to reflect on how racism affected our lives and the health of our community, how it crippled and scarred. We were able to use this room full of wisdom and experience, this room full of different backgrounds and histories, to build a better understanding of  racism and its various faces. And through the sharing, through the honest listening, we were able to connect.

I am left in awe, yet again, at the importance of story-telling. As Donna will tell you, the feedback we always get after any program is gratitude for creating a space to have a dialogue about race. People are craving this conversation. We are aching for it. In January, the Healing Together Retreat again opened up this space. It gave us a chance to connect to one another and acknowledge the individual experiences we each have with race. For me, this experience of Racial Healing was quite honestly the cherry on top of my still-developing journey with acknowledging and combating racism in my own life and in my community. Having spent a modest amount of time thinking about racism somewhat academically in school and through trainings like ERAC/Ce, I am conscious of the vastness and gravity of racism. I know and recognize how it is literally ingrained in the smallest and largest foundations of our society. And while we each have our own experiences with it, it is undeniably a structural and systemic problem. It is the invasive species. Racism saturates all thingshealth, housing, employment, education, the judicial system, women's rights, gender issues, et cetera and on and on. When one works for social justice, they must recognize this fact at all times. And, to be honest, it is a daunting and disheartening reality. So, to have the chance to couple this knowledge of institutional racism with a conversation and a practice of listening to individual experiences. Well. It completed my circle, connected my dots. Through the process of sharing with folks at this Retreat, I realized that I had been spending a lot of time thinking about the institution of racism, and only a very small amount of time reflecting and understanding how it has damaged my own life. For me, acknowledging race has been a particularly painful and terrifying experience, becauselike many people who identify as multiracialas a biracial young woman with fair skin, I still do not see or understand my place in this world. This retreat challenged me to take up courage and explore this. And I'm seeing that through following this exploration and acknowledging how damaging race has been in my own life and development, I feel much more prepared these days to converse about racism and find ways to move forward. This retreat helped fill a void for me, provided me with a more full set of tools, so to speak, to advance in combatting racism on multiple levels.

So, in many ways, the Healing Together Retreat married two worlds for me. Where Anti-racism is giving folks the tools to really recognize and analyze racism as it relates to systems, structures and institutions, Racial Healing is providing us with opportunities to connect as individuals and find personal transformations. I cannot express enough how well these two philosophies compliment each other. That is, we need to be able to address and share these individual racisms while also thinking about and acknowledging the systems and structures. We must be able to transform our own understandings, transform ourselves in order to make larger change. Please watch this four minute video and read this short article for some light and articulation on my thoughts here. 

All in all, what will always stand with me from this day is the importance of connection for healing. Although I feel that I am still beginning my journey with race, because of the connections I made at the Retreat, I now have a deeper understanding of racism than I ever would have had exploring this issue alone, or with my own circle and family.  Without community, we are weak. I believe, firmly and sincerely, that we cannot create change alone. However, when we come together, when we listen with compassion, heart, understanding and a desire to grow, we create a space that naturally nurtures and promotes healing. No longer a soldier, but an army.

Now as I sit in the mornings, quietly reflecting on my world over a cup of coffee, I sit feeling just a little bit closer to the center of it all. History is etched into our being. It is a part of our making, the very matter of our DNA. True, we cannot escape the past injustices done by, upon, or in benefit of us, but, we do have power to take responsibility for our present and our future. The Racial Healing Initiative is creating space for dialogue that can inspire change. Although I still feel there is a mountain of work for me to do in terms of understanding the atrocity of race and racism and how to combat it, after the retreat I am left now with a clearer understanding of racism as it relates to the heart. I am now left with a clearer understanding of the personal journey I have left to healing, atonement, and the work I must put in for my own transformation. I am ever indebted to Donna Odom, Beverly Coleman, Caren Dybek and all of the men and women who attended and participated in January's Healing Together Retreat. I very much look forward to coming together again for more dialogue and love.

If you're ever invited to a Healing Together Retreat, I urge you to go. There is no denying that every person will experience this retreat differently depending on where he or she is in their journey with race and racism, but I sincerely believe all will benefit from the conversation. I can say no more. Over and out.