REACH Storyletter Vol. VI: Saving Democracy Through Anti-Racist Practice

November 10, 2020

 

Dear readers,

Democracy is not promised. It is a theory, an exercise, and an action. Just as in racial equity, there is no one coming to save us. There are only people, you and I and others, making choices, moment by moment, to move toward justice or further away from it. 

As our tense election season closes, I am reminded of the words of leaders from eras past – grateful for the reflection that their words and work offer and yet frustrated that their words are still relevant in this day and age. The powerful suffragist, Ida B.Wells (1862 – 1931) said, “The appetite grows for what it feeds on,” and while she is referencing lynching in this quote, her words continue to offer clarity as we begin to shift from this political and social context into a new one.

It is my hope that this election season has galvanized us all to engage beyond the federal ballot box, beyond the election year, beyond the individual to the collective, and that while doing so, we acknowledge and hold true the words of Frederick Douglass (1818 – 95), “The American people have this to learn: that where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them, neither person nor property is safe.”

Ain Bailey, REACH Program Officer

 

Meet Amy Herzfeld-Copple (she/her/hers), Deputy Director of Programs and Strategic Initiatives at Western States Center, a REACH grantee partner. In this issue, we talk about lessons learned facilitating Western State Center’s racial equity practitioners cohort, what an inclusive democracy looks like, how the fight for racial justice depends on it, and lessons we can learn from Portland’s long history battling white nationalism and anti-democractic movements. 

Western States Center, based in Portland, Oregon, has a 32-year history of creating innovative toolkits for community-based organizers and movement leaders. More here.

[Image description: Photo of Amy smiling into the camera wearing a black blouse and black cardigan. In the background is a bridge over water.]

 

Tell us about the Northwest Racial Equity Leaders project.

Amy: The Northwest Racial Equity Leadership cohort convenes racial equity practitioners in Portland and Seattle. The cohort includes  20 racial equity practitioners, who range from the most senior EDI (Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) staff in local, state, and tribal government, and nonprofit institutions to individual racial equity consultants, and our goal is to strengthen their capacity to support multiracial, democratic social movements and build a community of practice. We completed a landscape scan to better understand what the needs are and how we might evolve our long standing anti-racist organizational development work. After a landscape scan, Western States Center hosted an online salon series to understand what folks are seeking. At the conclusion of the first year, what we learned is that people are really craving a community of practice. While tools and analysis are always useful, what folks told us they really want is a trusted space with each other to do group coaching and puzzle through some of the common challenges that they face, often as the only person within their institution. It was really powerful, and we’ll be launching a second series with the cohort to go deeper into the group coaching and community of practice development that folks have asked for.  We intend to update the Dismantling Racism: A Resource Book for Social Change Groups at the end of the project, and we’ll draw on the cohort to help populate it with case studies and drive what the content is. 

What else did you learn from the EDI landscape scan? 

Amy: A general theme that emerged from the initial scan was that folks felt isolated. Particularly, folks who were working in government institutions felt isolated from community-based organizations or felt like sometimes the relationship with those groups was tense or perceived as extractive from local government. We also discovered that if folks had a community practice, it was just one that they had built with a few peers. And in some cases, people didn’t have an easy network or community to reach out to for new tools and approaches. So there was a sense of isolation and the sense of tension between racial equity groups doing work on the ground, community-based organizations led by BIPOC folks, and EDI staff within local government and how to have those relationships in authentic ways. 

What would you like donors who are interested in supporting racial equity practitioners to keep in mind? 

Amy: One of the things that we learned from the scan was that consultant practitioners don’t want to feel constrained about the work that they undertake. They really want to be able to be intersectional in their approach. For the most part, we heard that government clients or nonprofit clients didn’t tell them that things were off limits, but it seemed like universally practitioners valued the ability to do work with clients in a way that weaves together all the ways our communities are impacted by racial, gender, and economic injustice. And while it didn’t happen a lot, it was hard to hear a client say, “We really just want you here to talk about racial equity. We’re not going to address LGBTQ culture in our organization,” for example. 

I think it’s important for donors to understand how the core of this work is really a commitment to intersectionality, mutuality, and interdependence. 

What have you learned through facilitating the cohort?

Amy: One of the interesting learnings is that Yee Won Chong—our project consultant—and I came with a set of outcomes and potential deliverables, and we had to really stop and be more open to being instead of doing. Because what we started to hear is that practitioners felt like they had an intimate sense of the challenges and political conditions and wanted space to be able to imagine what it would look like to do their work unencumbered. There was much, much greater interest in the space to be and build a community of practice than getting the latest analysis or tools.

Although not directly supported through REACH, can you tell us what the We Defend Democracy campaign is about?

Amy: One of Western States Center’s biggest programs is our national program Momentum, which works to equip local communities and government to respond effectively to white nationalism and anti-democratic movements. We do a lot of dedicated research and monitoring of alt-right paramilitaries and study the ways that the authoritarian right consolidates power. We actually established the program three years ago, so we’ve been raising the alarm for a few years now about the threat of political violence and the rise of white nationalist and anti-democratic movements. Our We Defend Democracy campaign is a part of that larger work.

Amy:  In mid-July, the Trump administration deployed essentially federal shock troops to Portland to crack down on mass nonviolent civil protests. Portland by that point had sustained several months of daily, largely nonviolent civil protests calling for an end of systemic racism and in solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives. Portland has a long history of anti-racist action and resilience and also a long history of police violence and bias against racial justice protestors and a sometimes hands-off approach to alt-right paramilitaries. The other element of this is that since 2018 Portland has been a proving ground for far-right groups, namely the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer, who’ve made regular incursions into the city of Portland with the express goal of undermining democratic institutions, sowing chaos and inciting political violence. We think it’s critical for civil society and local government to be aligned in a strong response that closes space for political violence and avoids both-siderism rhetoric.

When those federal troops were deployed, it made national headlines. It was certainly a chilling of democratic practice. There were things like disappearing people into unmarked vehicles, federal agents who were heavily armed and not wearing identification, deploying tear gas and assaulting nonviolent protestors. It was obviously really disturbing, and we felt like this is a test of authoritarian tactics. Portland is everytown, USA. We need to give folks outside of Portland a different narrative, so they understand why this isn’t just a Portland problem and what could happen here could happen anywhere.

So we launched the We Defend Democracy campaign as a way to give folks concrete actions to demonstrate solidarity with the City of Portland and frame the narrative and understand what’s at stake. On July 22, we launched it with an emergency national briefing for civil society leaders that we have online here.

What do you think is the reticence of  government officials to speak out considering the more than decade of work on racial equity that the city has been engaged in? While acknowledging Oregon’s history, what in this moment makes this both sider-ism still possible? 

One of the challenges is that anti-fascism, an ideology, has unfairly become a term to invoke fear. The White house has said that it will be investigating anti-fascist organizations as domestic terrorists. We know that means that it’s going to be a referendum on groups in the anti-hate, anti-bigotry and racial justice spaces. We’ve also seen a White House memo about banning racial equity training. That makes things complicated for local leaders. 

How has Western States Center, and by extension, the Northwest Racial Equity Leaders project, primed to respond to the dual pandemics? 

Western States Center’s been around for 33 years. We think of ourselves as a hub for inclusive democracy and a regional organization that provides leadership development, political education tools, analysis, and organizing toolkits to folks working on the ground to achieve racial, gender, and economic justice. We are lucky to have a big network of human dignity leaders and community-based groups who have been doing this work for a long time. When Western States Center was founded as a regional movement building shop, it was more common to have regional hubs and technical assistance centers for social justice groups. Our region has been fluid over the years, but we think of it informally as Idaho and every state that touches it, but we also see the West as a place that can be really a unique national lab for work to counter anti-democratic movements. Our region has been the only in the country that defeated white nationalism with the dissolution of the Aryan nation’s compound  in Northern Idaho. So there are a lot of unique history and lessons here and ways that we can create blueprints for the rest of the country.

Also because of the nature of doing work in the West, where often folks are really spread out and there aren’t as many resources for organizations doing work in places that are perceived as politically conservative, we know that we can’t afford to organize any other way than being really intersectional, cross-sector, and cross-constituency, so there’s a rich history of coalition work here in the Pacific Northwest region that is cross-issue and very values aligned. 

In your mind, what is the relationship between racial equity work and democracy? 

We certainly see it as connected. In fact, many of the racial equity practitioners who are a part of the Northwest Racial Equity Leadership project work within democratic institutions, so they are feeling very directly what it means to be targeted by anti-democratic or white nationalist groups. We also in our work, as a baseline, start by explaining the difference between white nationalism and white supremacy, because we think they are distinct challenges and—while connected—require different organizing strategies to address. One is a system of exploitation and the other is a growing social movement and political crisis. That’s one part of it. 

Folks who do racial equity work are really steeped in understanding white supremacy as a system and culture, but there may not be as much understanding about white nationalism as an exclusionary social movement seeking to create an all white ethnostate. 

It’s important for practitioners to understand the goals, tactics, and history of groups that are targeting democratic institutions. And we also know that inclusive democracy thrives when folks can be free from bigotry and fear. Racial equity work is one of the core ingredients to strong democratic systems and institutions.

Can you share what you might offer as a white person to another who is just joining this conversation? 

Amy: It’s such—I wish it wasn’t—an art to call people in and create the kinds of political education opportunities where people don’t feel attacked or defensive. People don’t learn if they are feeling judged. It’s so important to create conversations where people can approach it with curiosity. You’re giving a little bit of yourself and your own story, which is the work of white folks to do with other white folks because of the way racial equity learning often happens at the expense of re-traumatizing people of color.

I approach it with that in mind. I would also speak to my own experience of growing up white, Jewish, and queer in Idaho and starting to see the way that that far right ballot measure campaigns that targeted LGBTQ communities also used some of the same narrative and tactics to attack immigrants, to attack reproductive justice, to attack communities of color, and I recognized that there was shared ideology and goals, across far right, exclusionary, and antidemocratic groups that put all of our communities in the cross hairs. I would speak some to how in the 1990s and early 2000s, the West was really a testing ground for divisive wedge issues that were about criminalizing or removing queer folks, immigrants, women, and particularly women of color seeking to access to reproductive justice. 

Anything else that you’d want to share? 

I’ve been really moved by the Northwest Racial Equity Leadership project. It’s been exhilarating and challenging to facilitate because what we’re hearing from folks in terms of the kind of space and resources they need isn’t what we thought we were going to provide. And so it’s been this meaningful experience of being open to what folks are asking for. We’ve done surveys after each session and one-on-one interviews, and people really want a community of practice, and it’s almost becoming a caucus space. There’s been a lot of trust created in the space and a lot of the participants are the only lead racial equity staff in big institutions like state and county government, so these practitioners want a space to be able to talk about the weariness that they’re feeling in those institutions and almost feeling called back to community-based groups. It’s been really powerful to learn from this experience and like everything else this year, nothing moves on your original timeline, but it’s been really valuable to have a relationship with Borealis Philanthropy, where it felt like there was space to explore, and our work didn’t have to be super tied to a deliverable when it was clear that the project was going in a different direction.

 

Martin Luther King excerpt from the “ I Have A Dream” Speech

“This is not time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality to all of God’s children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of it’s colored citizens. This sweltering summer of the colored people’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.

Nineteen sixty-three is not an end but a beginning. Those who hope that the colored Americans needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the colored citizen is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges…We cannot be satisfied as long as a colored person in Mississippi cannot vote and a colored person in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

 

What We Read, Listened to, and Watched This Month. 

From the 2019 Vault: Related Article – The Nonprofit Sector’s Problems with Race. This article sheds light on the struggles and triumphs of leaders of color within the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. This article generously shares clarity around the coerced contortions and the clear commitment of BIPOC leaders in these spaces. [5 min read]

How We Vote: Throughline Podcast, NPR. Americans went from casting votes at drunken parties in the town square to private booths behind a drawn curtain. In this episode, the process of voting; how it was originally designed, who it was intended for, moments in our country’s history when we reimagined it altogether, and what we’re left with today. Featuring Carol Anderson. [1 hour listen]

One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy, book by Carol Anderson. One Person, No Vote, chronicles the rollbacks to African American participation in the vote since the 2013 Supreme Court decision that eviscerated the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Known as the Shelby ruling, this decision effectively allowed districts with a demonstrated history of racial discrimination to change voting requirements without approval from the Department of Justice.

Focusing on the aftermath of Shelby, Anderson follows the astonishing story of government-dictated racial discrimination unfolding before our very eyes as more and more states adopt voter suppression laws. In gripping, enlightening detail she explains how voter suppression works, from photo ID requirements to gerrymandering to poll closures. And with vivid characters, she explores the resistance: the organizing, activism, and court battles to restore the basic right to vote to all Americans as the nation gears up for the 2018 midterm elections.