University of Wisconsin–Madison

2016 YWCA Racial Justice Summit: Changing the Narrative

Representatives of OHR attended the 15th Annual Racial Justice Summit on Thursday and Friday, September 29th and 30th at the Monona Terrace. The focus of this year’s summit was on ‘changing the narrative’.

While Madison has repeatedly been ranked among the best places to live in the United States, the 2013 Race to Equity Report compiled by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families found that Dane County is the worst place in the United States for African Americans , not based on just one indicator such as child poverty, but on over forty measures including unemployment, suspension, expulsion, high school graduation, infant mortality, juvenile arrest, and incarceration rates. Whites in Dane County fare far better than whites in the rest of the country, and African Americans fare worse. According to the report:

“There is not a single indicator that we
analyzed in which African American
well-being is on par with that of whites.”

While the Race to Equity Report revealed massive inequality between whites and blacks in Dane County, the report itself has had a positive impact, Erica Nelson, Project Director for the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families and Families’ Race to Equity Project, said in her summit welcome address on Thursday. The report drew organizations together to begin to address the disparities, and a 2016 Roadmap to Equity was drafted this February as a ‘living document’ for community organizations and leaders to revise, enlarge, improve, and begin to work on actionable strategies aimed at eliminating racial disparities in Dane County by 2020.

Friday’s exceptional keynote speaker, Verna Myers, delivered a high-energy talk entitled Changing the Narrative: Interrupting Bias in Ourselves and Others. “It’s an amazing time to be alive,” she exclaimed. “The voices have come out. You can no longer deny that what is happening outside is happening inside.” She offered tips for weakening bias, including: (1) slow down, (2) stay curious, (3), remember what you’ve been primed to see, (4) question your conclusions especially where you feel most sure, (5) go looking for information that disconfirms what you believe, and (6) think of counter-examples.

She encouraged those who work in organizations to assess unwritten values and norms, and to explore the impact of bias on ‘neutral systems’ such as recruitment. She added that it’s critical to lean in and get closer to differences, which can be uncomfortable, especially in cultures where people are rewarded for being knowledgeable and right. “Don’t pretend to know what you don’t know,” she advised. [To learn more, watch Verna Myers’ TED Talk, How to Overcome Our Biases? Walk Boldly Toward Them.]

In addition to keynote speakers, the summit offered over 30 breakout sessions such as “Equity Learning Moments in the Workplace” and “Racial Justice Starts with Us: Community Group for Witnessing Whiteness“.

The break-out session, “Beyond the Numbers: Inequity and Storytelling,” was led by Kevin Mullen with students from the UW Odyssey Project, which offers a University of Wisconsin–Madison credit course in the humanities for adult students facing economic barriers to attending college. (Most students who participate in the UW-Odyssey Project are ethnic minorities.) During the session, six individual students shared their stories. The stories were personal, and as the students read them aloud, it was easy for session participants to visualize what they referenced and empathize with them. Here’s an example:

A young single mother of color expressed her desire to raise her children in a better neighborhood. She worked two full-time jobs until she had enough money to pay for an apartment security deposit and two full months’ rent. She applied and was invited to interview for an apartment that she felt was perfect for her family. She was so overjoyed and proud to have accomplished so much in order to move her children into a location that she felt was ideal. She was not able to attend the first meeting with the manager of the unit, however, so her cousin (a white woman) went in her place. The manager was impressed and wanted to meet the actual renter in person. In a state of excitement, the young mother took her children to meet with the manager and finalize the rental arrangements.

Upon opening the door to greet this young mother and her children, the manger’s face went from welcoming to disapproval. The manager asked if the person who she met earlier was really the woman’s cousin. She then went on to state that this was not the right area for “these” children and shut the door in their faces. Upon being treated this way the young woman went down her knees and hugged her children closely as they cried.

In a two-part session entitled “It’s about Transformation, Not Just A Transaction,” Sonali Balagee and Josh Todd from Portland, Oregon talked about the social and spiritual dimensions of transforming racial suffering toward racial healing and equity. They discussed the tendency to go to the social dimension first (and often exclusively) because we’re rewarded for social action. ‘More is more’ thinking and the tendency to ‘speed up’ , however, are habits that ignore the need for deep healing. Balagee and Todd led the cohort through a visualization exercise in which participants envisioned what racial healing and well-being would look like in our respective workplaces. Participants examined questions such as, What are the unspoken rules in your workplace? What do you believe about racial hierarchy? Where did these beliefs come from?

Balagee and Todd ended with an excerpt from Nayyirah Waheed’s poem, Salt:

decolonization requires acknowledging that
your needs and desires should never come at
the expense of another’s life energy. it is
being honest that you have been spoiled by
a machine that is not feeding you freedom
but feeding you the milk of pain.

Part of changing the narrative is about waking up. To learn more about the programs available for continuous learning at the YWCA of Madison, check out the YWCA website. To learn more about the summit, reach out to Kathy Mather, Molly Heisterkamp, Nai-Fen Su and Sarah Carroll.