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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.
 
 
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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.

“We did a lot of that hard work in the beginning,” Chin said. “And once that culture is set up, you don’t have to have as many of the stay-until-midnight, people-are-in-tears kind of conversations.”

Still, he added:

Every now and then you have people saying problematic things. The problems we run into now are your standard white well-meaning folks will kind of just say things that really make you cringe. And it’s not because they think they are doing a bad thing. Sometimes they think they are actually doing a really good, racially just thing, but the way that they’re talking is problematic. Usually what we try to do is say something in the moment so that everyone gets that that’s not how we think about things. And then we’ll try to talk afterward to folks and work it out.

When pressed for specific examples, Chin said he wished to respect members’ privacy. But he did say sometimes talking openly about divisive topics means losing members. Chin said these have been really tough moments for Maine People’s Alliance.

“There are some very real ways working-class folks have been pitted against each other because of race — we lost members by taking clear stances on this,” he said. “And at the time, it was really tough for all of us to see members go.… But I think what we found was we did fine without those members and we actually, also, were able to attract new members and a new staff that were very excited about the racial justice work we were doing.”

Helping Multiracial Organizations Evolve

Attracting new members and staff of color are two other goals of NPA. To create a multi-racial organization, Chin said, it’s important to invest in different pipelines for organizers. Traditionally, he said, leaders often rise from good performance as canvassers.

“But if you’re a young black man going out in Maine knocking on doors, it is just harder to fundraise,” Chin said. “If that’s our only pipeline for organizers, it’s just not going to work.”

They created a racial justice internship program as one way to open up these pipelines.

For TakeAction MN, building a diverse organization meant building a distinctive program — the Justice 4 All program — designed to tackle criminal justice reform and narrow the racial jobs gap. Perhaps its biggest success (which Zschokke helped organize) was the Ban the Box campaign, which banned the criminal history question on all employment applications throughout the state and led Target to do the same on its applications nationwide.

Justice 4 All program manager Justin Terrell said that while trying to appeal to people of color in a largely white organization, it’s important to create transformative relationships with groups led by communities of color. This will attract new members of color, so those fighting for justice are the ones affected by the injustices. “It doesn’t mean anything unless the people impacted by the issue are able to own the victory.”

Zschokke said she believes that determination also is key in building a diverse coalition.

“I think it’s just persistence — you have to have that,” she said. “Target your organizing in these communities. Don’t try to organize people you only feel comfortable organizing. You just can’t have well-intentioned white folks at the table that don’t have as much connections to the issue.”

As organizations get more diverse, Carlson said it’s important to maintain support for organizers of color. She said NPA organizes an annual staff of color retreat that creates a space about what’s actually going on—so the early hard work is not pushed to the side. NPA’s executive director George Goehl said that a foundation has been set up in the organization to help do this.

“There’s a network-wide conversation around race on all of those fronts and then there’s a people-of-color cohorts within NPA that are places where people can get mutual support, or can identify what are racial barriers within NPA and then we can open up a bigger conversation around them,” he said.

No Turning Back

NPA is supporting their organizers of color by making it known they they will fully back organizers' work. Terrell, who is black, said TakeAction MN’s leadership has been extremely encouraging for him and the other organizers of color. He said the leadership makes clear that “for the members who can’t come forth with us on this path for racial justice, they will have to sort it out themselves.”

While part of NPA’s goal is to get white people to understand the effects of structural racism on themselves and their communities, Chin said that has its limitations. He learned that “if you wait until you got all the white people in your organization trained as having perfect racial justice analysis and saying all the right words before you actually start doing something, you’ll never actually do anything.”

He added:

The only way to really do this is to actually go out in the world and pitch in and start making it clear to your members internally and your staff internally and communities of color at large that we’re an organization that really cares about the lives of people of color, we get that racial justice really matters, and we’re here to pitch in. We’re not necessarily here to lead fights, but we can leverage resources that can be useful and strategic. And we want to work equitably and collaboratively with each other to win some things.

Chin said in order to win big over the long-term, it’s important to take clear stances on issues. Last year, he said, Maine People’s Alliance took a firm pro-choice position.

“I see that as part of this whole process of really learning how to tackle issues that otherwise would have been divisive and hard,” he said.

Chin said the old logic of staying away from controversial topics was the belief that they would divide the base. But this logic has transformed.

“I think the reason why our political thinking has changed over time is because you wake up 30 years later and you realize the very issues that were divisive—that they were actually a deliberate strategy of the Right,” he said. “And ignoring that strategy was not a good way to combat it because we were basically conceding to the Right, accepting those divisions and couldn’t build power as a result of it. Nor could we really organize around some of the fundamental things that were driving the economy.”

Alyssa Figueroa is an associate editor at AlterNet. 

 
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