Healing the racial divide is “the most important thing any of us can be involved in,” said former Mississippi governor, William Winter, at the start of a Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) Summit in December. A multi-sector group of 16 Richmond leaders took part in the summit held in Carlsbad, California, at the invitation of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The delegation convened by Initiatives of Change, included representatives of Richmond City Council, the city’s Office of Community Wealth Building, the Police Department, Bon Secours Health Systems, Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, the American Civil War Museum, Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens, the University of Richmond, and the Richmond Hill retreat center.
“In Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation the power of love is leveraged to transcend the power of fear,” said the visionary leader of this initiative, Dr. Gail Christopher, senior advisor and vice president at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The Richmonders joined 580 participants from advocacy groups, faith-based organizations and local governments, as well as from academia, philanthropy, business and the arts. All are working on visions and strategies to develop new historical narratives, processes for racial healing and steps to building healthy, equitable communities. Groups came from Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Buffalo, Dallas, Washington, DC, as well as regions of Mississippi, New Mexico and Michigan.
“Our beliefs are shaped by the stories we hear,” said Gail Christopher on the first morning. “Today is about stories…When we form a circle we suspend the hierarchy…we are not here to judge but to create a safe and sacred space.” Essential to the healing process is overcoming false narratives that define us. Experienced practitioners facilitated healing circles where participants shared personal stories about times when they challenged and perhaps changed a false narrative about themselves or their identity group. Such healing sessions are powerful experiences that one practitioner describes as a process of slowing down, of showing up as your authentic self, and of deep listening and being listened to without judgement.
Day two focused on healing the wounds of our society that result from our belief in a racial hierarchy. David Williams from Harvard’s School of Public Health shared data showing the devastating impact of racism on health outcomes for people of color. In a presentation entitled “the house that racism built” he called residential segregation America’s “most successful political ideology.” It impacts schools, employment, transportation, public safety – all of which impact health. “It is a truly rigged system based on skin color.” In a city like Richmond, Virginia, there is a 20-year difference in life expectancy between some neighborhoods. Studies show that ending residential segregation would result in the elimination of disparities in educational achievement, employment, and health, and would reduce by two-thirds the number of births by single mothers.
The final day began with a presentation by Manuel Pastor who directs the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at the University of Southern California. By the end of the decade minorities will be a majority of the workforce, but Pastor says “racial anxiety is strongest in regions where demographic change is not happening,” e.g. the Rust Belt. There is also a growing social distance. Racial segregation has decreased in urban areas but income segregation is increasing. Cities are becoming whiter, while suburbs are more diverse but they don’t have the necessary social service infrastructure. Another factor is the racial generation gap. The median age for Latinos is 27 compared with 56 for whites. “Whites don’t see themselves in this younger generation,” says Pastor.
Pastor also notes that regions that work toward equity have stronger and more resilient growth for everyone. “For example, San Antonio introduced a sales tax to support pre-K education for disadvantaged kids. The leaders of the Chamber of Commerce supported it because they saw it as an investment in the future.”
City and regional teams met to explore how the TRHT principles might be applied in their communities. These guiding principles include a commitment to an accurate recounting of history, which has been told largely by dominant groups. An atmosphere of forgiveness must be cultivated where people of all backgrounds are encouraged to tell their stories without fear of recrimination. True healing requires the building of trust. We need a fully inclusive process that reaches out to non-traditional allies, and the transformation should reflect reparative or restorative justice and policies that foster systemic change. “It is a vision, but more a vision it is an imperative,” said Dr. Christopher, noting that Kellogg and 130 partner organizations committed to a long-term national process have a combined reach of more than 200 million people.
Richmond has already taken important steps to acknowledge its racial history and to engage a wide range of citizens in honest dialogue. A network of individuals and institutions is rooted in relationships of trust. The Richmond delegates to the summit believe the time is ripe for another major step forward that would enable the community to overcome persistent structural inequities. In the coming weeks they will be consulting with key stakeholders to develop a plan of action.