Racial Equity and Racial Healing

There’s a perennial debate about the relative importance of dialogue and action, the work of racial healing and the work of structural change. Two events last week showed how they go together.

On March 18, Richmond’s mayor, Dwight Jones, announced an anti-poverty commission at a public forum sponsored by my colleagues at Hope in the Cities and the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities.  Dr. John Moeser, Richmond’s acknowledged expert on urban issues, presented data highlighting “deep canyons” of poverty in parts of the city as well as new pockets in the suburbs. The panel will develop strategies to increase employment, educational achievement, and access to transportation.

On the day of the forum, I was in Maryland for a 36-hour strategic retreat reflecting on racial equity and racial healing with program officers of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and 15 leaders of racial reconciliation and racial justice projects. Our group included people of African, European, Native American, Mexican, and Hawaiian heritage. We heard from a member of the Seneca Nation in Oregon working for child welfare, leaders of reconciliation initiatives in Mississippi, a truth and reconciliation commission in Greensboro, North Carolina, and an advocate for violence prevention in families and communities in California.

We studied vital data, but mostly we shared personal stories of healing, and of healing in our communities. Trustbuilding was a constant theme.

Gail Christopher, Kellogg’s vice president for program strategy, said the foundation has made a long-term commitment to racial equity: “A lot of work is being done on structural racism – the achievement gaps in education, and in areas of health, food, economic security. But I have insisted that we must do the healing work. People say, ‘This is fluff. We want to change the world.’ But who is going to change the world? We need to change hearts and minds, one person at a time and grow this exponentially. We must make healing and wholeness as ubiquitous as the false beliefs today.”

Here’s a sample of insights shared by the group:

“Data is important but stories are powerful.”

“We need humility to move beyond our assumptions and self-righteousness: we are all learners.”

“We need to create an emotional and physical safety for people to share. But there needs to be sufficient dissonance, some level of discomfort, or people won’t feel the need to change.”

“Who heals the healer? We have to make time to take care of ourselves…We must have the courage to say to someone: ‘I need you.’”

“How to ask the right question? Only a true question will bring a true answer.”

“Scientists now know that a moment of trauma can change brain chemistry. So a healing ceremony might also change brain chemistry.”

I told the group about the Richmond development. Many of the anti-poverty commissioners are active in the work of trustbuilding and racial healing. They include Tom Chewning, a business leader who led the campaign to put the statue of the African American sports hero and humanitarian Arthur Ashe on an avenue previously reserved for Confederate generals, and Lillie Estes, a community organizer who says she learned to move beyond anger to effective leadership and community bridge building.

John Moeser said that cities across the U.S. must address the issue of poverty. “But why not start here, where the greatest of all national tragedies – the slave trade and the Civil war – were played out at such enormous human cost?”