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Face It! You Can't Change Society Without Addressing Racism

National People's Action breaks with tradition by openly confronting divisive racial topics.

Community members talk about how the criminal justice system contributes to Minnesota's worst-in-the-nation racial jobs gap.
Photo Credit: TakeAction MN


Growing up on the east side of St. Paul, Minnesota, Renee Zschokke was surrounded by racism, but didn’t even know it. Her crime-ridden neighborhood, enveloped in violence she fell victim to for a period of time, sparked a desire in her to pursue a career in criminal justice, in order to “lock up the bad guys.”

“I just wanted my communities to be safe,” she said.

But throughout her time in college and her job afterward as a state county employment counselor, Zschokke realized that crime isn’t so simple.

“If people aren’t granted housing and jobs, they just go back to doing what they have to do to survive,” she said. “It’s not as simple as coming down to the individual.”

As a counselor with limited resources for her clients, who are mostly black men, Zschokke said she wanted to do something to fight what she saw as structural racism. She realized that explicitly talking about race might be the missing key needed to resist these systematic barriers.

Talking openly about race has never been an easy way to organize for change, but Zschokke found an organization, TakeAction Minnesota, which is trying to do just that.

Bringing Race Into The Open

TakeAction MN is an affiliate of National People’s Action (NPA), a network of social justice groups that has been bringing a racial justice lens to their work since 2010. NPA established a structural racism program four years ago to help it deal explicitly with race and racial justice in its campaigns. NPA's  long-term agenda, its new organizing strategy created in 2012, clarifies the relationship between racial and economic justice, and seeks to create an economy that works for everyone. This means directly addressing all the structural blocks that divide the people.

“Community organizing has that history of ignoring things that are thought to be divisive or thought to wage differences in the base of people that we’re organizing,” said Bree Carlson, NPA’s structural racism program director. “So organizers tend to look for what is the common denominator and focus on that and try to minimize anything that could make their base break apart. So that has been pretty race-adverse — which is not to say that community organizing leaders don’t care about racism. It’s just harder to organize around something where people are going to feel wildly different about it. But the fact is, no matter how much that seems like a good idea in the short-term, it’s always going to haunt you in the long-term.”

For Zschokke, what this looks like with TakeAction MN is lots of one-to-one training focusing on how members or potential members’ stories interconnect.

“It’s so easy to think you’re not connected to community,” she said. “Basically what this comes down to is, this is my community. I may not be a person of color, but these are my friends, these are my neighbors.” 

Over in Maine, another NPA affiliate called Maine People’s Alliance also focuses on how everyone is connected to racism, and also how racism intersects various other issues. Ben Chin, policy engagement director for Maine People’s Alliance, recounted one popular exercise where groups of members representing different issues each had a ball of yarn. They would toss the yarn to another group and explain how they were connected. When one group representing immigration tossed the yarn to another who represent toxic chemicals in consumer products, the group explained that people of color disproportionately have to buy products that cause cancer.

Chin said these exercises and discussions around race used to be bumpier than they are now.

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