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Igniting the spark of justice: An interview with Dustin Washington

Acting in Faith  |  By Genevieve Beck-Roe, Feb 23, 2016

From left: Nia Eubanks-Dixon (AFSC), Dustin Washington (AFSC), Andrea (Seattle YUIR), Mike Brown Sr., and Jaquis (St. Louis YUIR) at the St. Louis Freedom School in February 2016.

Photo: AFSC

(Above photo, from left: Nia Eubanks-Dixon (AFSC), Dustin Washington (AFSC), Andrea (Seattle YUIR), Mike Brown Sr., and Jaquis (St. Louis YUIR) at the St. Louis Freedom School in February 2016.)

Note: Dustin Washington is the director of AFSC’s Community Justice Program in Seattle. As director, Dustin has been working to educate and support youth organizers in the Northwest for over 15 years. The model developed in Seattle is now used in cities around the country with a Freedom School and YUIR chapters in St. Paul and St. Louis in 2014, and Pittsburgh and West Virginia in 2015. Dustin brings a comprehensive knowledge of unjust systems to his work, as well as the ability to translate his knowledge to others to build collective capacity. I was moved by the care, trust, and respect Dustin has for the young people he works with. We talked about a wide variety of things, including his recent partnership with rap duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis on “White Privilege II” (see the end of the piece for more). The following is edited excerpts of our conversation. – Genevieve Beck-Roe

This story is also part of the "Let Your Life Speak" 2017 feature. Read the other stories from the project here.

Genevieve Beck-Roe (GBR): What is encompassed in the work of the Community Justice Program?

Dustin Washington (DW): We have three core organizing projects, in partnership with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond [a collective of anti-racist organizers and educators based in New Orleans]. The first project is the Tyree Scott Freedom School, which we do two times in the summer and once in the winter. Spiritually, it's connected to the freedom schools from Freedom Summer in the Civil Rights Movement, but for contemporary times.

It is an anti-racist educational institute that teaches young people first to understand systemic poverty and the historical construction of race and racism, and to understand how structural racism, internalized racism, and cultural racism all play out today. Freedom School helps youth of color to understand why they see the things they see in their community: high rates of incarceration, an unequal education system, paralyzing poverty.

For white youth that attend, it helps them to understand the roots of white privilege and how white supremacy is still embedded in all of our systems today.

St, Louis Freedom School, 2014 / Caylee Dodson

Understanding the historical roots of white supremacy

Historically, we take young people back to the mid-1500s. Specifically, we look at how Spain and Portugal sought to colonize the world under the direction of the Pope and the Catholic Church, and how that eventually led to the English colonizing the Eastern seaboard of the United States.

The students see how race and racism was codified into law and built into the structure of all of our systems. We start there and we take them all the way up to the election of the first African American president. While that was a beautiful experience for many people, it did not fundamentally alter the race construct in the United States.

We really help them to understand how racism, a bias for whiteness, and white supremacy were built into the fabric of all our institutions. The anchor of that is anti-Blackness, which also helps us to understand the experiences of indigenous people, Latino people, of Asian people within this construct. Additionally, poor people, whether that's poor white people or all poor people, have all caught hell within this arrangement.

The participants also study and understand the different historical movements that have stood up to resist the race construct in the United States. They learn about the Black Panther Party, the American Indian Movement, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. They begin to see themselves in the generations before them that had the vision and the courage to demand a new world.

Freedom School also helps young people begin to develop community organizing skills. Then, ideally they leave Freedom School and take those community organizing skills into Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR). YUIR is a vehicle to allow young people to organize against structural racism.

St. Paul Freedom School, 2014

Organizing against the Prison system: We believe there is a better way

One of the organizing projects from YUIR is Ending the Prison Industrial Complex, which we call EPIC. EPIC has been organizing to stop the construction of a new youth detention center in Seattle, because we see mass incarceration as a form of modern slavery, and we understand that structural racism is the reason why so many Black youth and other youth of color are incarcerated.

That’s true not only in Martin Luther King County in Washington state, but across this country. We're organizing to stop the construction of this jail, but maybe more importantly, we're organizing to help develop community based anti-racist disruptors and alternatives to detention. We believe there is a better way.

Tyree Scott Freedom School, 2013

Activism vs. organizing

One of the things we help the young people in our network to understand is the difference between activism and organizing. Activists, from our perspective, are typically reactionary and solely issue-focused. Our focus is on movement-building more than single issues. We’d like our work to be more than just responding to what the system does. I think one of the things that's happened is that the police kills someone, everyone is up in arms and demands some reforms. Reforms alone won’t change the dynamic between police and communities. We need a community-led transformation of policing.

We understand that violence can only beget violence and that is what the system does. We want to know how we can we dig deeper to look at the root causes and address those and not just react to what an oppressive system only can do. That doesn't mean you don't respond to those things, but it changes how you respond to those things. A lot of folks are organized from a place of anger or pain, just the pain of experiencing racism.

Ultimately, what we have found is that that can only produce pain. Anger cannot fundamentally be what produces the world we want to see, it has to be a deep, deep love, agape.

Dustin Washington, St. Louis Freedom School, 2014 / Caylee Dodson

GBR: Tell me a story about the Tyree Scott Freedom School.

DW: I'll tell you a universal story. What’s beautiful for me, as an anti-racist educator trying to create a Socratic learning environment, is to see young people come in with a lot of questions but also a lot of wisdom and understanding. Through the framework that we create in Freedom School, their innate, natural brilliance comes out: their curiosity, their critical thinking, and all kind of skills that are beat down within our existing school system.

Within the short amount of time in which we have young people those skills come out, and there’s a transformation from day one to the last day. These young people get a sense of their own power. That is the core story of the Freedom School.

We never have a bad Freedom School because the young people understand that we are speaking truth. We are not lying to them. We are treating them with absolute respect. We're speaking to their lives, and we know that they have again a wisdom and ideas and things to give to us. It's a mutual learning environment. It’s really a beautiful experience.

Jelani Brown of the St. Louis AFSC office shares observations with Julia, a middle school student at the St. Paul Freedom School, 2014

GBR: How does the work of the Community Justice Program respond to the particular challenges of youth in Seattle, particularly Black youth?

DW: Black youth only make up 10 percent of Seattle. Seattle is a very heavily gentrified city, so Black youth are being spread out all across the area and the region. Ideally, we serve as a hub for young people to come together and wrestle with the areas of structural racism.

We value the Undoing Racism principle of understanding internalized racial oppression, and when we live in such a white, liberal, so-called progressive city like Seattle, there can be a lot of confusion in terms of why these things are happening the way they're happening in our respective communities.

We try to help young people understand how internalized racial oppression impacts their day-to-day life. It's also not just how internalized racial oppression impacts Black youth and other youth of color. It's also understanding how the internalization of racial superiority impacts the white youth that come into our orbit, as well.

We very much see that there is a role and a place for white people, anti-racist white people, to go into their own communities and to organize against structural racism, white supremacy. But also, for them, to help other white people and to see that they should not be operating as allies in the racial justice struggle.

White people need to see how their liberation is concretely at hand in terms of the need to dismantle structural racism, and not just in a moral, spiritual sense.

A participant asks a question at St. Paul's Freedom School, 2014

GBR: How does your work with the Community Justice Program connect to what you believe?

DW: I think this work is a direct extension of my spiritual beliefs. Even though this sounds cliché, I believe the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. I believe that God acts through us and through our work in the world.

I think that our work is an opportunity to show a reflection of God in the world, and God's love. The God I worship is a God of justice, a God of love, of compassion, a God of forgiveness.

As the world stands right now, we live in opposition to those values. For me to do this work is to be fully alive, and to hopefully reflect the light of God within me, and the light of God in the world.

GBR: Bringing that into a Quaker context at AFSC, how do the Quaker values of AFSC shape your approach to the work that you do?

DW: The notion of speaking truth to power is a mantra we lift up in our work. I believe the notion of seeing that of God in everyone tells us that everyone deserves to live in a society that is just and equitable. Even those who are on the other side of perpetuating oppression, whether intentionally or not, or consciously or not, deserve that. It means that our work is not transactional.

We seek to create transformational relationships, even with those who hold institutional power and are perpetuating abuse. We believe that if we're doing our work in the right way it ought to seek to transform everyone involved. At our best we try to approach this work in the spirit of humility and inquiry, knowing what we know and what we believe, while also understanding that we don't have all the answers.

Dustin speaking at the St. Paul Freedom School, 2014

This is a timeless struggle. From the beginning of history to now there's always been the exploiters and the exploited. But we live in a time now where we have such an abundance of resources that we don't have to have a world constructed upon greed and oppression in the way it's currently constructed.

Getting there requires a vision and the belief that something can be different. We explore in Freedom School how we're conditioned and socialized to accept this current reality.

Life is a series of infinite possibilities, but we've all been conditioned and socialized – by the media, through our religion, through all the messages we receive day in and day out – that this is normal for the world to be this way. It may be that in a race-constructed society this is normal, but it is absolutely not healthy.

Part of the process of social transformation is getting people to see that the world does not have to be the way it is, and that we can imagine something different. One of the things that's most interesting about young people is that their minds still have not been absolutely co-opted, so there's the opportunity to ignite a spark of resistance.

Related Content

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Reflections after Ferguson October

Building community, growing food, co-creating change: An interview with Crystal Gonzalez

Colorlines’ Here’s What Happened When We Questioned Macklemore & Ryan Lewis About Their White Privilege features this video, featuring Dustin speaking about YUIR: 

About the Author

Genevieve Beck-Roe is serving as the Friends Relations Fellow with AFSC as part of Quaker Voluntary Service's Alumni Fellowship for 2015-16. Genevieve grew up in Chicago and graduated in 2014 from Earlham College. She has previously worked and been active around issues of mass incarceration and immigrant detention at the intersection of LGBTQ rights, and is excited to engage those issues in a Quaker context at AFSC. She swam in the ocean for the first time in August and it was great.

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