#BeLove: Is equity the end goal?

Chances are, if you’ve attended an Undoing Racism® workshop anywhere in the US (and many countries abroad), you’ve been influenced by the work of Ron Chisom and Dr. Jim Dunn. While many diversity programs focus on community building via conflict resolution, cultural competence, and sensitivity trainings, the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (People’s Institute) centers on studying the dominant culture — working with individuals and groups to understand power — how it is created and embedded in our society. We sat down with Ron Chisom, co-founder and organizer and Diana Dunn, core trainer and organizer, to talk about their perspective on race and power, but learned that their ultimate impact is about restoring humanity. In the late 70s, they received a lot of criticism as two Black men choosing to work with White people about anti-racism and anti-bias. Chisom came to the work from an organizing perspective and Dunn from both an organizing perspective and an academic one. Both men agreed that if you want to work on structural racism, you have to work with White people because White people ran the institutions that perpetuate racism.

Power Analysis from Undoing Racism®

People’s Institute’s recent work with Maternal and Child Health Coalition (CityMatCH) is an excellent example of how organizing individuals leads to and maintains institutional change. After participation in Undoing Racism® workshops with their national CityMatCH community, the leadership team at a New Orleans-based Maternal and Child Health department was inspired to ask probing questions around local disparities in care and treatment. In 2013, they began working directly with People’s Institute to identify the underlying structural, racial issues that may undermine care for Black and low-income people in their community. As the team explored why low-income Blacks bear the burden of certain diseases, they remained focused on the personal understanding of poverty, power and racism and exploring how personal understanding intersected with institutional supports. What did that entail?

  1. Developing a common definition of institutional and structural racism
  2. Developing a common analysis for racial discrepancies, particularly as it relates to HIV treatment
  3. Understanding personal connection to the outcomes of those institutions
  4. Understanding why people are poor and the role of institutions in exacerbating poverty
  5. Understanding historical context of the system that is maintained today
  6. Understanding how everyone is negatively impacted by racism through loss of humanity
  7. Building leadership in target communities
  8. Building a multiracial community at the institution.

What the leadership team did was just as important as which team members did the work. People’s Institute asserts that institutional change is maintained by individual people, so while they work with the senior leader, who has the capacity to guide the change, they also train every team member to recognize their role in maintaining change. While the leadership team assessed barriers to care, the entire range of clinical and administrative staff participated in Undoing Racism® workshops to identify their roles as liberated gatekeepers. Some of the tangible changes to their operations: adjusting hiring practices, contracts, internal priorities, data analysis, and annual reporting on disparities. With a shared understanding of racism and poverty, all staff and management teams were equipped to eliminate jargon when talking and eventually using more humanistic language in reference to their patients.

When we look at the steps that the this team took to address structural bias, we tend to think that their work was linear — or worse — finite. Chisom is fond of saying that anti-racism isn’t a terminal degree, not even for people of color. During their workshops, Chisom notices how most Black and Latinx participants nod in agreement in the early exercises. They often find their experiences and stories being validated in discourse about power and bias. When People’s Institute workshops are primarily within Black and Latino communities, they dive deeper into internalized oppression to challenge how people of color maintain systems of power and bias. Chisom recalls the early days of the People’s Institute, when he and Dunn had the fortune to be challenged as two Black men with sexist or capitalist perspectives. That confrontation helped them refine their understanding and broaden their approach to a life of anti-oppression and anti-bias perspectives. “Skills are important, but if you don’t understand racism, you can have skills and be a skillful racist.” The most important outcome for Chisom? When presenters and participants can acknowledge their own humanity and the loss of humanity each of us faces, regardless of our vantage point in racist institutions.

Diana Dunn, Dr. Dunn’s window, was one of the early students of People’s Institute and, as a White woman, she anticipates the volatile responses of progressive White participants in their workshops. Undoing Racism® participants go through the five stages of grief about the history of racial superiority: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. When everything that you thought you believed in as a progressive White person is called into question, it can be overwhelming. Ms. Dunn recalls a participant who physically beat the walls during the workshop because he was so angry at the history of white racial superiority. She says “People who fight us hard in the workshop, sometimes, become our best supporters. If you hear this information that’s contrary to everything you’ve ever learned, it’s gonna take you a while to react. You have to look at the world differently first, absorb it, and then change your perspective. You can’t do that in just an instant.”

And that’s the ultimate impact of the People’s Institute. Making space for all of us to be seen as human and to struggle with the systems that we’ve inherited, before we can dismantle them and build humanistic ones in their place.

CityMatCH Blueprint for Undoing Racism

#BeLove profiles organizations committed to ending structural racism and bias. Our goal is to tell the stories of change in our communities that result from the capacity-building work at individual and institutional levels. In the words of Assata Shakur, “ We need to be weapons of mass construction, weapons of mass love. It’s not enough to change the system, we need to change ourselves.”