I was procrastinating on writing this post on the National Race Amity Conference in Norwood, Massachusetts that I attended in mid-November. Then, the Ferguson indictment decision for police officer Darren Wilson in the Michael Brown case was televised, and I was overcome with sadness and anger, and immediately blogged about that the night of the decision. I procrastinated some more, and then the heartbreaking decision to again, not indict. This time it was the white policeman who caused Eric Garner’s death by placing him under a choke-hold.
I thought, how do I write about the conference and its core mission to promote race amity, or the positive coming together of people across races to move race relations forward beyond the place of blame, grievance and rejection? How do I do that when the nation again seems divided across color lines after the indictment decisions–with black people feeling invalidated, that their lives don’t matter, that their chance at obtaining justice continues to be denied time and again? How do I write when I hear many white people say over and over again, as if reading from the same script…”well, he was not such a good kid…” “and what about all that black-on-black crime?” and “Rioting is stupid, they’re destroying their own neighborhoods, that’s not the way to go about things…”
But, there are many people, black, white and brown, who are working together to take positive actions toward equality and justice in the wake of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, which of course are not isolated incidents. It is important that each one of us do what we can do to make the world a better place. Right now this country is in dire need of racial healing. Conversations on race where fear is absent and everyone feels validated is critical. The National Center For Race Amity(NCRA) works to promote those dialogues and ideals.
This was my second year attending the conference produced by the NCRA, which is housed at Wheelock College. This year’s theme, Women In The Other Tradition, was threaded throughout the conference’s Gala Award Ceremony and Conference schedule. An art exhibit, adjacent to the Gala’s Ballroom, featured works with women as the prominent subject matter–paintings by Marcia J. Smith, and fiber art by fiber artist/educator, L’Merchie Frazier. Over 200 people attended the conference events, its content developed by conference founder, William “Smitty” Smith. The smoothly run event was facilitated by a host of fifteen volunteers.
Beginning with the Gala that honored four women and one man, I took notes as words of inspiration spilled from the mouths of the honorees– all heavy-hitters for their contributions to the world, and for how they’ve practiced race amity.
The first honoree was Viola Liuzzo, a white woman from Detroit who was killed in 1965 while volunteering in Selma during the march from Selma to Montgomery. Liuzzo was already involved in civil rights work when she heard MLK speak and say that the fight for civil rights “was everybody’s fight.” Inspired to help more, Viola told her husband at the last minute that she would go to Selma, worried if she told him too far in advance, he might be concerned for her safety and try to get her not to go. A loving mother of five children, Liuzzo, while driving nineteen year-old Leroy Martin home from a march in Selma, had her car overtaken by four Klu Klux Klansmen, one a FBI informant. They shot her twice in the head, killing her instantly. Accepting Viola’s posthumous award was her daughter, Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe, who now carries on her mother’s work as a civil rights speaker.
Mary described her mother as someone who broke the rules, and stood up for what she believed in. At the time, many people said if she was a good mom she wouldn’t have left her children. But, Mary said, if she hadn’t left, we might not have had the Voting Rights Act passed as soon as it was. She stated in a panel the next day that it was a shame that it took a white death to get the Act more attention, when so many black people’s’ lives were lost during the civil rights movement without any repercussions. Mary said she doesn’t question whether her mother was a good mother. She knows her mother “wanted to make a better world.”
Honoree, the late Patricia Locke’s award was also accepted by her daughter, Winona Flying Earth Orah. Locke, Native American, was an educator and scholar, and fought for the tribal rights of many–advocating for and writing policies regarding Native people’s’ rights in the areas of education and culture. Winona accepted the award saying that her mother was “so adept at coming back to the reservation (the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota), being involved in reservation life, attending ceremonies, and then going back out and lecturing…she was able to convey so much information to so many people.”
Honoree, Beverly Morgan Welch, director of the African Meeting House in Boston, shared a memory of how in high school she was invited to go to a school dance with a white boy. Beverly didn’t want to go, worried of all the looks and teasing she would get. It was her father who made her go on the date, saying that this decision about the dance would shape who she would become in life. She also left attendees with the thought that “we are Americans, and it is quintessential to take a much larger look at the universe..” (than to have divisive thoughts about race).
Then there was Hubie Jones, Dean Emeritus of the Boston University School of Social Work, who after hearing Martin Luther King speak while he was a student at BU, said the speech blew him away and sealed his commitment to do social justice work. Jones humbly said that he’s tried to be a mentee and his many accomplishments as an advocate for children in areas of education, economics and special education. Jones led the Task Force on Children Out Of School, which led to the passage of Chapter 766, the special education law in Massachusetts, which enabled thousands of students who previously weren’t receiving an inclusive education, to attend school in a dignified environment that fostered their learning and growth. Jones left us with this inspirational thought which he attributed to Marian Wright Edelman: “Service is the rent we pay for living. This is what I do. I pay my rent.”
Honoree, President of Wheelock College, Jackie Jenkins-Scott spoke of receiving inspiration from leaders like fellow honoree Hubie Jones, and from William “Smitty” Smith, founder of the National Center for Race Amity, based at Wheelock. Jenkins-Scott, a leader in the field of diversity has grown the faculty at Wheelock to be twenty-three percent black and Hispanic, about which the Boston Globe said, “means having leaders who are not cowed by critics who demean diversity efforts as being politically correct. It means having chancellors and deans who no longer reach for the excuse that their school is somehow so specialized, rigorous, or elite that “they cannot find any’.” Jenkins-Scott also shared a memory of being at a conference where she heard a former astronaut speak about how every time he went into space and looked at the earth from above, he realized what an insignificant speck it was in relation to the galaxy. That is why it is important, according to Jenkins-Scott, for us to improve all, not just some children and families. She finished by thanking the audience for doing their part.
Closing the award ceremony on a fervent, energetic note was honoree, Delores Huerta. Huerta, famous for her work fighting for economic injustice including co-founding with Cesar Chavez the National Farm Workers Association, or what is now known as the United Farm Workers, and for directing their national grape boycott in 1965, which led to the signing of a collective bargaining agreement between the California grape industry and the UFW.
Huerta stated it was important for her and Chavez to teach people they can make their own change–that no one else will do it for them. She also spoke of the current work her Dolores Huerta Foundation is doing to cultivate young, grassroots leaders to deal with issues such as discrimination against black and Latino students in education in what is now being called the school-to-prison pipeline. Huerta, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, said she believes education is the civil rights issue of today. She spoke of the need of having an Ethnic Studies curriculum for grades K – 12 that highlights the contributions of people of color. Huerta said when she works with young children she asks the question, “What are we?” and gives the answer, “We are homo sapiens. We only have one human race. We all first came from Africa, so we can tell all those lost people from the Tea Party to “get over it! You’re African.” As the crowd laughed, Huerta added, “We’re all cousins. We will see that day when we all come together.”
Huerta, a fiery, petite 84 year-old, then led us all in a chant, where she chanted, “We are coming together for justice!” and the audience responded with “Si, Se Puede!” or Yes We Can!
The gala was capped off with a beautifully choreographed dance, Daughters of the Kingdom, performed by Melissa Alexis and Vyvyane Loh.
It was an inspiring evening for me to be in the presence of these great leaders, and fueled me for the next day’s conference full of speakers, panels and break-out sessions.
It was nice coming back to the conference and seeing familiar faces, like Dorri Ziai, registration coordinator of the conference, a graduate student at Boston University, and Special Assistant to William “Smitty” Smith, founder of the NCRA . I was also glad to see Phyllis Underschlitz-Wilder, of the Race Story Re-Write Project, and Joseph Atkins, professor at Colby College in Maine, one of the conference’s sponsors. Joe came with colleague, Vickie Mayer of Colby’s sociology department, and with three students of his: Deanne Human, Nadia Mustefa, and Stephanie Rivera. Joe leads the Campus Conversations on Race program at Colby, which trains students how to lead peer-led discussions on race on college campuses.
A missed opportunity on my part, I also bumped into the gentleman who works in the Diversity and Inclusion department at a local college, and who had taken issue with my blog after he visited it after last year’s conference. We did work through some of our questions and concerns via email, yet I sensed some tension when we said hello to one another this time around. We exchanged pleasantries, but I feel like it would have been beneficial for us to talk more about that experience. I plan on reaching out to him again via email to let him know this, and to re-visit the process of how we both feel about last year’s communications on race and white privilege.
The conference began with a breakfast and viewing of the documentary, Standing On Our Sisters’ Shoulders, which told the story of the heroines of the civil rights movement. Featured were women like Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine and Victoria Gray Adams, founders of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which historically fought for voting rights, and for delegation seats at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. There were other women featured as well, like Unita Blackwell, the first black woman mayor in Mississippi, and Mae Bertha Carter, a sharecropper, and mother of thirteen children who wanted to get her children the best education she could so that they wouldn’t have to be sharecroppers. When faced with opposition after seeing that the Freedom Of Choice act regarding school choice was not truly welcoming to the idea of black children going to “white” schools, Carter stood strong and saw her wish through. It was sad, though, to hear her say how she would pray and count her children as they got off the bus each day, worried of how the reality of racism would play out during school.
In highlighting the role that race amity played during the civil rights movement, we heard from Joan Trumpauer Mulhollund, a white woman from Virginia, who as a student during the 60’s was part of the famous Woolworths’ sit-in, and who, feeling it was also up to white people to take a role in school desegregation, enrolled herself in the all-black Tougaloo College in Mississippi. In the documentary Joan laughed as she recalled how one night she walked down the dormitory hall in her white nightgown and the next day one of the black students, not knowing a white girl had enrolled in the school, told her classmates that she thought she had seen a ghost.
Flonzie Brown-Wright, a big fighter for voting rights, told of the time when white students from up North came to Mississippi to help with voting registration of black voters. Brown-Wright drove to the sheriff’s office and told them who all of the kids were, and that they were staying with her–that they were her children while they were here, and that if they (the sheriff’s office) had any problems with them, to come to her first. Brown-Wright said, “I would die for those kids.” I could feel in the tone of her voice, and her body language, how much she meant it.
The women featured in Standing On My Sisters’ Shoulders made huge contributions to the advancement of civil rights, and had such courage, and I am grateful for all they did to fight for equal rights for black people in this country, and glad to see them get recognition as women doing this work, when it is often male civil rights leaders who we hear about.
The film was followed by a panel, Memories and Lessons From Our Mothers, with Gala Honorees Patricia Locke and Viola Liuzzo’s daughters, Winona Flying Earth Orah and Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe. Conference attendees that did not attend the gala got to hear about these amazing women’s work, and the legacies they’ve left in promoting diversity and race amity.
I attended my two break-out sessions. I hadn’t realized that sessions had to be signed up for in advance, and registered very late. While the sessions I attended didn’t relate fully to my interests and the work I do, the presenters did a wonderful job, and I got useful information and insights from both. Teaching Unity: Educating School Teachers about the Oneness of Humankind, led by Randi Gottlieb, focused on teaching how to teach with diverse populations. Gottleib described her own work on an Indian reservation in Washington State, led us through some helpful classroom exercises that show children, and adults, too, how we can foster the idea of, and feel the inherent power in knowing we’re all one human race.
At one moment Ms. Gottlieb became tearful when she described a workshop she did with Bosnian and Serbian youth. Young Serbians seated on one side of the room, Bosnians on the other, a young woman challenged Randi, saying, “how can I work together with them when they killed 9,000 people of my village?” Randi, daunted, but able to respond, said,” Well, you have a choice. You could continue, and you could kill their children and your children could kill their grandchildren…and we can keep doing that–we know how to do that. Or…, you can do something different…”
Randi said the girl got up from her group, and walked over and sat down on the other side of the room. It was a teaching and learning moment, one that Randi will never forget.
Transforming Parent Involvement in an Urban School through Dialogues on Race with Paula Lima Jones, and Rebecca Shuster, was my second breakout session. I was interested in this workshop because I have seen at my own daughters’ elementary school how white parents unconscious of coming from a place of white privilege, while certainly doing a lot to bring enrichment activities and beautification projects to the school, seemed to be doing so without consideration for those that came before them. This new set of parents, many who had sent their children to private schools, had returned to this neighborhood school when they heard it was now a high-performing school. I preferred to not be involved with the PTO, and to help out in my girls’ schools in other ways, including co-founding and directing with my friend, Cathy Carr Kelly, I WAS THERE, an oral history arts integration program. I WAS THERE was a six-month residency that took place during the school day, and used oral history and the arts to honor the rich heritage and history of the Fox Point, Providence, RI neighborhood and its people–a neighborhood once heavy with Portuguese, Cape Verdean and Irish residents. I always felt the parents on the PTO, majority white, were not aware that they were not making room for people of color to have a voice, and thought they knew best, how to make the school enriching enough for their children. Because of this, I was glad to hear about the work that the Community Dialogues Program is doing to get diverse parent involvement, and having that involvement be grounded on an equal playing field.
There was also a wonderful Lunch panel What Is The Critical Role of Women in Advancing Access and Equity in the 21st Century?” featuring panelists: Jackie Jenkins Scott, president of Wheelock College; Peggy McIntosh, senior research scientist and associate director Wellesley Center for Women; Nurys Camargo, regional director of external affairs for AT&T Massachusetts, and Celeste Headlee, commentator and host for NPR; with moderator: Colette Phillips, president and CEO of Colette Phillips Global Communications. Colette’s broad opening question to frame the panel talk was, “What role can we play as women to elevate the conversation on race and equality?
Touched on were women’s economic power, salary disparities, and the roles and importance of not only mentors, but sponsors for young women of color entering the corporate workforce. The panel noted that it is difficult for women of color to find mentors because there are not many that “have arrived” (in high-ranking corporate and institutional settings). Nurys Camargo, who used her wit and frankness throughout the panel to effectively make her points, said that in Latina culture, women–madres, tias, and abuelas play a big role in families, but that when she began working in corporate culture, it was men–two black men, to be specific, that mentored her. She said it was difficult to find women, because they weren’t there. She said to the crowd, “I’m challenging you to mentor–don’t be afraid they’ll take your job in a year. Take them in, and then when they do take your job, you can retire.”
Nurys also had advice for when Colette noted that there are barriers between white women and black women and other women of color coming together to talk and move things forward in terms of race relations and representation of women of color in high positions in the workplace. Nurys said don’t be afraid to pull someone aside and ask them a question you feel awkward about, relating a time at a conference a white woman pulled her aside because she had never seen someone with hair like Nurys’s. “You pick one person, I pick one person. We have to give people the room to talk.”
Celeste Headlee shared the opinion that we don’t need more mentors, we need more sponsors. Sponsors help advance you professionally. Jackie added that she believes it’s a part of our responsibility whenever young people ask her for help, to be a part of helping. Celeste added that we also have to train white males–the ones who are there, to also be sponsors, and for them to know that what works for them doesn’t always work for women. Dominant doesn’t work for women.
In final reflections about what we can do personally to promote race amity. Peggy McKintosh noted her Seed Project, which provides training she feels is transformational. “It teaches us not to fear each other anymore. Listening has expanded their souls. I believe in this in all my heart and soul.”
And, as if all that I experienced so far during the conference was not enough, after the afternoon breakout session, attendees were treated to the play, Defamation. The play tells the story of a black woman entrepreneur, who sues a Jewish philanthropist for slander after she believes he accuses her of stealing a watch from his home office after the two meet regarding a prospective job for the woman, owner of a graphic design firm. The play, written by Tod Logan, follows the story as the two go to trial, and has an interactive ending where the audience is asked to participate to decide the verdict.
The event closed with a talk by Kevin Locke, son of Patricia Locke, and brother of Winona. Kevin, known worldwide for his performances of the Lakota Hoop Dance was to perform a dance for the conference, but unfortunately was unable to do so due to the small, physical space allotted for him to perform. But it didn’t seem to matter, as Kevin inspired the audience with his charismatic tales of how he became a hoop dancer, the symbolism integrated within the dance, and his deep, spiritual wisdom of Native American traditions, as well as the Bahai faith, which he and some others attending the conference are a part of.
Howard Ross, one of the nation’s leading diversity training consultants, who closed last year’s conference with a mind-blowing presentation on unconscious bias, facilitated this year’s reflections on the NCRA Conference. Audience members shared on how they felt more connected being among others committed to doing the work of race amity. Mary Liuzzo spoke of us all sharing a “collective conscience” and that we have to remember to reach out and touch. A woman shared how she was very impressed that the NCRA took the time to honor women, which left her inspired and recommitted to doing racial equity work. She added that the history of this country’s African-American people’s’ survival has been on the backs of black women who have moved their people forward. A young, man, who was black, said that while there were some young people at the conference, he would like to see a greater representation of young people at future NCRA conferences. He said that the majority of attendees were of an age that directly experienced the civil rights era. He felt young people have become desensitized to the history, saying, “oh that happened forty years ago..” and that young people could greatly benefit from hearing these stories and experiences first hand.
I am grateful for having had the opportunity to attend the 2014 National Center for Race Amity Conference. At a time when our nation is hurting, the work of people coming together across color lines and taking actions that will bring positive change to this country’s justice system is critical. It is not the time to invalidate black people’s experiences. It is a time for white people to be awake and care about what is going on, and to be a part of the change, because it is the systems created by white people to ensure privilege and preference, that have created the bias, conscious and unconscious, that leads to young black men being killed by police officers at a rate of 21 times higher than white young men. Race amity teaches us that we don’t have to blame, defend, be paralyzed by guilt or fear, or be asleep. It teaches us we can take a much broader look at the universe, as Gala Honoree Beverly Morgan Welch said, and work together to make positive change. As Honoree Hubie Jones stated, “it’s time to pay our rent.”
2014 National Center For Race Amity Medal Of Honor Program