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Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Undoing racism: A community call to action

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It’s a conversation few people want to have. It makes us uncomfortable. Tense. Pits people against each other. It’s a conversation about racism. How to confront it and how to prevent it. “Undoing racism.” Is that even possible? One nonprofit executive has been committed to finding out, speaking loudly and clearly on the subject, since 2010. And she is doing it to fight for the rights of African-American children in the child welfare system and to fight inherent prejudices in our community.

Cindy Booth is the executive director of Child Advocates, an organization that serves abused and neglected children, providing court-appointed special advocates to represent them in court and in the foster care system. Studies have shown that Marion County has much higher numbers of African-American children, compared to children of other races, in the child welfare system — in past years rising as high as 70 percent — and those numbers were unsettling to Booth. “I thought, as advocates for children, we needed to see if we were doing anything to perpetuate the dismal disproportionality,” she said. “I wondered what we were doing that brings such high numbers of African-American children into the foster care system, compared to other races? What training and policies do we need to look at?”

Booth was on a mission to look at biases within the child welfare system that might make the system treat a Black child differently than a white child. That led Booth to reach out to the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, an anti-racism training institution from New Orleans. Since 2010, Child Advocates has invited the People’s Institute to host more than 40 “Undoing Racism” workshops for child welfare workers, community organizations and the whole community. The People’s Institute focuses on the history of race, what racism is and how it can be undone.

I attended my first “Undoing Racism” workshop this summer, as a consultant for Child Advocates, and I found it mind-blowing, teaching us race history that we may have never learned. Rick Derksen, a white trainer at the People’s Institute, stated, “Race is a myth, a story that we constructed,” and it was constructed, in part, to separate people by skin color as a way to validate slavery, with Blacks placed on the bottom of a race hierarchy. Barbara Major, an African-American trainer, discussed why it is crucial to talk about race today. “Racism is so insidious and a part of every aspect of our lives,” she said. “If we don’t figure out what it is and how it functions, we’ll stay a very confused nation with the potential of imploding as a society.” So the People’s Institute creates safe places for people of all races to have this conversation, to better understand race history and each other’s experiences.

The workshops have been so successful that Cindy Booth is now bringing the People’s Institute trainers to Indy for a four-part “Undoing Racism” Speakers Series this fall. It’s free and open to the public. Joyce James, one featured speaker, will discuss the oppressive impact of 400 years of racial inequities on African-Americans. “Racism is embedded into the very fabric of our systems and institutions,” she says. “There is a history to it. Learning the history helps shift our thinking from, ‘What’s wrong with African-Americans?’ to ‘What’s happened to them?’” James believes that, when we learn the true history of racism, people of all races can work collaboratively to undo it. Another featured speaker, Berwick “Mahdi” Davenport, says, “Black people think racism is designed to hurt them, but it’s really designed to keep power among the ruling class.” He will launch the Speakers Series with a discussion about how African-Americans can identify their own power and embrace their strengths.

The first “Undoing Racism” Speakers Series takes place on Sept.15 at Martin University, and will continue at new locations, with new speakers, once a month through December. Gather your friends and family, of all races, and attend this free “Undoing Racism” Speakers Series. To register, contact Nikita Garner with Child Advocates, at nikita@childadvocates.net or call her at  (317) 493-2227. To learn more, go to childadvocates.net. If you want change, be a part of the solution.

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