Courageous Conversations: Should America Pay
I want to thank Denise Stripes for attending our last Courageous Conversations and capturing the essences of what took place. The following is her perspective of what transpired.
Anyone who has read Toni Morrison’s Beloved has somewhat of an idea concerning the details of the Middle Passage and slavery but, if one has not experienced it, that idea is vague at best. Those whose ancestors experienced these things may have a better idea, though even their accounts are second-hand. Though some have done research that indicates the possibility that trauma from slavery has been passed on to the descendants of slaves, the argument, though cogent, is not conclusive. If, as the research suggests, the trauma has indeed been passed on, the question of whether America should pay reparations for slavery takes on a new layer of understanding.
On 27 July, 2019, Wilburn and Associates hosted an opportunity for discussion on this subject. The discussion began with a presentation on the realities of slavery, followed by a panel discussion, and questions from the audience. The discussion was held in the Carl Maxey Center, and attended by over 40 people of diverse ethnicities. While the conversation was supposed to address whether or not America should pay reparations, the panel and the audience all agreed that we should. The lack of an opposing view left some questions unasked and unanswered, but the discussion was still lively, given that even those who agree that reparations should be paid have different ideas concerning how and to whom the restorations should be paid.
The most prevalent question during the evening centered on who African Americans are. The opening presentation described the origins of the slaves who came from Africa, pointing out that they went from “Kings to Captives.” As Dr. Roberta Wilburn pointed out, “People were taken out of Africa and made into slaves.” Wilburn showcased the work of Dr. Joy DuGruy who, in her book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, gives a cogent argument for the idea that trauma resulting from slavery is passed from generation to generation. Wilburn also referenced Darrick Hamilton of Ohio State University, who posits that three areas of reparation need to be addressed: Acknowledgement, Restitution, and Reconciliation. While acknowledgement has begun in some circles, the panel and the attendants agreed that more must be done in this area. Restitution proves to be a logistical problem, though all agreed that it is necessary. As panel member Kiantha Duncan asserted, “America does not dismiss or excuse any other debt”; thus, this debt should not be excused either. Reconciliation seems to hinge on acknowledgement and restitution, but the problem remains: who decides what is enough, and how it should be done?
None of these things can happen without communication, but communication is impossible until African Americans know who they are. This question posits a real and important conflict; as an audience member named Yashair Jones, pointed out, young African Americans don’t know who they are. Jones asserts that they know who they’re supposed to be; “…being a rapper, gangster, womanizer, drug abuser—that’s what I see when I look in the mirror—who I’m supposed to be,” and that “becomes the norm.” African American youth cannot relate to religion, because in church they see characters—a white Jesus, for example. Religion and culture offer no answers; thus, as Jones asserted, “we don’t know who we are [or] our value.” This conflict permeates all of African American culture, affecting education, housing, banking systems, and criminal justice, among many other issues. Panel member James Wilburn illustrated this problem by pointing out what he called “the difference between ‘Billy’ and ‘Jamal’.” Children are taught from a Euro-centric perspective, which addresses Billy’s culture, but not Jamal’s. This disparity seeps into all aspects of life, leaving African American youth wondering who they are.
The question of “who we are” is only part of the problem, however. Among the panel members, while all agreed reparations should happen, the how and to whom became matters of contention. Several possible solutions were offered; for example, panel member Rosie Thurman suggested that those who made the money off the slave trade (e.g. tobacco companies, textile industries, etc.) should be taxed. Panel member Curtis Hampton, while holding that “this is not a one-prong issue,” and thus, not easy to answer, suggested that African American communities, not individuals, should receive the reparations, putting them into programs to help “make opportunities and strengthen families.” Hampton added that “People of color need to see people that look like them as teachers, police, and leaders.” Scott Ward, a history teacher at Ferris High School, suggested that reparations should involve a truth-seeking process, to include the correct telling of history and the removal of icons of the slave holders (which, in the broader conversation, will raise the question of free speech). Audience members also had suggestions; for example, Robert Lloyd suggested that the Gross National Product should be divided, and thirteen percent of that spent to advantage the Black population.
Reconciliation will be a long road. Everyone agreed that, until African Americans can come together, this will not happen. Two questions from the audience touched on this issue: “Why don’t Black people in Spokane speak to each other?” and “Was American slavery related to the Bible?” Audience member Bayaah Jones related these two questions, saying that the Bible has been misused to justify slavery, but it actually explains it. However, Jones asserts, we don’t read it in context; thus, we miss the truth. Jones added that people can be brought together by the truth. Kiantha Duncan pointed out that African Americans are divided because “we have to compete for small bits of meat—we’re trying to survive.” Those who must compete to survive will find it difficult, if not impossible, to stand together. As Bayaah Jones pointed out, “Those who get reparations are nations of people; we [that is, African Americans] do not identify as a nation.” Thus, reconciliation must begin within the African American community, and then spread to the diverse community.
In the evening’s final remarks, James Wilburn pointed out that the challenges are there; we need to know them and be prepared. Wilburn also said, “We need to teach our kids that they don’t come from slavery; they come from kings, mathematicians, philosophers, and leaders.” Wilburn’s statement echoed Kiantha Duncan’s, who suggested that practical solutions begin at home with ethnic studies—“teach your children.” Lastly, several of the panel members pointed out that one of the biggest tools available to bring about the needed changes is the vote, which includes education. Show up for these discussions, learn who represents you, and vote them in.
This month we have a guest blog by Denise Stripes. She shares her thoughts on the second Courageous Conversation that Wilburn & Associates held at the West Central Community Center. I am sure you will enjoy reading what she gathered from the event.
The term mass incarceration evokes images of crowds gathered behind bars, but the crowds are faceless, nameless, and dehumanized. When we speak of mass incarceration in the state or federal prison systems, the crowds are not only dehumanized, but they also bear the burden of being classified as criminals. The United States, which holds five percent of the world’s population, imprisons twenty-five percent of the world’s incarcerated population, and more than sixty percent of those imprisoned in the U.S. are people of color. For those of us outside the system, it is effortless to recline in our easy chairs, when hearing these words in the news or on social media, and dismiss the ramifications to those incarcerated by rationalizing that they are criminals, and they deserve what they get. Our consideration stops there, and we go on with our lives. Our complacency, however, carries the risk of making us unwittingly complicit in the injustices that affect the lives of those incarcerated, their families, and ultimately, our community as a whole. For this reason, events such as the conversation hosted on May 4 by Wilburn and Associates, “An Evening of Courageous Conversations: The School to Prison Pipeline and Mass Incarceration,” are not only important, but vital to our communities.
This conversation consisted of a presentation by James Wilburn, followed by a panel discussion with eight panel members, all of whom have had some form of experience with the prison system. The event took place at West Central Community Center in Spokane, Washington, and the congenial air of the room, despite the seriousness of the issue, served to unite all present, even among those who disagree on issues. And these issues are important: how are young people getting pushed towards the prison system, even in school? What rights should incarcerated people have? What actually happens to people in the system, and how does it affect their families? Wilburn, in his presentation, gave us some facts, and some context. He defines the School to Prison Pipeline as “a nationwide system of policies that pushes students out of school and into criminal activity.” The push begins when students are disproportionately suspended and expelled due to factors such as race, ethnicity, and any kind of disability. For example, Wilburn reported that thirty-one percent of African-American students experience school-related arrests, and those who are suspended or expelled are three times more likely to encounter the criminal justice system within a year. Nationwide, approximately twice as many black students are expelled than white students.
Wilburn then related some factors that contribute to the disparities among the students: teachers who do not use culturally sensitive response practices, developing instead an ineffective, one-size-fits-all response; zero tolerance policies for discipline; lack of alternatives for out-of-school suspensions; lack of evidence practices in dealing with discipline problems; and implicit biases/stereotypes as well as societal fears of African-American males. Wilburn explains the cultural differences between the casual feel of Spokane and those who come from segregated schools, and have had no preparation for dealing with other cultures. The language, dress, and mannerisms all differ from what such students have experienced, which leads to a feeling of dissociation. These factors contribute to a system that sets students up to fail. Wilburn quotes Fredrick Douglass, who said, “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Douglass’s words implore us to deal with the above-stated factors, as well as the system wherein students are policed rather than supported, in order to help more young people to lead free, productive lives, rather than falling into the abyss of mass incarceration.
When Wilburn finished his presentation, the panel guests assembled, and suddenly, the faceless crowds we picture when we hear about mass incarceration became real people: Jermal Joe and his wife, Kym Joe, Jason Kiss, Virla Spencer, Duaa Rahemaah Williams, La Tasha Canto, Megan Pirie, and Portia Linear. It’s difficult to retain an air of complacency when speaking face-to-face with these folks. Some, such as Jason, Megan, Virla, and Jermal, have been incarcerated, while others, Kym, La Tasha, and Portia have family members who are or have been incarcerated. Several of the panelists now serve as advocates for prisoners’ rights.
When asked what rights prisoners should maintain while incarcerated, practical issues such as the right to vote, while important to the panel, took a back seat to one overarching issue. Linear emphatically stated that those incarcerated should retain the right to their humanity. Linear stressed that prisoners are identified as numbers rather than as people, and are treated as less than human. Coming out of prison, these folks are still defined by others according to their crimes, rather than as human beings. As Kym Joe puts it, “That felony be fresh.” All of the panel members stressed that the system is not working like those of us on the outside think it is, although, in all honesty, those of us on the outside rarely think about how the system works for those on the inside, which is part of the problem.
Wilburn asked the panel what rights should be restored when prisoners are released, and the panel first, and most importantly, emphasized the right to live. People who are defined by a past incarceration can face a daunting task in just finding a place to live, getting a job, and parenting their children. The system puts ridiculous obligations in their path, such as fees—sometimes thousands of dollars—that they must pay, classes they must take and pay for, because these classes are not offered in the system, drug treatment that must fit exacting criteria, and other unnecessary red-tape obligations that bog transitioning inmates down, and even lead to re-incarceration. Canto stresses that this re-incarceration is not because of new crime; rather it is because people violate the impossible barriers placed before them. As an example, Pirie is a drug counselor trainee, and is willing to help by teaching some of the classes required, but the Department of Corrections (DOC) will not let her teach because of her past incarceration.
One of the most chilling assertions from the panel is that the system causes recidivism not because of mere oversight, but because the state makes money for incarcerating people. Kiss tells us that prisons get paid by bed-space, and so their primary goal is to keep the beds filled. Linear adds that children of previously incarcerated parents are six times more likely to be incarcerated, and that the way officials (law enforcement officials, school officials, etc.) speak to them discourages them from even trying. Linear relates that her nephew was told that “he will never get into college.” Canto asserts that the system is designed to protect white people, and Linear adds that the policies are designed specifically to oppress people of color and families of those incarcerated. Linear attends monthly meetings where these topics are discussed, but she relates that the attendants don’t take the problems seriously.
An overarching question that was asked, but not overtly answered, concerns whether punishment works. In a system where prison is for profit, and where the incarcerated become numbers rather than people, one must wonder. And, if the punishment system doesn’t work, the question of solving the issue looms as well, because those who are dehumanized by the system have no outlet for change, and state officials, like Governor Jay Inslee, don’t see the need for a safe space for these folks to air their concerns. Canto related that those in the system are reluctant to approach the offices of those who incarcerate them, because that makes their lives more dangerous than they already are. Spencer spoke of a woman who, when violated by a corrections officer, filed a complaint, but the DOC, who feels no need to justify their actions, retaliated by sending her back to prison.
The audience, during the Q & A, offered suggestions for improvement, but it seems that the roadblocks in place negate any of the possibilities. For example, one audience member suggested more panels such as this one, but Canto responded that the state will not sponsor panels with “lived experience” beyond the regional level, and that national conferences, which hold more influence, are limited to people who either have no experience, or who are part of the system. So, what can be done? While concrete answers were lacking, one member of the audience, Nicholas Sironka, suggested that the answer is “not to talk about how [the incarcerated] are there, but to talk about not having others join them.” Nicholas suggested think tanks, strategizing, and touching these individuals, and that “ripples will touch others.” Nicholas added, “Don’t scream, cry—find a solution…and those in prison, let them hear you are doing something.”
At the end of the discussion, I had the opportunity to talk with Jermal Joe, who has been in prison for twenty-two years, since age seventeen, and who is transitioning out, and is partially incarcerated. I asked Jermal, if he could say anything to a world that would listen, what would he say? Jermal answered simply, “Second chances are very important.” His answer is poignant, and is a view that many people share. It touches on the complacency of those of us on the outside, who share this view, but don’t bother to know the real situation for people who are lost in the system. As Dr. Roberta Wilburn states, “We cannot let one mistake—or several mistakes—be the reason that we write people off.” It is time to get out of our easy chairs and attend these courageous conversations, because our voices, when combined with those who have lived experience, can help to make a difference.
For as long as I can remember, I have embraced my African roots. I’m not really sure where this came from. I was raised by my dad and he wasn’t accepting of his African ancestry or heritage. It was even a point of contention when I was in college and I wanted to wear my hair in an Afro. I was very much caught up with the message of James Brown’s song “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” I wanted to show my pride by wearing my hair natural and my dad was anything but pleased. He felt I was taking a step backward, and I think he was concerned about how I would be perceived in my prestigious, predominately white college.
All of my life my dad always shared with me about what it meant to be a Black person in American society and the realities of discrimination and marginalization. However, he never demonstrated a connection with African culture. He was even rejecting of an African man that my sister was dating and made her give back gifts of African clothing. He never stated why he was so against our brothers and sisters from Africa but he made it very clear that he didn’t want to have anything to do with them and he wanted my sister and I to feel the same way. I suspect that his rejection of African culture was because he was like some Black people today who are still ignorant of their culture. They believe that our only connection with Africa is slavery and that is a part of our history they would like to forget. Many African Americans were never taught in school that slavery was only one episode in our history and that our African Ancestors were great kings, queens, mathematicians, and scholars.
As I am often teaching about cultural competency, a frequent question that arises is what should we call people of African descent in America? Black or African American. I always encourage my students and workshop participants to ask people what they want to be called regardless of their race or ethnicity. I have heard Black people say, I’m not African American. I have no connection to Africa, I’m from Mississippi. Some vehemently deny they have anything to do with Africa. They know little or nothing about the continent, nor do they want to learn about it. It is very sad but it is directly related to the failing of our educational system that has sanitized history to make it more palatable to the majority population. There is an African proverb that states: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” This has been why so much of African/African American history and culture has been left out of our textbooks and the academic curriculum taught in our public schools/colleges. This makes it very difficult for African American people to know who they are, embrace their culture, and to be proud of their heritage.
Several years ago, I came across a poem by Wayne Visser, I Am African, in a card and it immediately resonated with me. The beginning of the poem goes as follows:
I am African
Not because I was born in Africa
But because Africa was born in me
I am African
Not because my skin is black
But because my mind is empowered by Africa
I am African
Not because I live in Africa
But because my soul is at home in Africa….
I would later adapt that poem and make it my own because it strongly reflected my sentiments toward Africa. It is who I am and it resonated with me even more after the first time I had an opportunity to visit the Motherland of Africa.
All connections to our families of origin were lost when our African ancestors were stolen from their homeland, brought to this country, and taken from their parents. It made it impossible for us to really know who we are. Many of the other cultural groups do not have the same level of disconnection to their ancestry that African American people do. This significantly contributes to the lack of family cohesion that is so prevalent in the African American community today. We have to do a better job of educating everyone about African American history and culture but especially our children.
Over the holidays one of our daughters gave my husband and I the gift of Ancestry DNA, something that we have both wanted for some time. James and I both anxiously awaited the results. I am pleased to say that after several decades, I finally know who I am. My results showed that I have a 54% ancestral connection to Cameroon, Congo and Bantu peoples with approximately a total of 72% ancestry from the continent of Africa. For many years I have been saying that even though I wasn’t born in Africa, that Africa was born in me. Now I know that I was right. I didn’t know it for sure but now I do. How comforting it is to know about my heritage and the foundation of my existence. With my new found knowledge, I will begin to search deeper into my family roots and when people ask me where I am from, I will proudly be able to tell them.
Leave me a comment and tell me about what you know about your heritage. Do you know who you are? Do you know where your ancestors came from? Have you begun to explore your roots and your ancestry? If you have, what have you learned? What legacy do you want to leave your children and your grandchildren?
As I reflect upon the holiday season, I am reminded of a very special gift that I received last year from one of my faculty members. I have worked closely with this gentlemen for eleven and half years, but this gift caught me quite by surprise. I regularly give my staff and faculty Christmas gifts, but I don’t ever remember receiving a gift from this faculty member before. My curiosity was further peaked when he told me I couldn’t open it until Christmas day. That meant I had to wait approximately two weeks from the time he gave it to me. However, I was compliant, took it home, placed it under my Christmas tree, and waited. Although I am far from being a child, the unexpected gift made me more anxious than usual for Christmas to come that year. When I finally opened the gift on Christmas day, I was really surprised when I took the wrapping paper off, and it revealed a box that said “United States Mint, American Liberty 225th Anniversary Silver Medal.” It was too official for it to be a gag gift and given that it had a significant weight to it, I knew whatever was contained inside the box must be really special. Even though I had to go through several layers of official wrapping to finally get to the contents, I was not disappointed to say the least. My eyes were almost brought to tears when I saw, a silver coin representing Lady Liberty with cornrow braids and African American features.
On April 2, 1792, the Senate and House of Representative enacted the Coinage Act which officially made such commemorations a reality. It had taken 225 years to have an African American woman represented on a liberty coin. However long it took for this recognition to occur, I am glad that it did. I do wonder how many people are aware of its existence. According to Mint designer Justin Kunz, “Introducing an African-American Lady Liberty underscores the diverse heritage of this Nation, and reminds us that liberty ought to be maintained for the rights and protection of all people without respect to race and ethnicity.”
Why was this gift so endearing to me? First, because my colleague and dear friend who gave it to me later told me that when he saw it, he had to get it for me because it represented who I was and the work that I have been doing. Second, this person also happens to be, a white male, who recognized and appreciated the years of dedication I have given to make our university a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive campus community. As an African American woman working in higher education for over 35 years, I know what it is like to be marginalized and discriminated against. However, it is not often that we are validated for the work that we do by our white colleagues, especially when it comes to diversity work. I do what I do because I am passionate about diversity and social justice, and not for recognition. Nevertheless, receiving this special gift, further validated my belief that not only is our work important but we are also making a visible difference that others are recognizing. This is why I am an inclusion practitioner and social justice advocate. This is one of the important “Whys” of my work. I believe that all people should be respected and valued regardless of their race, ethnicity or cultural background.
If you would like assistance in supporting and growing your organization in the areas of diversity, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for a free consultation to discuss how I can meet your diversity training, assessment, strategic planning, and coaching needs.
Let me know what your WHYs are. What are the reasons you do the work you do? Have you faced challenges with diversity in the workplace? What have they been and how have you handled them? Looking forward to hearing your thoughts and comments below.
Roberta Wilburn is an Inclusion Practitioner with over 35 years of experience working in higher education, and as a consultant in public and private K-12 schools, government, non-profit and community based organizations. She has conducted diversity, equity, and inclusion training regionally, nationally, and internationally. She is the author of books, chapters, and journal articles. Her work has been recognized with local and national awards. Some of her awards include the 2017 Insight Into Diversity Giving Back Award for Administrators in Higher Education, the YWCA Women of Achievement Carl Maxey Racial and social Justice Award, and the Heartwood Award for Cultural Enrichment and Community Service.