By Russel Balenger
A recent Wellspring Wednesday has caused me to reflect on my life in recent years and what Unity Church has defined as one’s “next right action” around racial justice in this unsettled time.
Most of my life, I have been seeking racial justice and continuously pondering my “next right action.” To do this, I have used Peace Circle work for many years. Circle work, for those not familiar with the term, is a way of bringing people together to work on creating community, or to problem-solve, that is very much centered on listening and taking turns at speaking. Its origins can be traced back to native peoples around the world and how they dealt successfully with conflict. During this time of pandemic and unrest, the Circle process has been valuable in creating space for our extended community to talk about issues like racial justice, which are hard to discuss for some.
Circle is always part of my “next right action,” but then, “next right action” around race is probably seen differently for people who feel that their lives don’t matter and those that don’t have to question that. In many ways, nothing has changed for me in the past year. I still have to be continuously aware of how I appear in the world, so as not to be judged as “less.” I still have to be conscious of not getting tangled in some situation around the police. I still feel the urgency that things have to change, but that urgency has always been there for me, while others can easily take a break from this freedom fighting with no consequences.
Pondering further the idea of “next right action,” I am reminded of the importance not only of action but also the importance of being open to changing one’s thinking. Two summers ago, fellow Unity Church member Ray Wiedmeyer and I traveled with a small group to Ghana. From the moment we left our shores, our experiences of that trip were dramatically different. I was immediately awash in spaces filled almost completely with Black bodies, allowing me the rare opportunity to not feel the center of people’s attention. Ray, on the other hand, became conscious of being very much in the minority because of the color of his skin. As a white man, he could move around quite comfortably and unobtrusively back home, but he had to check his expectations and assumptions continuously in Ghana.
At the top of my wish list while there was to walk through the neighborhoods to see how people lived, since most of my life I have been called “African American.” If I was African somehow, after all these generations of being stolen to American shores, what did that mean? My father’s father was Cuban Indian and his mother was German and white. My mother’s father was a light brown man and her mother was a dark-skinned woman. Going to Ghana meant the world to me. There were moments of shared adventure and a chance to talk about many things, and in the end, Ray and I both returned changed. I now simply see myself as American. And when we both think of Africa, we have had to give up the pictures of impoverishment that used to fill our heads; these are now replaced by pictures of thriving people, living lives not that different than our own. This change in our thinking was certainly as important as the action.
Bringing it back home again: for me the Circle has always been about community and bringing people together to create true local change. Prior to the pandemic, we had been working hard to make juvenile justice more just. Totem Town, which had become a place to lock up kids of color, has been closed down thanks to the efforts of community and to folks at Unity Church. I would now like to see the land that Totem Town is on turned into a camping experience for community that would operate year-round. The Circle of Peace Movement I founded with my wife Sarah, which runs the Monday night Circle of Peace at Unity, also now operates as an alternative to locked detention for youth in Ramsey County. We have found ways to work with teens in trouble without incarcerating them. One of those solutions was to find mentors for them, and another involved food. When we provided families with regular bags of healthy food and mentors, kids stopped getting into trouble for livability crimes. Perhaps solutions to injustice are not that far from our grasp. We just need to be open to friendships that help us see and think more clearly where we can be most useful. And there might be our next “right action.”
By Mary Pickard
I had the privilege of interviewing five Unity Church members about how they identified their own personal passions, talents, and particular opportunities to promote racial justice and multiculturalism beyond the boundaries of Unity Church. They reflected on the tools Unity has provided, the spiritual grounding that propels them to create change, and the struggles that have opened them to learn and transform.
When asked to describe what she does to apply antiracism and multiculturalism in the larger community, Eileen Galvin asked, “Is it about the things I need to do, or is it a way of being that must be applied to all things?”
As a communications professional at Friends School of Minnesota, a Quaker K-8 program, Eileen is called to antiracism work every day because of a school-wide commitment to abolish white supremacy. She finds that Unity has helped her notice and reflect on what’s happening, leading to personal transformation.
When she heard Dr. Robin DiAngelo talk about white privilege at Unity, Eileen’s reaction was, “I did all those things associated with white privilege. I knew there was stuff I didn’t know, but I didn’t know how much.” Results from the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) at Unity gave her tools for charting her own development — tools for reflection.
“I was raised to know this is not a fair system. As a white person learning more about how white supremacy runs through all our systems, I can’t not do this work. I can’t be okay with an unjust system that systematically oppresses people.” It doesn’t jibe with “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”
Merrill Aldrich and Nate Solas both work in IT — a profession they say is dominated by white men. What Merrill calls the “dam-breaking moment” happened in his workplace when a Black employee talked about what was going on in his life and why this global conversation about George Floyd’s murder was important to him.
His speaking up opened the door to further conversation and to Merrill stepping up. He volunteered to lead internal discussion among the 65 employees. “The most important thing to focus on was to open the conversation so people don’t feel it’s taboo to talk about racism and multiculturalism. It was important to help people work through the awkwardness, shame, and fear so we could be open to learning. We must understand that sometimes good intentions have negative impacts on people.”
That’s a lesson Nate learned as well. A conversation with a new female hire was his “wow” moment. “Our best efforts to welcome her were good, but not good enough. She felt discounted so we needed to realize our efforts weren’t landing the way we intended. There is a tendency for people to treat everyone the same — but we need to recognize that life experiences are different. It’s not enough to make the hire and assume you’re done. We need to check in more and listen.”
Mary Baremore is acutely aware of difference as a sign language interpreter for people who are Deaf, DeafBlind, and Hard-of-Hearing. Most interpreters are white, well-schooled women. “There is an elitism and supremacy that comes from being able to hear. It’s called ‘audism.’ We must look at how we benefit from being hearing and how we use it in various ways within the deaf community. Layer race on top of that and there is increased complexity.”
Unity “opened up the flood gate” for Mary to think about how she uses language. “I think all the time about the appropriateness of me interpreting for an African American man, for example, who has a different way of expressing himself. I must be aware of his culture and my culture and reflect on the language I’m using. I know I’ll never be fully adequate. Unity brings an invitation to be courageous; to know that we will fail every day and not give up; we will get back up and do better.”
Angela Wilcox recalls her discomfort. “Even though I had done a lot of antiracism work, I had been told it was wrong, uncomfortable and rude to talk about race.” When Janne and Rob Eller-Isaacs talked about race from the pulpit and their own discomfort, it “transformed how I thought about discomfort as a spiritual practice,” said Angela. “It gave me the courage to talk about it at work and that broke ground, so people opened up.”
As an educator in the Hopkins public schools, Angela has made a point of incorporating antiracism work into all her activities and continuously engaging her colleagues in the conversations and training. She has found the IDI and accompanying coaching helpful. “What clicked for me was that it’s important to meet people where they are and not where you think they should be. Antiracism training can make people defensive. We need to move into curiosity and not shame.”
Next Right Actions
IDI: The opportunity to take the Intercultural Development Inventory is available to every Unity Church member. Email Drew Danielson for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the Justice Database: Learning for Justice: Free resources for K-12 on dismantling white supremacy and advancing human rights.
Antiracism Literacy Partners: Wednesday, June 23, 7:00-9:00 p.m.
By Jane Prince
Several years ago, I immersed myself in reading I should have done decades earlier to be better informed about slavery in America, its aftermath, and Black history. I experienced horror and shame, not only for my country, but for my own complicity as a white middle class American who had enjoyed the privilege of ignorance.
Until then, I had somehow failed to make the connection between our nation’s ability to compete in the world economy and our willingness to conspire in our nation’s original sin of the brutal, inhuman, immoral institution of slavery of Black Americans.
Had President Lincoln lived, had Reconstruction fulfilled its promise, had 40 acres and a mule been deeded to freed slaves as the damages they were owed, the playing field might have been levelled between Blacks and whites. But instead, our nation reimbursed slaveholders for the human “property” taken from them through emancipation. The abandonment by the federal government of Reconstruction efforts in the South thrust former enslaved people into a new social order, with Jim Crow laws and terroristic actions that cemented their inability to succeed in America.
For Blacks who fled the South, Minnesota “welcomed” them with systemic discrimination perpetrated through real estate redlining and racial covenants that blocked access to housing. As if that was not enough, this city allowed the plowing-under of the Rondo neighborhood — the center of Saint Paul’s African American business, residential, spiritual and cultural life — for the construction of Interstate 94.
A few years ago Trahern Crews, a nationally known reparations organizer from Saint Paul, shared his idea for an ordinance. He had drafted it as a model for a municipal government program of reparations. I signed on with Trahern to help bring it to reality. As a St. Paul City Council member, I believe local government can and must serve as a means for advancing social change. We were encouraged by the news that the City of Evanston had passed an ordinance in August 2019 to create a process to address reparations, with a dedicated funding source from the city’s new municipal tax on recreational cannabis.
In partnership with the East Side Freedom Library, we launched the St. Paul Recovery Act Reparations Reading Group in February 2020. The monthly sessions offered history lessons on the development of systemic racism and its effects. The goal was to build public understanding and support for a reparations initiative. At the same time, Trahern was organizing a steering committee that spent 2020 working within the African American community and among allies to build support and momentum.
By late fall, and in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the committee lobbied the Saint Paul City Council to pass a resolution as the first step in creating a different future. The resolution included an apology for the City's role in the institutional and structural racism that has denied Saint Paul’s African American community access to housing, jobs, education, and health care.
It also called for the creation of a Legislative Advisory Committee to create a framework for a permanent commission, to be known as the Saint Paul Recovery Act Community Reparations Commission. The commission will be empowered to make recommendations to specifically address the creation of generational wealth for the American descendants of chattel slavery and to boost economic mobility and opportunity in the Black community. On January 13, 2021, St. Paul City Council passed the resolution unanimously.
The language in this resolution lays out bold expectations for a different kind of future for Saint Paul. This is the beginning of a process that will put reparations on the city’s agenda. Ta-Nehisi Coates has described the fulfillment of reparations as “a world not where the black race and white race live in harmony, but a world in which the terms black and white have no real political meaning.” With all my might, I hope that our City of Saint Paul is worthy of the love, dedication and confidence invested in this resolution. Our commitment must be fervent and enduring. Reparations to right the wrongs of racial injustice must happen here, now.
Through the work of the Mapping Prejudice project, homeowners in the Armatage neighborhood of Minneapolis learned that they all had racial covenants on their homes. The neighbors sought out Just Deeds (justdeeds.org), a coalition of eight cities that offers legal help to renounce the covenants.
The neighbors made lawn signs that say, "This home renounced its racial covenant," to share the message and spark conversations. Through Armatage Reparations & Equity Action, they are planning ways to support initiatives to close the homeownership gap, back reparations legislation, and make micro-reparation payments directly to Black Minnesotans.
As we learn about the ways in which racism has been systematic, we discover how we can work to disrupt the system and undo some of the damage. Learn more about the St. Paul City Council action at bit.ly/replegad. If you're asking why reparations are needed, please read: The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Beloved Community Staff Team
In 2016, the Beloved Community Staff Team was formed at Unity Church to strengthen and coordinate Unity’s anti-racism and multi-cultural work, and to share the stories of this journey with the wider community. We commit to sharing the struggles, the questions, and the collaborations here at Unity and in the wider world of our faith and city. The current members of the team include Rev. KP Hong, Barbara Hubbard, Drew Danielson, Ahmed Anzaldúa, Laura Park, Karen Hering, Angela Wilcox, Pauline Eichten, and Erika Sanders.
Beloved Community Resources
Next Right Actions
Unity Justice Database
Team Dynamics House of Intersectionality
Anti-Racism Resources in the Unity Libraries Collection
Creative Writers of Color in Unity Libraries
The History of Race Relations and Unity Church, 1850-2005