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.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Place Matters

If you haven't heard, the Racial Healing Initiative of the Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society is doing some pretty great things in Kalamazoo in partnership with some pretty great organizations. Every month since September 2013, the Racial Healing Initiative and the Kalamazoo Valley Community College's Arcadia Campus Committee for Cultural Understanding have been screening sections of the documentary film: Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick? The film, which is broken into half hour segments, explores how socioeconomic and racial inequalities severely--and often shockingly--affect our physical health. The screening, which is free and open to the public, is followed each month by a discussion facilitated by the YWCA, which gives community members a chance to explore exactly how the issues presented in each section of the film are playing out in our own community.

"Health is embedded in the larger conditions in which we live and work"

January's Lunchtime Film Series segment was called "Place Matters," and it examined how closely one's physical environment and neighborhood determines risk factors in health. In this section of the film, we follow Gwai, a Burmese refugee now settled in the run down city of Richmond, California. Once a bustling and successful city in the '40s, Gwai's neighborhood in Richmond is now struggling due to the closing of the shipyard and the subsequent loss of thousands of jobs. While white families were able to use federally funded loans to move out of the dying city and start new, many families of color were not afforded that opportunity. According to the film, "Between 1934 and 1962, less than 2% of $120 billion in government-backed home loans went to non-white households. In Northern California around the same time period, out of 350,000 federally guaranteed new home loans, fewer than 100 went to Black families." This left many folks of color in Richmond, where all the jobs, economic stability and opportunity were leaving. 

Gwai, now living in this low-income area finds himself with a lack of access to safe and affordable housing, wholesome, healthy foods and employment. He has become a statistic, a low-income man of color fighting heart disease in his 50's. The documentary notes chronic stress as a possible contributor to his condition, as the constant pumping out of cortisol and adrenalin has the power to weaken immune systems and significantly increase the risk of illness. The film notes that his stress in life is massive, and the "accumulation of multiple negative stressors" (such as unpaid bills, dangerous neighborhoods, little money, racial inequality and a lack of fresh, wholesome foods) with fewer opportunities to cope (such as vacations, extra income to relax with an indulgent cup of coffee, the chance to take a safe and comfortable walk in a neighborhood with green trees) all this compounds his stress. Sending him into a spiral of mental, emotional and physical distress. Here, place matters. 

More often than not, the documentary explains, folks cannot simply choose to escape these stressors when they live in these neighborhoods, for "choices of individuals are often limited by the environment in which they live." When we shop, we tend to shop in areas that we can access, which tend to be those areas closest to our homes, especially if we are low on cash money or transportation. The documentary informs us that buying a cars in low income neigborhoods are on average $500 more expensive, as is the trend with groceries and many other goods and services. This phenomenon, dubbed the "poverty tax," tends to perpetuate the problem for these neighborhoods and keep people in. All in all, "Place Matters" shows us that there is a very close correlation between income and health. Without a safe and inviting social environment with access to good, healthy food and employment, and free from chemical exposure, statistics show that these living environments lead to lower life expectancy and much higher rates of asthma, diabetes, heart disease and other health ailments.

My favorite part of these Lunchtime Film Series meetings is, naturally, the dialogue that happens after the screening of the film. Since joining on with the Black Heritage Society, I've seen it proven time and again that people are starving for dialogue about race. Our January Lunchtime Film Series brought out the largest crowd yet, giving way for some welcomed discussion--facilitated flawlessly, of course, by YWCA staff Cheree and Sheri. Every day, and especially during each event, I am learning not only more about race and racism, but more and more about how it plays out in this little city I call home. Kalamazoo Community members are some fantastic people. If you're looking for a way to get involved, please join in on the discussions we are having. 

The next screening of Unnatural Causes will be on February 19, 12:00-1:00PM at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum. Remember, its free and open to the public! Bring a sack lunch and we'll feed you cookies, coffee and pop. Check out the Unnatural Causes site if you're interested in learning more about the documentary.

Furthermore, you have a wonderful chance to be a part of dialogue and creating change in Kalamazoo by joining us for our follow-up to the Summit on Racism 2.0, which was held in November 2013.  During the Summit on Racism, over 100 passionate community members gathered together to develop action plans and address institutional racism in Employment, Health, Housing, Education and Law Enforcement in Kalamazoo. We are following up with a response to evaluations from event participants who asked for ways to delve deeper. We are creating a space for community members to return to these issues, make moves and create Action Networks to help organize communication and collaboration about racism in these areas.

At this session groups will be given the chance to identify the most urgent issues and ways forward in one of the five areas of focus, establish preliminary action plans for combating racism and create protocol for communication for groups to best collaborate and grow. 

Our first Action Network organizational session is Friday, March 7, 2014 from 12:00-2:00PM at the YWCA of Kalamazoo, located at 353 E. Michigan. It is free and open to the public, so bring your lunch, we'll provide cookies and beverages. Please RSVP by Friday, February 21 to

And finally! Here is nifty a food desert locator. Although I cannot get the darn thing to work on my computer (since it is a 2007 two time hand-me-down I got for free (thanks, Kevin and Tina!)) it looks like a cool resource. Click on this link and look up your own community!
 Food Desert Locator