03 Dec Reflections from “Facing Race”
Tina Ramirez Moon, HCF Program Officer, recently attended the Facing Race conference in Detroit, MI. She writes about her experience and how a lot of what she learned could be incorporated in the racial equity work HCF aims to do as well as in her own life.
In the time leading up to a holiday, I’m always struck by how often I hear in the media about awkward or difficult conversations with family members or friends with different views, particularly on politics and social issues. People often gravitate to others with similar vantage points and distance themselves from others – or, they dive headfirst into a dinner conversation-turned-tennis-match with bystanders either tiptoeing around them or serving as referees. The topic of race is no different. It’s a complicated, highly personal issue, where someone’s lived experience and identity plays a pivotal role in how they interpret and understand how race is a factor in everyday life on multiple levels – internalized, interpersonal, and systemic.
This past month I had the incredibly humbling and transformative opportunity to participate in the Facing Race conference in Detroit, MI, presented by Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation. I joined a multi-racial, intergenerational gathering of about 3,000 educators, community organizers, art and media activists and other leaders who work in a variety of issues, all of which intersect with race – housing, workforce development, health and mental health, criminal justice, environmental justice, and much, much more.
As you might know, I’m just shy of six months into my role at the Healthy Communities Foundation, and I’m learning my way around philanthropy. I’ve spent more than a decade working in community-based education in a handful of Chicago communities, all of which experience some form of hyper-segregation, disinvestment in housing and schools, limited transit and job opportunities, and the compounding effect of these issues on health and mental health. I say this to show that I have some context for how racial equity and racial justice play a role in our everyday lives, and I recognize why we at HCF choose to name race explicitly in our grant making. That doesn’t mean that I have all the answers – far from it. And that is one thing I really value about how we at HCF approach this work. We have some knowledge and experience of why race matters in health, but we know we can’t do it alone. That’s why we seek to educate ourselves and why we are open to a process that welcomes all voices to the table.
I attended the conference for two main reasons: First, I wanted to learn about efforts that address how interpersonal and structural racism influence health – that is, how policies and decisions influence where people live and how they live. In Chicago, we know there is a 16-year gap in life expectancy between downtown and city’s west side. This isn’t by accident; it is by design. So how are other cities and partnerships tackling issues of health inequities? I participated in a compelling workshop co-led by the director of MATCH – Mobilizing Action Toward Community Health at the University of Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute and Oakland-based Human Impact Partners, who discussed the importance of bridging research and community organizing to advance a vision for supporting health for all. Workshop participants also shared examples of how they do this in their own communities. For example, how community organizers in New Mexico work with youth to conduct community health needs assessments, then produce videos and zines that help communities understand issues on their own terms. The creative and highly personalized content engages them in a way that a formal report might not. Of course there’s value in quantitative data, but we should also make room for relationships and personal stories that help us understand it on a deeper level.
Another reason why I attended was to find ways to connect and reflect with peer foundations on how our policies and practices reflect a racial justice framework. As part of our new strategic plan, HCF has named a commitment to racial and ethnic equity; we recognize that racism and bias play a role in how an individual or a whole community can access affordable, quality healthcare, as well as other aspects of daily life that influence health, such as education, housing, employment, and transportation. In a session led by Race Forward, grant makers and grant seekers asked each other: have we done the due diligence we need to seek community input into grant making practices? Have we minimized the barriers and bureaucracies of the grant application process, so organizations of all shapes and sizes could easily apply? The stark reality is that very few philanthropic dollars flow to organizations that are led by and/or work for communities of color – less than 10 percent. I’m proud to note that many practices and policies that we embrace are on the right track, such as incorporating feedback into our grant application process, and awarding general operating dollars which give organizations greater flexibility and agency on how to use them. We also recognize that there’s always more we can do to ensure we are not perpetuating inequities within or through our grant making.
There’s so much I could share about this experience and why I think it’s important to the work we do at HCF. A key take-away for me is that addressing racial equities isn’t a one-time thing. It’s not something you can “train away.” It’s an ongoing process that requires a willingness to ask uncomfortable questions. We must shine a light on all the ways we communicate, how we make assumptions, and how we reinforce power dynamics that make it easy for some to be heard and others dismissed. Below are just a few things that I plan to incorporate into practice and approach in my role at HCF as well as in my own everyday life:
- What are the relatively simple interactions we’d like to see in our everyday that are the building blocks for larger change? Credit is due to adrienne marie brown, a Detroit-based writer and activist who challenges us to look at the patterns of our daily interactions with each other and whether that reflects our efforts towards change at a larger scale. There’s a relationship between the piece and the whole. If we’re working towards change on a large scale, we must look at how we’re doing that on a small scale. If it’s not amazing behind the scenes, as adrienne puts it, then we have more work to do.
- We focus so much on the pendulum swinging back and forth, the wins and the losses. This is why it is so hard to talk about race and racism – and why the media focuses so much on the negative, the drama, the stereotypes, the shorthand. Instead, the late Grace Lee Boggs challenges us to a different image: not of the back-and-forth, but of rotating and evolving; where “wins” and “losses” are all lessons that helps us elevate our understanding and evolve our collective humanity. Our challenge is to create a world and a country that does not yet exist.
- We can’t opt out of the conversation, no matter how uncomfortable it is. This means in our everyday conversations and in how we do our work. There’s emotional labor involved, whether we are aware of it or not, and we can’t always place the burden of one person or one community to be responsible for educating others. We’ll only make actual progress when we’re all willing to do the work.
- Communities are incredibly resilient, looking inward for their own strength. I’ll close with a call-and-response that opened the conference, as the intent and the energy of 3,000 voices is a reminder of just how powerful a community can be:
We are the children of the ones who did not die
We are the children of the people who can fly
We are the children of the ones who persevere
We are fearless, we are strong, we are ready to carry on.
We at the Healthy Communities Foundation will continue to seek ways to share what we learn from others involved in racial equity work, and we plan to build on these conversations and learnings in useful, actionable ways. We know this work takes practice, and it will continue to evolve and change.
Tina Ramirez Moon, Program Officer at HCF