Our world views, as well as opportunities that are available, depend on our background. Definitions of peace, education and equality change according to the experiences of those defining the words. One factor that affects the way we live and relate to each other is race. Although it is not always a primary focus, the American Friends Service
Committee’s commitment to the dignity and worth of each person frequently fosters work on the complicated issues of racism and inequity.
Dialogues give us a starting place to gather correct information and empower people to work together. In West Virginia, a collaborative effort by the Partnership of African American Churches, the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy and AFSC’s West Virginia Economic Justice Program produced a substantive and comprehensive report titled “Legacy of Inequality: Racial and Economic Disparities in West Virginia.” Findings confirm that deep disparities between the races exist across a broad range of variables, including income, poverty, education, health and incarceration. And yet, the purpose of the report is to form a foundation for community empowerment.
Reverend James Patterson comments, “The report briefly chronicles the experience of African Americans in West Virginia. It presents a data analysis of the inequities that have always been and continue to be central to that experience… It is hoped that the readers of this report will take this opportunity to engage in those actions that will write a new chapter in the legacy of people of color in the State of West Virginia.”
The issues raised by statistics in the “Legacy of Inequality” report in West Virginia are echoed in the lived experiences of young people in Baltimore’s Civitas School. AFSC staff member Mia Jones recently used a Frederick Douglass quote to generate discussion with the Civitas students: “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 persons nor property will be safe.”
Mia posed a question to the young people, who all are training to become peer mediators: “What makes you feel safe and what causes people to be violent?” At first students responded with things like anger and frustration but Mia probed further and asked: “Why do you think that Baltimore City has more violence than other places?”
Student Katia Moses responded, “Because there are black people here and there was oppression 400 years ago with slavery – because of bad stuff that happened then, we are still in a bad situation.” Daquan West added, “Stress causes violence.” Talaytha Carter said, “When you are poor, you are more likely to steal to get something or hit people because you are frustrated.”
This is not the only classroom situation in the Middle Atlantic Region where AFSC staff members probe young people to discuss prejudice and inequity.
The D.C. Peace and Economic Justice Program’s Human Rights Learning Curriculum includes a session in which participants watch a clip from the Youth for Human Rights video, which depicts a young African American girl walking through a History of Slavery museum. At the end she turns to her teacher, who is white, and asks, “Does slavery still exist?” The teacher has no answer.
This clip elicits a variety of responses. At Cardozo Senior High School, where 73 percent of the population is black and 24 percent is Hispanic, the discussion flows easily. Students share their own experiences: “I was walking the other day and…” But when students at Woodrow Wilson Senior High School, which is much more racially diverse, watch the same video, the young people look around at each other uncomfortably. AFSC staff member Jean-Louis Peta Ikambana is using the framework of universal human rights to create a safe space for dialogue about race.
In Pittsburgh, the Empowering Voices for Peace and Justice Program has been developing a new Racial Equity through Human Rights project. The goal is to help youths understand and confront racial injustice in their community through a human rights platform that approaches the issue from a positive place, acting to protect human rights for all. The recent brutal beating by white police of a young African American student from the Creative and Performing Arts High School, and the rising racial tensions that have ensued, highlight the need to educate young people.
Similarly, the Appalachian Center for Equality recently produced “We Can Come Together: A Conversation about Race.” The thoughtful and provoking video documents examples of racism in Logan, West Virginia. The video provides a tool for schools, civic groups, libraries and other organizations to change the conversation about race by teaching tolerance– primarily to young people who are willing to learn and change.
Meanwhile, in Maryland prisons, AFSC staff members find a situation strangely similar to that in D.C. schools. In Hagerstown, where there is a stark contrast between an almost entirely black prison population and an almost entirely white group of correctional officers, prisoners talk about racism and describe “a very hostile environment.” But in Jessup, where the mixed prison conflict resolution group includes black, white and Latino participants, the conversation is not as open. Inside correction facility walls the vast majority of prisoners are of African descent, which creates a different dynamic and perceived power structure. And yet the same trepidation about discussing these dynamics exists inside correctional facilities as it does on the outside.
Race is a more taboo topic for honest discussion across all ages and ethnic groups than almost any other subject that one can imagine. Addressing inequality, starting with honest conversations, is a natural outgrowth of the American Friends Service Committee’s historic commitment to the dignity and worth of each human person. Dedication to racial equity is the thread that ties together people and communities and programs throughout the Middle Atlantic Region.