by NHA guest blogger Grace Badik
In October, NHA staff gathered for an all staff day. Prior to this all staff gathering, four staff attended a three day workshop at the Gates Foundation on dismantling institutional racism. Those three days were greatly impactful for those who attended and the workshop would influence the direction of our organization’s equity work.
On that October day, as staff entered the community room we saw four panels of paper taped to the walls. Each paper had a line drawn horizontally down the middle and a range of years written on them: 1492-1790, 1790-1954, 1954-1973, 1973-present. After establishing agreements for the day, each staff member was given post-it notes and brief instructions—for each panel, fill the upper part of it with acts of racism committed by the US government. Fill the upper panel with pieces of legislation, laws, and policies that can be deemed as racist. We had five minutes per panel. We could use our phones and collective brain power to fill the sheets with the acts of racism perpetuated at a systemic level. It was a humbling experience.
The range of years were not random. Each set of years marks a period of further embedding white supremacy into the structure of US society. Read that sentence again. It is hard to digest. There are many ways to view history, whether it be our own, our family’s or the history of the US. But in order to undo something, we have to understand its development. Pulling a weed only works if you pull the roots as well. Furthermore, the institutions and organizations we interact with every day have been formed out of these foundations. Our institutions and organizations are products of society. And as such, our institutions and organizations perpetuate, often implicitly, racism through its policies and practices.
It is important to ground ourselves in this understanding of history. And, it is important to ground ourselves in another understanding of history that of resistance. Below the horizontal line, staff went through the same exercise with the panels. Yet, in this second go-around, we were asked to populate it with acts of resistance. For as long as there has been acts of racism, there has been resistance. Those experiencing oppression, often black people, indigenous, and people of color, have resisted and pushed back against the oppression. Seeing the lower panel filled us with hope about the future. For as long as there exists unjust laws and practices, someone somewhere is resisting it.
The exercise was challenging for many reasons. We all went through a range of emotions from despair to shock to hope and inspiration. The exercise too set us up as an organization to engage further with this notion of dismantling institutional racism. We could see ourselves on either side of the line: as a product of a racist system and as a response to it. This awareness requires reflection and action.
Our next steps on the journey of becoming an anti-racist organization are to do internal examination of our policies and practices. Are they equitable? Do they express our values? Are we unintentionally perpetuating harm? Not only are we looking back, we are looking forward by integrating an equity lens tool into our decision making. We know that the work will be challenging and lead us to ask tough questions of ourselves and partners. Yet, it is something we as an organization feel deeply about because of the harm caused by our nation, our state, and our industry.
Be on the lookout for more information about our journey to becoming an anti-racist organization.