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Racial Healing and Relationship Building
In the eighteenth century, the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus established four taxonomic “varieties” of the human species in his book Systema Naturae, describing each variety by “culture and place.” The Americanus was “stubborn” and the Europeanus “inventive,” while the Asiaticus was “haughty” and the Africanus “crafty, sly, careless.” He later added a fifth variety, Monstrosus.
Classifications like these led to a hierarchy of human value that, over the centuries, has been expressed in policies, attitudes, and laws—from slavery to segregation, racism, racial inequity, and prejudice—that have left people emotionally wounded. Even well before Linnaeus, indigenous peoples in the “New World” were disrespected and dehumanized when their lands were colonized and confiscated by Old World invaders.
Imagine a day in the future when we have abandoned this belief in a hierarchy of human value—and healed the accompanying pain—in favor of a commitment to equity and the value of all. To realize such a future, we will need to acknowledge our wounds, affirm the sacredness of all, establish just policies, and move forward on a path of justice, dignity, and humanity. Fortunately, here in the United States, we have a pathway forward: the Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) enterprise, which was launched in January 2016 by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
One of five TRHT design teams working to jettison the belief in a hierarchy of human value, the Racial Healing and Relationship Building Design Team seeks to harness the transformative power of authentic relationships in order to promote emotional healing in diverse communities. As part of TRHT, healing sessions will play a significant role in the transformation of communities and our nation. This healing work is based on three major principles: truth telling, racial healing, and transformation.
Healing sessions held at Kellogg Foundation conferences have helped participants build relationships through honest dialogue. LaShawn Routé Chatmon, executive director of the National Equity Project, says that, at a healing session she attended, “You could feel some of the pretense wash away, and people began an honest exploration or reflection of themselves.” Chatmon was paired with a white woman who spoke about abuse she had faced. “In my story,” Chatmon recalls, “I talked not so much about the negatives of oppression, but how proud I was to be an African American woman and where I thought that came from for me.”
Using a similar process in her work to improve educational outcomes for children, she says the healing sessions affirmed her belief that “everyone has a story and that there’s healing power in listening. . . . We have to release emotion,” she says, “before we can think clearly and strategically about how we’re going to take action.”1
If we build trust based on shared experiences, we will generate the energy, will, and creativity to heal our hearts and find lasting, creative solutions for racial injustice. In Chicago, Monica Haslip established the Little Black Pearl Art and Design Academy. This innovative high school program for at-risk youth, most of whom are of color, helps students thrive in a spirit of racial healing. Little Black Pearl combines an educational model that is based on love, value, and culture-centered intervention with a rigorous academic curriculum. According to Haslip, “The community is in the building all the time, so students see more opportunities and possibilities.”2
During the summer of 2016, in New Orleans, the Ashé Cultural Arts Center hosted its annual Maafa Ceremony, a “remembrance and healing ceremony” that encourages acknowledgement, bonding, and commitment. Maafa is a Kiswahili word that means “horrific tragedy” and refers to the transatlantic slave trade. In a procession that wove through New Orleans, stopping at the Tomb of the Unknown Slave, about five hundred participants offered homage, songs, and blessings for wisdom and courage, remembering ancestors and slaves. Carol Bebelle, cofounder and executive director of the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, says that they “started this center believing that the power of culture and the ability to be working with and for the community would be productive.”3
In 2004, the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi helped form the Philadelphia Coalition, a multiracial group in Philadelphia, Mississippi, that organized a fortieth anniversary commemoration of the 1964 murder by the Ku Klux Klan of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County. The coalition also played a significant role in the passage of a bill mandating that the history of the civil rights movement be taught in the state’s public schools. Today, its Welcome Table program brings together diverse groups for storytelling and relationship building, both of which are prerequisites for promoting structural change and realizing racial healing.
Alaska’s indigenous people experienced the traumas of colonization and assimilation, as government policies led to the forcible removal of children from their homes and cultural roots. These children were sent to boarding schools in an effort to ensure that they adopted “white culture.” In 2016, the First Alaskans Institute convened its 33rd Elders and Youth Conference, drawing as many as 1,500 participants to facilitate intergenerational dialogue. “Because of the hurt and shame and the viral nature of unhealed oppression, people don’t talk about it and may even perpetuate it,” says Liz Medicine Crow, president and chief executive officer of the institute. Storytelling, she says, “allows us to go deeper with our hearts and minds, which creates space to transform and to be transformed.”4 One action stemming from the dialogue process is the creation of an initiative to reform the Alaska child welfare system. The goal is to reduce the disproportionate number of native children in state custody. The initiative promotes tribal self-determination, based on the idea that “Alaska Native culture keeps Alaska Native children safe.”
Like the First Alaskans Institute, the National Compadres Network is deeply committed to intergenerational dialogue and the sharing of community traditions, culture, and spiritual values. Based in San Jose, California, the network supports Latino males in their families and in the community. One of its initiatives connects African Americans, Latinos, and people of the First Nations. Jerry Tello, director of the National Compadres Network and its lead healing trainer, says the initiative’s first event was powerful. Participants gathered in circles, and the women spoke first. “They said that they needed men to step up and do what was needed to nurture healthy and strong young men and women.” Next, he says, “The men were invited to dialogue about the lessons we had learned in our own lives that have helped us develop and grow and also to recognize the wounded lessons that we did not want to pass on to the next generation.” Finally, on the second day of the gathering, the elders were asked to “support and listen to the young men, with the goal of creating a connection between the generations through mutual sharing and dialogue.”5
When police shot four Mexican men in East Salinas, California, in November 2014, the National Compadres Network had a local network in place to respond. The result was the first city-wide training for community members and top-level city staffers to raise awareness of the need for fair and inclusive treatment and to transform municipal programs and services through racial equity, healing, and understanding.
Nationwide, countless other groups are working to promote dialogue, racial healing, and transformation. The Washington, DC–based group Asian Americans Advancing Justice supported Arizona’s Latino community in opposing the state’s 2010 anti-immigrant law. In Dearborn, Michigan, the Arab American National Museum serves as a space where community members, Arab and non-Arab alike, can convene to celebrate Metro Detroit’s ethnic and racial heritage through music, arts, and digital storytelling as well as to talk about immigration, anti-black racism, and Arab American racial identity.
In Richmond, Virginia, once the site of the nation’s largest interstate slave market and the capital of the Confederacy, the process of creating a new narrative for the community began in 1993, when Hope in the Cities, a program of Initiatives of Change—a worldwide movement of people of diverse cultures and backgrounds committed to the transformation of society through changes in human motives and behavior, starting with their own—led the first walk through the city’s racial history. In 2007, Virginia became the first state to offer a formal apology for slavery, and, a month later, about five thousand people celebrated the unveiling of a Reconciliation statue on Richmond’s historic slave trail.
Last year, as the city commemorated the sesquicentennial of the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Emancipation, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, once known for its support of school segregation, noted that “instead of fracturing along familiar fault lines of race and mistrust,” the commemoration had built a relationship among disparate groups “that enlightens rather than antagonizes.”6 And the same newspaper editorialized last year that it was time for a truth and reconciliation commission. “Accounting has not occurred,” the editorial notes; “the half remains untold.”7
Toward a single classification: Humanity
Communities from California to Virginia are engaged deeply in the process of truth telling, racial healing, and transformation, helping the nation move toward a common perception of human value. When we have achieved this transformation, all people will be seen through the lens of our common humanity, and we will see ourselves in one another. We will feel safe and secure in who we are, and we will be proud of our culture. We will be able to look within ourselves to find our identity, and we will recognize and value the differences inherent in all of us, while celebrating the common threads that bind us all together. Our respect for each other as human beings will be integrated as a value in America’s structures and institutions, and it will enable us to interact with one another in a spirit of mutual respect and love.
We will all live in communities and attend schools where our cultures and our contributions to society are honored. Our libraries will be stocked with history books that are about our people and that were written by our people. Our museums will reflect the rich heritage and stories of every group, told from the perspective of each group. We will no longer carry the pain, fear, and shame of history, for we will have discovered how to look at our past with courage and honesty. In responding to those who do us harm, our society will reflect a focus on restorative rather than punitive justice.
When we have achieved this vision, we will truly have achieved transformation.
1. LaShawn Routé Chatmon, interview by Michael K. Frisby (president, Frisby & Associates).
2. “Little Black Pearl Offers Chicagoan Youth a Safe Art Haven,” W.K. Kellogg Foundation, accessed October 23, 2016, http://www.wkkf.org/what-we-do/featured-work/little-black-pearl-offers-chicagoan-youth-a-safe-art-haven.
3. “Building a Culture of ‘We’ Out of a Culture of Disaster,” W.K. Kellogg Foundation, accessed October 23, 2016, http://www.wkkf.org/what-we-do/featured-work/building-a-culture-of-we-out-of-a-culture-of-disaster.
4. Liz Medicine Crow, interview by Michael Wenger (professorial lecturer, George Washington University).
5. Jerry Tello, interview by Rob Corcoran (national director, Initiatives of Change).
6. Katherine Calos, “Civil War 150th: Divisions of the Past Give Way to Shared Commitment to the Future,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 28, 2015.
7. “Virginia Must Lead on Racial Truth and Reconciliation,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, July 11, 2015.