Act-ing for Change
A Personal Reckoning, An Anti-racist Youth Program, A Grassroots Call to Action
By Melanie Forstrom
I can track my anti-racist inaction back to July 13th, 2013, the date George Zimmerman was found not guilty of all charges. Trayvon Martin could have been many of the young men with whom I had worked the previous years in my career working with homeless youth in DC and public schools in NYC. I was in a campground on the Appalachian Trail with my wife when we learned of the acquittal. We felt disgust, rage at the utter absence of justice, accountability.
These feelings compounded as Zimmerman auctioned and ultimately sold the gun with which he killed Martin for $139K (2016) and sued Trayvon Martin’s family (2019). My disaffected, hardened heart, combined with the white privilege of not having to deal with all this hard stuff, retreated. Oh sure, like any good white liberal, I read a few books, attended the Women’s March, regurgitated what I had read with friends, but I didn’t quite let myself feel it. As a white person, I had that option.
Then May 25th, 2020. My disaffected self, held captive in a pandemic and bearing witness to an agonizing nine-minute murder by knee, could no longer reject feeling and action. That same body part considered so dangerous and controversial when used by Black people and allies to protest racial inequities, had been used by a white police officer as a murder weapon. The call of “white people, do something” was loud and clear. I let myself feel the injustice, not just speak about it in the academic, disillusioned, wokest-white-person tone too many white liberals espouse. I surprised myself by crying in consecutive staff meetings, one of which I was leading. (Yes, white women tears can be problematic, especially when used to eschew accountability or silence Black voices, but please keep reading).
By Fall 2020, car protests, professional development, and reading and discussion groups felt insufficient. I sought grassroots action and discussion, to work more directly with youth. As I spoke with colleagues and scanned the horizon it became clear that there wasn’t a roadmap for running a youth anti-racism program in our context of informal education through 4-H youth development. So I joined forces with the inimitable Malinda Ware, a colleague and statewide DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) facilitator. We partnered with key community and Cornell campus partners such as the David M. Einhorn Center for Community Engagement and PRYDE, and we set forth to facilitate and create a guide for informal youth anti-racism programming.
As I spoke with colleagues and scanned the horizon it became clear that there wasn’t a roadmap for running a youth anti-racism program in our context of informal education through 4-H youth development.
In January 2021, after a pilot program and a few name changes, Act for Change emerged. We won a Cornell Cooperative Extension Innovation grant. We partnered with schools to recruit, appealed to our 4-Hers to join. We learned together and grappled with stereotypes, cultural appropriation, structural inequities. We worked across three cohorts to graduate 25 youth from our nascent program. The last cohort was facilitated by Cornell students, selected through the Einhorn Center.
We spoke about race and racial inequities across racial identity groups, a formula that happens far too infrequently. The program evaluations by participating youth tell us we are on the right track: 19 of 20 respondents told us they acquired knowledge, the program was well-facilitated, and they learned tools for action (one respondent had a few “not sure” responses regarding knowledge gains).
The impact has indeed had a ripple effect, surprising me in its immediacy and reach. (I’m looking at you, Oluchi, Brishti, Taylor, Iris.) They not only participated in our program; they used it as as springboard to launch their own programs, sometimes against all odds in white conservative communities. Oluchi is now participating in a national True Leaders in Equity program and exploring concepts of belonging.
This blog post isn’t an excuse for my years of inaction nor a pat on the back for my efforts in the Act for Change program. It’s a reckoning with the time and efforts lost by throwing up my hands and bemoaning that the system was too stacked against justice and accountability, that nothing would ever change. It’s a call to action to you, particularly white people, to care more, feel more, and do more. It’s a mournful consideration of whether more collective action, sooner, could have prevented the later deaths of Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McClain, more than we can possibly fully know or name.
The current racial reckoning has finally made some changes at the structural level. Within the justice system, George Floyd and Ahmed Arbery’s murderers are being held accountable. At a more local level, Cornell now recognizes Juneteenth as a holiday and has been organizing structural change through the Antiracism Initiative. Cornell Cooperative Extension has declared its goal of becoming an anti-racist organization within five years, and NYS 4-H continues its work around safer spaces. But history informs us that continued structural change requires continued grassroots efforts.
Here and now, January 2022, a more detailed call to action to those who haven’t been doing, feeling, or act-ing enough for change. How will you take personal responsibility for making change? How will you join that with collective action? Will you run an Act for Change cohort with youth in your community this winter/spring? If you’re considering, join our FREE facilitator launch series getting kicked off on Tuesdays at 3pm starting Feb 15th to connect with rad people doing the work state and nationwide. If not this program, how will you bridge the gaps of the different realities created and sustained by those in power?
Finally, I had a “radical gratitude spell” cast on me by a colleague doing similar work out of the Ohio State University. I share this spell with you in the hopes it bolsters your efforts, shakes you out of inaction, and shows the gratitude I feel for those engaged in this work.
If you know a teen who is interested in participating in an Act for Change cohort, please have them apply.
Melanie Forstrom works at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ulster County as the 4-H Program Leader. She works with an amazing 4-H team and volunteers who facilitate a dizzying array of educational programs, from STEAM mentoring to livestock auctions. Or perhaps you want to make a paper hedgehog photo holder? We got you.
Melanie is happiest when working with youth, in diverse company, speaking different languages, learning something new, and/or immersed in nature (preferably all five). She never envisioned being intimate with Zoom or knowing how to pronounce R0, but here we are.