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We Can and Will Do Better

By Karen Shirer, Associate Dean — Family Development

There is no ignoring what has happened in the past few weeks. The events on the national stage and responses to them have left many of us with feelings of sadness and despair regarding the state of our country. What I hope to offer today are some thoughts and resources that might help us better understand and respond to these tragic and disappointing events.

MFAN’s Meeting to Take Action Against Institutional Racism

On Wednesday, August 16, I attended the third quarterly meeting of the Metro Food Access Network and received a timely, informative, and transformative update on institutional racism.

Two Flower Boxes

The facilitators showed a TEDx talk by Camara Jones, MD, MPH, PhD, titled "Allegories on Race and Racism." Dr. Jones’ research focuses on the intersection between race and social determinants of health.

In her talk, Dr. Jones describes four allegories that she has developed to promote understanding of racism and its effects on health. We viewed her description of one allegory titled “The Gardener’s Tale” that focused on institutional racism. I cannot do justice in this brief blog post to her message, so I highly recommend that you view Dr. Jones’ talk starting at 5:52.

Dr. Jones asks viewers to reflect on how they personally promote institutional racism and to take steps to change the narrative on race and racism. When you have the time, I strongly encourage you to view the full 20 minute video presentation.

Two Ladders of Empowerment

The Ladder of Empowerment was also shared at the MFAN meeting. One ladder was provided for those who identify as white and another for those who identified as people of color. The ladders are designed to help members of each group understand their racial identity and the developmental levels for moving beyond racism. To learn more, view these:

Two Sides of the Discussion

The meeting attendees were a mix of white people and people of color, representing a variety of socio-economic classes. The facilitators, Samty Xiong from The Food Group and Miah Ulysse from Appetite for Change/Northside Fresh, had us talk with each other in small groups and as a larger group.

tables with adults sitting and looking at the front of the room
Meeting attendees in the community room of Robert J. Jones Urban Research and Outreach-Education Center.

I found the discussions both very helpful and very uncomfortable. On the one hand, it is always grounding for me as a white woman with a great deal of privilege to hear the realities of people of color. On the other hand, in this situation, some people of color expressed impatience with white people’s questions. Several white women persisted, wanting help to know how to talk about these issues. I learned that white people must strike a balance between listening to and learning from people of color, and asking them to do the work of educating white people about racism or composing a discussion guide.

In addition to my feelings of uneasiness and discomfort, I felt honored to be a part of the conversations.

Four Resources to Guide Action

The events in Charlottesville. The Gardener’s Tale. The Ladder of Empowerment. The small group discussions. I felt these all combine to create a sense of urgency on the part of many participants — and myself — to address institutional racism not only in the food system, but in other systems as well. Perhaps you feel it, too. If you are ready to take action, here are four options.

First, I received an email last week from the National Council on Family Relations highlighting resources for individuals and families in the wake of Charlottesville violence. The website contains resources on how to help children with tragic events, information on white privilege, and tips for discussing difficult topics.

Second, the New York Times put together a reading list titled A History of Race in Racism in America, in 24 Chapters. It is a long list — if nothing else, look for one or two readings that would raise your awareness of race issues.

Third, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Race Equity and Inclusion Action Guide provides practical ways to incorporate race equity and inclusion at work. This guide is useful for anyone who works with systems or communities, or who provides technical assistance.

Finally, Extension Dean Bev Durgan affirmed her and the university’s commitment to civil rights in last week’s Extension E-News (U of M sign-in required). She also reminded us all that we need to complete the civil rights online training by the end of the year. Dean Durgan is committed — as I am — to making sure that Extension exceeds the expectations for the legal aspects of civil rights in order to make Extension and the University a welcoming, safe, and productive environment for all.

Key Takeaways

As I reflect on what I wrote about, there are few ideas that I’d like to highlight and to which to call you to action.
  • In the day-to-day busyness of work, we can forget or ignore the subtle and not-so-subtle nature of institutional racism. Make a commitment to become more conscious of how your actions and decisions inadvertently promote racism at the institutional level. I also encourage you to learn all you can about racism, including institutional racism, and to gain a better understanding of the controversies facing the country. You can start with the resources shared above.
  • Difficult conversations are needed to understand the pain of colleagues, friends, and communities that have been victims of institutional racism. Take a risk and start a conversation with others by simply inquiring about one’s experience with racism or other forms of discrimination. Then listen with care, thought, and openness.
  • The ladder of empowerment for white people helped me to understand that overcoming racism is a developmental process. It doesn’t happen all at once. We go through phases and sometimes backslide to earlier phases. Be gentle with yourself. Do not give up on changing attitudes and behaviors. The work of personal and organizational change is hard but well worth the effort.

On a Lighter Note

I hope all of you have had an opportunity to spend time with family this summer. In early August, my family took a vacation together to Montana. Below is a picture of the “Shirer women” at the top of a hiking trail in the Beartooth Mountain Range. We had just trekked the four miles to this beautiful lake. The whole family had a wonderful time!

three women and a young girl in front of a lake with mountains in the background
L to R: Me, my daughters Lizzie and Allie, and my grand baby Lucia).
Behind the camera: My husband Steve, sons-in-law Mike and Phil, and dogs, Missy and Veda.

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