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News From the Frontlines

Focus on Racial Justice

 

Eileen Ma, Tammy Bang Luu, Stephen Guttwillig

 

Left to right: Eileen Ma, Tammy Bang Luu, Stephen Gutwillig

 Byline: Susan LaTempa

Liberty Hill is widely  known for its use of community advisors to help us make grant decisions, a process that allows us to regularly receive on-the-ground information about L.A.'s social justice organizers and the landscape in which they work. The recent Community Funding Board "report back" meeting was a gathering of experts who reported back on their recent research— visits, interviews with community members, data gathering—thus creating a snapshot of the moment.

This year, a highlight of that meeting was the board's discussion of racial justice, specifically: What approaches are L.A.'s community organizing groups using to advance racial justice? Liberty Hill asked the question as part of its renewed effort to uplift racial justice as an integral part of advancing movements for social change in Los Angeles. Racial justice involves the enactment or enforcement of policies, practices, and actions that produce equitable power, access, opportunities, treatment, impacts and outcomes for all.

Ni-Q, EM and AP, CFB 2011 055

 Left to right: Ni-Quartelai Quartey, Eddie Martinez, Anand Pandya

The discussion was candid, even provocative, with participants — who include academics, organizers, organization directors, donor-activists and other community members — expressing support for Liberty Hill’s focus on racial justice and sharing examples of the wide spectrum of approaches by community-based organizations. The CFB found that some groups discuss racial justice internally and advance racial justice in their organizing, but are hesitant to discuss it with people outside the organization. The CFB also observed that organizations have limited capacity to track and monitor the implementation of their victories to ensure that policies won by leaders in low-income communities of color are actually implemented to benefit those communities. A few organizations that are “leading” with race have found great success building bridges across racial and ethnic difference and using the common experience of structural racism to educate and organize ordinary people.

Glimpses offered by CFB participants of the changing needs and attitudes of organizers fighting for racial justice in multicultural L.A. were nuanced and showed how complex and challenging the effort is. For example:

  • Nii-Quartelai Quartey (Principal/CEO, Sankofa Group for Civic Engagement) dropped the language/label bomb by remarking that the identifier POC (or Person/People of Color) had replaced specific descriptors of diverse racial, ethnic and national identities.
  • Stephen Gutwillig (California State Director, Drug Policy Alliance) noted that a very good way of measuring whether a group consciously applied a racial lens to its understanding of the problems it seeks to address is to measure activity such as a program educating allied communities about each other's histories and struggles.
  • A challenge was offered by Ange-Marie Hancock (Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Southern California): "We seem to want to put the conversation emphasizing race and racism central but we would be well served with an emphasis on justice . . .  In regards to organizing, the emphasis is "What do you have in common?". . . . A lot of identity based organizations are built around having ethnicity in common. So how do we think about difference —really, seriously engage difference — and bring people together?"

Having described the lay of the land, the experts — pathfinders toward the goal of lasting change — added their own queries, second thoughts, prescriptions and calls to action. A sampling:

  • Damon Azali Rojas (Director of Field Programs,

    Damon Azali Rojas Jemmott Rollins Group) spoke to the need for recognizing specific differences and different groups, noting for example, that the Black community was not exclusively Black people born in the U.S. but also incorporates African immigrants and peoples from the African Diaspora. 
  • Tammy Bang Luu (Associate Director, Labor Community Strategy Center) reflected on the concept of "People of Color" as a strategic alliance, that “meant having solidarity with other communities and building joint struggle.”  She questioned if the term  "loses that strategic-ness if we don’t understand how one sector of the economy could be all one race, having once been Black and now Latino. How can we ensure that we fight for the rights of the Latino working class and address the lockout or impacts on the Black working class as a joint struggle?”
  • Stephen asked "What can Liberty Hill do to not reinforce the transition that POC has made from a resonant political term to an adjective?"
  • Anand Pandya (Vice-Chair, Department of Psychiatry and Director of Adult Inpatient Psychiatry at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center) challenged: "We should be upping our game and our capacity to bring about change," and urged experimentation and action, saying "As a doctor I can tell you, there have been very few medicines derived from rational planning. Instead, it's... try it and see what works."

 For some people, this discussion may sound cerebral, but for Liberty Hill staffers, CFB members, and community organizers on the ground, it’s an essential, necessary call to put aside platitudes about a “post-racial” era and recognize the return of crisis conditions in certain communities. Want proof? According to a special report from the Department of Labor Statistics: “The national unemployment rate in May-June 2011 was 9.12 percent, well below the nation’s average unemployment rate in 2010 of 9.6 percent. However, for blacks, the unemployment rate in May-June 2011 was essentially unchanged at 16.2 % percent from their 2010 average of 16.0 percent.”

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