“Heather Mizeur is a former delegate and gubernatorial candidate who operates her nonprofit Soul Force Politics from her farm near Chestertown. She wrote in an email Tuesday that her organization has devoted much of the year to national trainings on “disarming, disrupting, and dismantling white supremacy.”

“I was excited to attend a workshop on undoing racism in my own local community as an opportunity to put this work into practice from direct engagement and implementation with neighbors and allies on the Eastern Shore,” she wrote. “I found the presenters at this workshop did an incredible job of covering a lot of material in just two days.”

She wrote that she was pleased with the effectiveness of the facilitators in creating a safe space that allowed participants to build trust quickly in order to explore “the difficult challenge of calling white-bodied people to the consciousness of the unearned privileges bestowed on us by systems and institutions that were built for maintaining the power structures that serve our culture of white supremacy.”

By DANIEL DIVILIO ddivilio@thekentcountynews.com

September 26, 2019

CHESTERTOWN — The “conspiracy of courtesy,” as one facilitator called it, was stripped away for two days as attendees of a workshop titled “Undoing Racism” laid bare just what constitutes racism and what can be done in the ongoing fight to end its systematic hold on our society.

About 50 people attended the workshop Friday and Saturday at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Chestertown, most staying for the entirety of the two days. Among the community members were elected officials, local government employees, current and retired educators, clergy and media representatives.

Organized by the Kent County Local Management Board, Emmanuel Episcopal Church, the Unitarian Universalists of the Chester River and Bethel AME Church, Undoing Racism is a program offered by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, founded in 1980 and led from the start by longtime community organizers Ron Chisom and the late Jim Dunn. According to its website, the institute is one of the leading anti-racism training groups in the United States.

“We are intergenerational. We are multicultural. We are multi-ethnic, humanistic anti-racist organizers. And all of those words mean something very important to us. Because, again we bring humanism back into this work,” said facilitator Thea Bashful, who came to Chestertown for the training having just left a session held in Peoria, Ill.

Joining Bashful as facilitators were Sherdren Burnside, Margery Freeman, whose son lives here in Cliff City, and Freeman’s husband David Billings, author of the book “Deep Denial: The Persistence of White Supremacy in United States History and Life.”

It was Freeman who used the term “conspiracy of courtesy” in talking about the challenges of discussing racism. She spoke about how the room at Emmanuel Episcopal Church would be a liberated zone for two days, a brave space in which people would be encouraged and expected to openly participate in hard discussions about racism, rather than walking away at the first signs of discomfort.
“If we walk away, racism stays in the room and continues to dominate,” Freeman said.

She spoke about the term “scaffolding” as it applies to education, structuring lessons to build upon each other as the workshop progressed. She talked about the challenge of pushing through the “growing edge” — overcoming the challenges that scare us from reaching our goals — and the insights gained from the experience.

“This is a building process. I liken it to math. If you haven’t learned long division, it’s really hard to go farther,” Freeman said.
Freeman also led the group members in establishing a covenant, a set of promises laid out to ensure a successful workshop. Chief among them, confidentiality in what participants said and staying for the entire duration of both days.

Ben Kohl, a local psychotherapist and a Washington College psychology lecturer, told attendees on Friday that they were not taking the Undoing Racism workshop in isolation. He said this is the eighth such program on the Eastern Shore since the first Undoing Racism session was held in 2016.  “What that means is, in this area we have several hundred people that have now been through this training,” Kohl said. “We’re three years into this and we’re building momentum.”

The Rev. Ellsworth Tolliver — pastor of Boardly Chapel AME Church in Pondtown, a member of the Chestertown council and a retired teacher — attended Friday’s session. He said it was his third time at an Undoing Racism program.
“I always get something new out of it,” he said.

‘Racism’ Defined

The facilitators worked through not just the definition of racism, but race as well.

Participants were asked for their definitions of racism and they gave varying responses. The facilitators said it is that challenge in maintaining a common definition that allows racism to persist.

Burnside spoke about how the suffix “-ism” when applied to a term creates a belief system.  “And when we believe something, when it is a part of our belief system, then it justifies the way we act and the way we behave. So racism is just that. It is a belief system. It is an ideology,” she said.

The institute defines “racism” via a mathematical equation: racial prejudice + power = racism.

Bashful said that for people to move forward, everyone has to know the definition; there has to be commonality.
“And what we do as Undoing Racism anti-racists organizers is we define each part of this mathematical equation,” she said.

Billings defined “power” as access to or influence over institution. He said the idea of being “white” had to be created to keep poor people across all colors from organizing together against those with the power and money.

The facilitators looked at the difference between personal and structural racism, and how structures are used to keep a foot on the backs of poor people.

Freeman spoke about the conditioning of those in poverty and those in power maintaining poverty.  “And we’ve been conditioned to blame people who are poor because of their conditioning,” she said.

As for race, the institute defines it as a “specious classification of human beings” created by white Europeans to maintain their own privilege and power.

Billings said if anyone in the workshop who identifies as black is stopped by police sometime in the near future and tries to tell the officer that “race is a specious construct” and they are not really black, that person will likely still face the same race-related issues they had before.

“That’s not going to work because this country perceives race. You didn’t get to choose it. You might think you do, but you don’t. This country chooses race for you. You know, so I’m white, not by virtue of my desire to be — although probably I am — but that I’ve been given that assignment. That’s my race. It also defines my relationship to power,” Billings said.

He said race may be a specious construct, but it has been made real in this country as it was woven into the nation’s founding. He said it also is one of the country’s greatest exports.

Billings said people need to ask themselves why are there so many definitions of racism. He asked, does it come from feelings or it is an artificial construct based on power?

“‘I get to define who is of minor interest in this society,’” Billings said. “That’s where ‘minority’ comes from. Your opinion doesn’t count, you know, because you’re not a part of the power arrangement. You have to fight to become a part of it. You have to insist. You have to organize.”

That discussion occurred all on the first day.

On the second day the facilitators spoke about the differences between “racism,” “prejudice” and “bigotry,” with the first term going back to the previous day’s equation. “Prejudice” is to prejudge, with the facilitators saying that based on the situation, it can be good and it can be harmful. “Bigotry” is where the hatred comes in, the intolerance.

Community Organizing

Bashful spoke about the difference between equality and equity on Saturday. She said equality is not equitable if everyone is allowed into a Monopoly game that only a select group has been playing for centuries. She said that select group already owns all the properties.
Billings said undoing racism is possible because we have ancestors who have been working on this very issue — tearing down the structures that keep it in place.

“We stand on those shoulders. We’ve just got to believe we can do this,” he said.

Billings spoke about the need to organize. He cautioned that no one can undo racism alone.

“You might think you can, but you can’t. You’ve got to bring some people in,” he said.

Bashful said successful organizers motivate, educate and strategically agitate. She said they provide technical assistance and help people gain a sense of their own power. She said that to ensure people show up to meetings, organizers need to have a vision for their goals and know what resources are available — and they need to have fun, and food.

Bashful spoke about how Rosa Parks was chosen to be the face to set off the Montgomery, Ala. bus boycott because of who she was: young and light skinned.  “It was strategic,” Bashful said.

One participant asked: What is the vision for racism undone?

Billings said it can be a lot of different things in different places, such as honest conversation and a move toward equity.
“Humans struggling to think about a humanistic society — well how about that?” Burnside said.

Billings talked about how the Civil Rights movement was declared dead in the early 1970s. He said there was a shift at the time away from community organizing due to the rise of nonprofits. He spoke about how organizers who previously worked for free became paid to provide services via such organizations.

He said that while providing services is valuable, it does not provide equity. He said that because nonprofits survive largely through grants, they are another way for the government to hold back progress.“If you act up, we ain’t gonna fund you,” is how Billings described it.
He said community organizing was the high point of bringing about change. He said the gatekeepers of nonprofits are funded not to bring about revolutionary change, but to maintain the status quo.  “It’s through the mass mobilization of people that this nation changes,” Billings said.

Participants Speak

Among the attendees were two Kent County Board of Education members, Trish McGee, the board’s vice president and associate editor of the Kent County News, and Wendy Costa, a retired educator.

“I enjoyed it. I learned a lot,” McGee said. “I thought it was really beneficial.” McGee had promised to attend the workshop when asked on the campaign trail last year by the Social Action Committee for Racial Justice if she would. She on Monday said that her interest went beyond a campaign promise, though. She said she wanted to have a better understanding of what racism is. She was struck by the institute’s definition, the difference between prejudice and racism and the power connection that establishes the latter.
“That made it very clear to me in a way that had never really been explained to me before,” McGee said. “That I understood, finally.”

On Monday, Costa said she was not really impressed with the Undoing Racism workshop.  “I’ve been to these things before,” she said.
Costa said she wanted to hear specific actions that could be taken, especially with regards to education, that could create equity. She also thought some of the lessons were outdated.  “I don’t think I agree with their definition of racism,” Costa said. “I don’t think it’s a very helpful one. I agree there’s a lot of white privilege and there has been a lot of structural racism that’s gone really, if not right up to our present time, really close.”

Heather Mizeur is a former delegate and gubernatorial candidate who operates her nonprofit Soul Force Politics from her farm near Chestertown. She wrote in an email Tuesday that her organization has devoted much of the year to national trainings on “disarming, disrupting, and dismantling white supremacy.”

“I was excited to attend a workshop on undoing racism in my own local community as an opportunity to put this work into practice from direct engagement and implementation with neighbors and allies on the Eastern Shore,” she wrote. “I found the presenters at this workshop did an incredible job of covering a lot of material in just two days.”

She wrote that she was pleased with the effectiveness of the facilitators in creating a safe space that allowed participants to build trust quickly in order to explore “the difficult challenge of calling white-bodied people to the consciousness of the unearned privileges bestowed on us by systems and institutions that were built for maintaining the power structures that serve our culture of white supremacy.”

Doncella Wilson, of the Kent County Local Management Board and a member of the Denton town council, attended last week’s workshop and had participated in previous trainings, including programs with Chisom, one of the institute’s founder. Part of her reason for signing up to attend the program again was to see where the community is with the training.

“The conversations are beneficial to hear from both sides, because a lot of time we assume things but we don’t really know how people are feeling,” Wilson said Tuesday. “I hope folks will take the opportunity if the training comes back — or anything related to that training — that they will come with open ears to learn.”

The Rev. Henry Sabetti, rector of Shrewsbury Episcopal Church in Kennedyville and a coach at Kent County High School, was encouraged to sign up by Larry Samuels, the senior warden at Shrewsbury and a Chestertown resident who previously took the training.
“I signed up because I’d like to be part of the solution, if there is a solution, and to increase my understanding and appreciation of the struggle for racial equality,” he said Monday. “It was eye opening and jaw dropping.”

For Sabetti, the big takeaway was along the lines of conviction, of how he had limited understanding and appreciation for the system of power and privilege that has been afforded to white people in this country and how he has unconsciously made assumptions based on that privilege.

Sabetti has participated in multicultural trainings and cultural awareness programs in the past, but he said Undoing Racism was the most well constructed he has attended. And he found it to be deeply personal.  “It touched me not only intellectually, but it touched me emotionally in ways that I didn’t expect,” he said. “I just hope that this opportunity can be afforded to others.”

To learn more about the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, visit www.pisab.org.