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How can Madison move towards racial equity?
Local leaders suggest starting with a personal approach
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If you're white and live in Madison, odds are you're doing okay. You're probably educated or at least employed. You may have access to health care and own a home, and chances are you've never been incarcerated. But if you're a person of color, these measures of well-being might look very different.

In October 2013, the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families released its Race to Equity project, which showed that in 2011 black residents in Dane County were almost 5.5 times more likely to be jobless than their white neighbors. Local black residents also fared badly relative to their national counterparts: The United States unemployment rate that year for African Americans averaged a little more than twice that of whites.

The report included statistics showing higher incarceration rates for non-Hispanic blacks, who, in 2012, made up 43.5% of new prison placements. That's a startling statistic, given that blacks accounted for only 4.8% of the county population. The report also found deep disparities in other fundamental status indicators such as poverty, student achievement and juvenile and adult arrests.

These disparities -- which also persist nationally -- promise to get an airing at the White Privilege Conference, which meets March 26-29 at Monona Terrace. The aim of the national conference, according to organizers, is to examine concepts of "privilege" and "oppression" and offer "team-building strategies to work toward a more equitable world."

In advance of the conference, Isthmus asked local racial justice leaders to weigh in on the solution side of the equation with this question: "What is one thing white people can do to help win the race to equity?" A common theme that emerged among respondents is the need for people to develop personal relationships outside their normal social groups. As Everett Mitchell put it, there has to be an intention of "diversifying your intimate circle of friends."

Everett Mitchell, director of community relations, UW-Madison; pastor, Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church

First there has to be intentionality toward diversifying your intimate circle of friends. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Anyone who feels that our nation can survive half segregated and half integrated is sleeping through a revolution."

In the intersections of relationships is where the roots of racism can be uprooted and destroyed. I am talking about going beyond volunteering or becoming a Big Brother or Sister. And being intentional about developing deep relationships with the people you see around you every day. It may be as simple as learning the names, families, histories, stories of those diverse brothers and sisters. Maybe in the story you will find a commonality of human experience that transcends race and class.

Secondly, my white brothers and sisters must be willing to realize that this has not gone away. I remember when my 8-year-old daughter came home sad because a young girl in her class told her that she could not play with brown-skinned people.

If my brothers and sisters want to use their privilege for good, then be willing to address the lack of diversity in upper-management positions; be a champion for the inclusion of diverse ideas when reviewing candidates for job opportunities; demand the silencing of racial jokes on the job meant to demoralize people of color; and be willing to ensure that your children view others as human beings and play with them on the playground.

Caliph Muab-el (a.k.a. Anthony Stevens), inmate advocate; president, Breaking Barriers Mentoring Inc.

One of the many things white people can do to help win the race to equity is a self-examination. Evaluate their own biases and prejudices and challenge them one by one. For instance, if you have dinners at your home and you only invite those you are comfortable with, namely other white people, invite someone that challenges that comfort zone.

Becoming familiar with your neighbors of color will allow their voice to be heard. It will help you realize that you do not have all the answers, and that people of color are in a better position to address their own social needs. Also, support the people on the ground to help facilitate discussions around these racial issues.

Colleen Butler, racial justice and outreach director, YWCA

Acknowledge that race does still impact the lives of white people and people of color today, and reject that we are post-racial or colorblind. Pretending that race and ethnicity don't matter or that we don't notice them is a poisonous form of denial. While the intentions of colorblindness are often noble, the results can have the exact opposite impact than intended.

Centuries of policies have created today's disparities. Most white people have worked very hard for what we have. However, people of color have also worked very hard, with very different results. If we do not specifically create policy that acknowledges race, we will continue to perpetuate disparities rather than reduce them.

On an institutional level, government and organizations can use racial-equity impact assessments to start "seeing color" when policy is created in order to avoid unintended consequences and to help ensure that disparate outcomes are not perpetuated. On a personal level, individuals can participate in racial justice education and conversations to help us recognize our own subconscious biases. It is not until we can see color, and our own subconscious biases, that we can truly work in community toward equity.

Rhodessa Jones, interdisciplinary artist in residence, Arts Institute, UW-Madison; founder, Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women

It's not about placing blame but taking responsibility. It is not enough to accept one's place inside social disparities. A deeper question is what would you be willing to give up to create equity in a world gone mad?

Are the privileged really willing or able to extend acceptance and love to those less fortunate? What would that love and acceptance look like or feel like? May I recommend annual town hall meetings in Madison's various communities addressing white privilege? Could we create cultural exchanges in our diverse neighborhoods? How would these exchanges be more equal? What would an exchange like this look like in the 21st century?

As the visual artist Jenny Holzer has said: "Go to where people are sleeping and see that they are safe."

Peng Her, vice president of Promise Zone and Partnerships, Urban League of Greater Madison

Support vibrant ethnic neighborhoods. People of color live in highly fragmented neighborhoods on the fringes of the city, and that has disenfranchised them politically and socially and made it even harder for them to find jobs. There are no large-scale, permanent communities of color anywhere in the city that could provide an anchor. There is not a single aldermanic district, supervisory district, planning unit or even a census tract where any ethnic group constitutes the majority of residents, preventing significant political visibility. This has led to fewer support networks, which limits the ability of communities of color to organize.

Lisa Peyton-Caire, founder and director, the Foundation for Black Women's Wellness

One thing white allies can do to join others in eliminating racial inequities is to study and become students of history and to do so without the bias of white privilege and their own racial conditioning, but with eyes wide open to truth. An honest look at history reveals the root causes we must confront, and tells us exactly how we arrived at the present state of vast and persistent racial, social and economic inequality here in Dane County and beyond.

Understanding and confronting the root causes and our role in creating them, institutionalizing them and sustaining them over time is the necessary work the white community and all of us must do to embark on a new course, no matter how uncomfortable or unsettling this process is. In doing this, the goal is not to be overcome with guilt, shame, resentment or denial, but to be sparked into passionate action based on truth and rooted in a commitment to build a community where all can thrive.

Michael Johnson, chief executive officer, Boys & Girls Club of Dane County

I believe the power and will of independent individuals will create the motivation and change that is needed to create equity among all in our community. To help win the race to equity, our white, brown and black friends have to get to know each other better before we can tackle our community's biggest issues. I have learned that, while we are a progressive city, we are also segregated in many ways, which hurts the quality of life for all segments of our community.

When our white friends and neighbors are isolated, and not connected to people of color, a personal connection is lost. That personal connection can help fuel passion and support. They must also see the pain that many families of color face. If there was a singular answer, I will say create a connection in a slow, organic way to enrich their learning and exposure.

Rachel Krinsky, chief executive officer, YWCA

Look at the places that you have power and privilege and use them to help reach racial equity. Each person's best contribution is related to his or her personal skills, perspective and spheres of influence. Do you hire people? Do you decide who is invited to help make decisions? Do you have or spend time with children? Do you set policies? Do you have opportunities to influence others to consider equity? Can you be more inclusive in your own circles? Can you create more access or opportunity?

Some of us work best in public policy advocacy. Others are able to direct or influence equity within a particular organization. Some work best through private conversations that encourage our friends to think differently about equity. Some of us need to do more homework about the origins of disparities before we are ready to act. Keep in mind that the learning process for all of us will be lifelong and is best done in community with others. Whatever you do, can you find places to change the story about race and the outcomes, even in your own mind?

Eddie Moore Jr., founder and program director for the White Privilege Conference

Three suggestions: love, learn, act.

Love: When, in the pursuit of peace, equity and justice, you're being hated and attacked, the best way to respond is with love!

Learn: Put yourself in learning spaces where you will be challenged, informed and energized by knowledge related to issues of peace, equity, justice and community.

Act: The best friend that hate has is silence. Never let yourself sit idly in the midst of prejudice, bigotry or oppression!

Karen Menendez Coller, executive director, Centro Hispano of Dane County

I think it is extremely important to acknowledge the depth of the issues brought to light in the Race to Equity Report. The goal should not be to come up with a quick solution to a problem that is so deep and complicated. If we are to make a true impact on the state of affairs, finding a solution needs to be a process grounded in the work community leaders and experts tackling inequities have already begun and continue to do day in and day out. It is these leaders and experts who know the issues in our communities the best.

If I were to choose one thing others can do to help advance a solution to inequities, it would be to offer support and funding so that we may move forward in making a difference. Stand by us as leaders, publicly support the work of our agencies, promote our work to others in the community, but allow us to take the lead on what needs to be done so that as a community we may truly make a difference.

Patty Loew, professor, UW-Madison Department of Life Science Communication; member, Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe

When people live, learn and work together -- when they interact on a personal basis -- they discover commonality. That's when the ordinary becomes an extraordinary agent of change.

Understanding and commitment to racial equity begins with personal experience. As a child in Milwaukee, whose school experienced forced integration as a result of federal court-ordered busing, I remember the anger and angst it provoked in many of our parents, policymakers and school administrators. However, for students, within a few short months, the situation had become, well...ordinary. We became lab partners in science classes, teammates in sports and fellow actors in school musicals. Personal relationships developed, and friendships emerged. In general, the school's racial climate became more equitable.

In the late 1980s, the ugly racism I witnessed on boat landings during the Ojibwe spear-fishing conflict was perplexing. How could individuals from communities who lived in such close proximity to reservations know so little about their neighbors? Decades later, many non-Natives now work together at Indian casinos and on environmental initiatives. The coalition seeking to block the massive open-pit taconite mine in the Bad River watershed, for example, is composed of both Native and non-Native community members.

Oscar Mireles, executive director, Omega School

The question "what can white people do" to assist with vexing issues of racism and equity in society is problematic.This framework is "privileged" in itself and reinforces the "race" issue.Instead we should question how we, as individuals and community members, can commit to make changes in our lives that foster social and systemic change that lead to equitable outcomes for Latinos,African Americans and all other groups that make up our diverse community. Every person should have an equal chance to prosper regardless of race, ethnicity or gender.

We can also support minority-owned businesses by patronizing their establishments, hiring new employees from diverse backgrounds, and volunteering with organizations like Omega School, Centro Hispano and the Urban League to help them grow and prosper. In order to address some of the deep-seated problems we are facing in our community, we need to establish trust-based relationships with members of racial and ethnic groups other than our own. This trust is critical to be able to answer the increasingly complex questions of racism and equity, and face the difficult challenges that lie ahead in our community.

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