In a recent blog, Risa Wilkerson highlighted our President’s refusal to denounce violent White supremacists. Since then, the President has used Twitter to attack—rather than defend—Michigan’s governor in response to a plot by White domestic terrorists (so-called “militias”) to kidnap her. The tweets alone are alarming and warrant public recognition.
However, what has received far less scrutiny is the Trump Administration’s recent executive order (EO), which sets in policy a denial that racism exists. Federal agencies are now prohibited from providing support for trainings that cover “any form of race or sex stereotyping or any form of race or sex scapegoating.” Lest anyone mistake this EO as a protection for marginalized groups, the White House and Office of Management and Budget clarified the context behind it, stating that the concept of White privilege and critical race theory is a “malign ideology” and un-American. It labels implicit bias as a “divisive concept” and prohibits federal contractors from “inculcate[ing] such views in their employees.” The EO effectively bans use of terms such as race, racism, racist, and antiracist.
Fortunately, rebukes of the EO have been swift in the media, among racial equity organizations, and within philanthropy. And although federal funding is in question, communities across the country can continue to advance equity through educational approaches that unpack our nation’s history and explain structural racism. Racial equity workshops are gaining ground in communities, and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) trainings are in increasingly high demand within governments, nonprofits, and other agencies.
After Darren Wilson, a White police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man, in 2014, the resulting protests in Ferguson, MO led to a nationwide outcry against racism and police brutality. And it left many communities wondering how to begin talking about racism and reforming the criminal justice system.
In Chatham County, North Carolina, a group of concerned citizens, pastors, justice advocates, and local leaders started by hosting a screening and discussion of the documentary film, “Race: the Power of an Illusion.” As local interest grew, the organizers hosted a two-day workshop led by Racial Equity Institute (REI), a Greensboro, NC-based training team that helps leaders, organizations, and residents understand and address racism. REI’s Phase 1 training is designed to develop capacity to understand racism by presenting a historical, cultural, and structural analysis. With shared language and a clearer understanding of how institutions and systems produce unjust and inequitable outcomes, participants leave better equipped to create change in themselves and their communities.
Following this first Phase 1 workshop, there was demand for additional workshops and a need for a local organization to organize and host them. In 2017, an initial planning team launched Chatham Organizing for Racial Equity (CORE), a racially diverse coalition committed to equitable outcomes for all people in Chatham County through education, organizing, and reconciliation. The group hosted multiple Phase 1 workshops to train elected officials, law enforcement officers, school administrators and teachers, service agency staff, health professionals, faith leaders, students, and community members. In addition to increasing people’s awareness of racism—which is already a transformational experience for many—the workshops laid important groundwork for advancing racial equity within the county.
CORE expanded on the workshops by organizing racial caucus groups, which are separate venues for White people and people of color (POC) to talk about racism in safe settings to explore beliefs, attitudes, and emotions. CORE also hosted annual community-wide Juneteenth events and created its own community organizing workshops to teach Chatham residents how to shift power and develop critical relationships.
In 2020, the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, sparked renewed energy in the Black Lives Matter movement and compelled people and organizations to discover what roles they might have in fighting systemic racism. Local government and nonprofit agencies approached CORE to build their capacity to understand and address organizational bias. Led by POC, CORE now conducts its own virtual racial equity workshops.
In addition to CORE’s education, capacity building, organizing, and caucusing, the group’s impact is literally visible. Chatham County’s courthouse is now free of the Confederate statue that stood on its pedestal for 112 years. In 2019, following organized advocacy, presentations, petitions, protests, lawsuits, and protracted community dialogue, county commissioners removed the statue from the courthouse grounds and into storage. While CORE did not officially or directly advocate for the statue’s removal, all of the county commissioners who voted for the statue’s removal had completed REI trainings hosted by CORE. Other alumni of the trainings also spoke up at commissioner meetings and publicly counter-demonstrated against neo-Confederate “flaggers” protesting to keep the statue. The statue was a painful symbol of racial oppression, and its removal is just an early step in the longer-term work of addressing systemic bias and advancing equity.
CORE is also helping local organizations become more antiracist. Following CORE’s encouragement, in August 2020, the Chatham County Board of Health “formally declare[d] structural racism as an ongoing public health crisis,” joining cities across the country that have made similar declarations. The board’s statement also identified disparate outcomes in the county, specifically COVID-19’s impact on Latinx residents, life expectancy among Black men, and birth outcomes for Black women. The board went on to pledge that it would help the health department, county agencies, and other governing bodies address structural racism.
There’s no way to know the ultimate impact of racial equity workshops, and they alone won’t create the change we need. But we know that people who attend them leave with a greater understanding of our nation’s history and the structures and institutions that continue to produce inequitable outcomes. Learning about racial equity is a lifelong process, not a one-time event. Ideally, racial equity trainings are a starting point for broader, community-wide transformation.
We can help ensure that this critical form of education remains available to others by refusing to accept the Trump administration’s denial that structural racism exists. This means continuing to find and participate in racial equity trainings. We can also urge our own organizations and partners to host racial equity learning opportunities and collaborate with POC-led organizations. Finally, philanthropies and other funders must continue to invest in communities and organizations—and fill any gaps left by withdrawn federal resources.