Dear White folks, we need to talk about racism

A note from Chanell Fletcher, Executive Director of ClimatePlan: I want to thank Amy for being brave enough to write this letter and publish it on our website. I know it may provoke a lot of responses and conversations, which is good. We, as a network of environment, conservation, smart growth, equity, public health, housing, and transportation organizations, need to have a conversation about what it means and looks like to advance health, sustainability, equity, and a just future. We can’t push for the Governor to implement policies such as SB 743 if we’re not also speaking out on the need for tenant protections during COVID-19. And if we mean what we say about equity, we cannot stay silent on the issues that matter most. Thank you Amy again for your words and your call to action. 

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Dear fellow White folks, 

This is difficult for me to write. 

I’m sure by now, you’ve seen the news coverage that George Floyd, a black man, has been murdered at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. In the same week, Christian Cooper, also a black man, was falsely accused--while bird watching--of harassing Amy Cooper, a white woman, in New York City’s Central Park. And not even a month ago, we also saw the murder of another black man, Ahmaud Arbery, in Georgia at the hands of white supremacists. Christian was enjoying bird watching. Ahmaud was going for a run. The list of Black men and women murdered by police officers and white supremacists grows daily.

All of the aforementioned incidents occurred in public spaces: parks, open spaces, along a sidewalk, in neighborhoods. Places where networks like ClimatePlan are working to create, shape and strengthen policies and initiatives that bring about “equitable and sustainable communities.”  As a recent CNN article pointed out, there's one epidemic we may never find a vaccine for: fear of black men in public spaces.

As ClimatePlan and other advocacy organizations work on issues ranging from transportation, housing, and air quality to conservation and public health, many are using words like “equity”, “anti-displacement”, “equality”, and “communities for all.” But what do ClimatePlan and other organizations mean when they say those words? How much have these words been intellectualized without a felt experience of what they mean to people personally? Is “equity” a word to check a box on a grant application or to garner a co-signer on a letter, or is there a deep and clear commitment to understanding what equity means personally and organizationally? How are ClimatePlan and other advocacy organizations truly envisioning an equitable future as policies are drafted and implemented? 

These are questions we, as white people, must consider if we really want to create “equitable and sustainable communities.” 

To really advance equity, we need to actively dismantle racism in ourselves, our families and communities, and in our advocacy work. I believe just the intention to begin this work will multiply. Below are a few things that I commit to doing at work and personally to dismantle racism. I hope you’ll join me in committing to practicing them. 

  • Speak up about racism, police brutality, and oppression even when it’s uncomfortable: Everyone thinks they’re going to say the wrong thing or the politically incorrect thing. That’s what the culture of white supremacy has done to us and how it’s held us back from doing anything as simple as posting anti-racist content on social media to talking about race in meetings with the Governor or in committee hearings. We will inevitably screw up, say the wrong thing, get criticized from 1000 different angles. That is the work of being an anti-racist, of showing up in solidarity, and of sitting in the shame / our bruised ego, but then getting up and doing it again the next day. 
  • Follow and trust the leadership of people of color: The wisdom of the lived experiences of people of color means 10000X more than a college degree in public policy. In Tamika Butler’s piece “Confronting Power and Privilege”, she writes “So what should transportation professionals do to change? I’ve said this a million times: start by listening to women of color. We’re often the most impacted, but also the most ignored.” Center the voices of people of color in meetings, on calls, and in every space that you’re in. This means understanding that just because you have not experienced an issue raised by people of color or seen the research to document it, it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. 
  • Commit to the inner work of dismantling racism on a personal level: There are so many incredible resources out there to help white people start to dismantle racism. See some of them below. There is so much more than what we learned in history books through our education system. The history of slavery, segregation, redlining, and institutionalized racism is more horrific and abhorrent than we could ever imagine, but it’s important to raise our consciousness around it, to grieve it, and apologize for it. 

Trainings: Undoing Racism by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond

Books: 

How to be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi,

Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F. Saad

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo

Spotify Playlist of speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Angela Davis, others - compiled by Rachel Cargle

More resources from the Greenlining Institute here. 

  • Think about what you might need to give up for someone else to feel safe: I’ve been thinking about where I’m choosing my own comfort over the need to create safety for people of color. For example, could I give up the comfort of my relationship with a family member in order to have a conversation with them about their racist remarks or ideology? Or maybe it’s giving up the comfort of our traditional policing system that has mostly kept white people safe at the expense of people of color and beginning to call into question how local policing is carried out? Or maybe it’s being mindful about how often and when we choose to call the police? Perhaps it’s even questioning a neighbor on NextDoor when they make racist remarks about something happening in your neighborhood. This can take a lot of different forms but it is important to examine. 
  • Commit daily to being an anti-racist and to crafting and advocating for anti-racist policies: In Tamika Butler’s most recent post “Stop Killing Us: A Real Life Nightmare”, she says we need to ask ourselves the following five questions each morning:
  1. Do I understand that not being racist isn’t the same as being anti-racist?
  2. Why am I so afraid to be brave enough to confront my power and privilege?
  3. What am I waiting for to decenter whiteness and realize just because I have never experienced it (or seen the research to prove it) doesn’t mean it isn’t real?
  4. What am I doing every single day to force myself to think about racism and white supremacy?
  5. What am I doing every single day to stop the killing of black people?
  • Co-create and imagine a different future: In addition to fighting racism in the present day, we can also start to re-imagine what the future looks like. Going beyond words or phrases like “equity” or “communities for all”, what does it mean to be a part of substantive conversations in the advocacy world on what it looks like to create policy supporting black wealth accumulation or more businesses owned and run by people of color, or policy that transfers land and home ownership to people of color. Writer adrienne maree brown defines the title of her book “Emergent Strategy” as, “...how we intentionally change in ways that grow our capacity to embody the just and liberated worlds we long for.” So much of policy work can be reactive, but what would it look like to start to co-dream and co-envision a more peaceful, just, and liberated world together and then work backwards developing policy to reach that dream? 

I’m sure there are 1000 other ways that we can show up better as white folks--and not just as allies, but as actual accomplices--in this struggle against racism and oppression. Feel free to add to the list of action steps above. If you have any interest in continuing this conversation, reach out at amy@climateplanca.org. I would love to talk with you. 

There is a deep well of sadness beneath the anger and frustration I feel at seeing this happen again in our country. As white people, I implore all of us to channel our anger into action and deep self reflection as we move forward with this work in our state and our lives.

In Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech before his assassination, he said, “Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.” As white people and as advocates, we can strive to embody a dangerous unselfishness that puts dismantling racism front and center in our work and our day-to-day lives. It will take bravery and courage. I’m committed to the challenge, are you? 

Staying hopeful for a brighter future, 

Amy


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