Philanthropist Takes on Racial Wounds

Story tools

A A AResize



WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Within the African-American community there once was a lifeline of trust that extended beyond class, occupation or geography. So, in the 1950s, it was with confidence that James and Emma Lucille Minor placed their two young, unaccompanied children -- Dale and his little sister Gail -- on the train in Cleveland and waved goodbye to them from the platform for the long ride south to visit their grandparents in Pollard, Ala., for the summer.

Course to Dismantle Segregation in Waco Churches
By Inga Buchbinder, New America Media

Ramona Curtis was raised in a primarily African-American church, but now attends a church where she is the only black member.

She says she has often wondered why “we have been so comfortable letting ourselves be in racial silos.”

Curtis’ idea was to dismantle what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “America’s most segregated hour” -- the 11:00 hour on Sunday morning when people go to church. “Our world is growing more and more diverse,” said Curtis, “so why are we still so challenged at that 11:00 hour on Sunday?”

Curtis, the director of academy and leadership development at Baylor University in Waco, Tex., says going to a church that is predominantly white has helped her to see things differently. “I grow racially in that church,” she said, “and I am challenged racially in that church, to be able to be comfortable and see people as people.”

With a $10,000 grant from the Kellogg Foundation’s Racial Healing Initiative, Curtis and the Community Race Relations Coalition are attempting to challenge this last stronghold of segregation - churches in Waco, whether Baptist, Methodist or Catholic, that are still divided by race.

Participants in the six to eight month program will begin by reading “Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America,” by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith. The book, which explores how white evangelicals have preserved racial divisions, shows how “religion has been used as a tool to oppress people,” said Curtis.

Then participants from a church that is predominately one race will be asked to spend two months attending a church of the same denomination but of a different race; they would swap churches.

Congregants will be asked to focus on building relationships in the new church and to keep a journal of their reflections on the experience.

After two months, participants will return to their home church where they will spend another two months writing about what they have learned.

In the final part of the program, the group will read “United By Faith: The Multiracial Congregation As an Answer to the Problem of Race,” by Curtiss Paul DeYoung, Michael O. Emerson, George Yancey, and Karen Chai Kim.

The purpose of this initiative, Curtis notes, is not to create multiracial churches, but to encourage people to think more critically about racial divisions, and to look for ways to create partnerships and open a dialogue.

At the end of the program, “we are hoping that people will be able to challenge some of the backstage racial things that go on within their own groups,” Curtis said.

She hopes the project will yield a tool kit for other organizations. “I envision student governments at universities will want to swap campuses,” Curtis said. “A historically black college swaps with a predominately white institution. We’re providing different ways for people to build relationships across racial lines.”

Although the Community Race Relations Coalition hasn’t yet set out to recruit participants, Curtis is confident that there will be people who want to be a part of a program that challenges segregation in Waco churches.

“Many people of color, particularly African Americans, see themselves as black people first, and then people. But at my church, I really feel like I’m Ramona,” she said.

“Back then, they could put little black kids on the train and the porters would take care of us,” said Dr. Gail Christopher, now vice president of programs at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. It was an adventure that left an indelible memory of trauma on a then-eight-year-old girl. Yesterday, however, Christopher gladly shared a podium with other Kellogg executives and trustees to announce the launch of America Healing, a $75 million, five-year initiative to fund anti-racism work throughout the country. Every state will have at least one Kellogg-funded project, while Michigan, Mississippi and New Mexico, because of high concentrations of children in poverty, will see additional grants.

Christopher, a PhD in holistic health and clinical nutrition, joined the Kellogg Foundation as a nationally known expert on countering health disparities. She said Kellogg’s board made a commitment several years ago to be “the most effective anti-racist organization it could be.” That vow dovetails with founder Will Keith Kellogg’s desire that the fortune derived from his cereal empire be used to improve conditions for vulnerable children.

“Sixty percent of children of color in this country live in low-income families,” Christopher said, and will continue to be affected not only by intra-personal racism, but by the structural racism that contributes to disparities in access to safe and affordable housing, food security, medical care, and adequately funded school systems.

Dr. David Williams walked the audience through research documenting the persistence of disparities among and between ethnic groups -- disparities clearly generated by racism. He and Christopher took issue with the notion that America has arrived at a “post-racial” plateau where a level playing field exists for all. “It took centuries to build a system based on the pathology of racial differences,” Christopher said. “We are naïve to think that system can be undone in basically a few decades.”

The demographic mandate is clear, Christopher noted, because “by 2015, most of the children in America will be children of color,” who will continue to experience higher rates of interaction with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, not because of some genetic flaw, but because of a system of rooted privilege and the policies that undergird it. “Race really doesn’t exist,” Christopher said, citing the science that confirms the genetic unity of humankind, “but we have created a social construct of race.”

The foundation was surprised by nearly 1,000 applications to fund racial healing work. Unable to fund all the worthy proposals, Kellogg will post a catalogue of applicants on its Web site. In part, Christopher explained, America Healing is conceived as “a catalyst for our peers in philanthropy, the public and private sector to recognize that our future as a country depends on making life better for our children” and will encourage other entities to fund projects Kellogg could not.

America Healing includes four key aims. “We want a national system of accountability,” Christopher said, a comprehensive repository that measures progress toward achieving racial equity. Christopher said, “Kellogg does not want to own it, per se,” but rather envisions participating in possibly a public-private partnership that can report outcomes, for example, in education, health, or housing across a full range of indices.

Various media projects also will be funded, “to diversify the culture of editorial, broadcast, and print – and new media, as well,” Christopher explained, because Kellogg recognizes the role of media in helping forge a public will to take on issues like the social determinants of health.

The second goal, reflected in the grants announced May 11, is to support the “community-based infrastructure for achieving racial equity.” Christopher noted that projects to receive funding are drawn from “Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, Latinos, Arab Americans, African Americans, Caucasians – this issue of racism affects us all” -- particularly, she contended, when the current rhetoric around race is so divisive.

Thirdly, “There’s a growing body of research that is specifically addressing the harmful effects of discrimination and structural racism and we’ll be helping to fund some of that research,” Christopher said.

Kellogg’s fourth goal is to financially bolster “traditional organizations,” like the NAACP, National Council of La Raza, National Congress of American Indians, and the National Urban League. This funding is important, she said, not only to augment their resources during the recent economic downturn, but to acknowledge the historic contributions they’ve made to the quest for social justice.

The efforts of those organizations had yet to touch the town of Pollard, Ala., when Gail alit from the train to her grandparents’ arms years ago. Even today a small town of less than 200 people a few miles over Alabama’s border with Florida’s western-most panhandle, Pollard is not quite far enough south to share the culture of Gulf Coast cities like Mobile, but easily qualifies as the Deep South.

“My experience in Alabama was my first up-close exposure to Jim Crow,” said Christopher. She recalled being traumatized by the “Whites Only” signs that greeted her and her brother, and the fear her grandparents had for them -- children from the North who might put themselves in danger by inadvertently crossing a social line in the “Heart of Dixie,” as Alabama had come to be known. The children were pressed between their efforts to conform to the prevailing racial hierarchy and conventions and, for any public error, the harsh reactions of their grandparents. “That experience was so common to us that I swore I would never go back to Alabama,” Christopher said. “And I never have.”

Christopher admits her memory is refracted through a lens clouded by a painful incident. “I became very ill that summer and [my grandparents] wouldn’t take me to a hospital because of the apartheid.” She said they didn’t trust the medical system and resorted to their own healing techniques, but her health didn’t improve. “So, when I almost died, they took me to the blacks-only part of the hospital” in Brewton, about nine miles up the road.

Christopher never questioned the depth of her grandparents’ love for her; rather she came to understand the perniciousness of a system that would cause adults to hesitate in seeking care for the children they deem most precious. “All of that combined,” she said of that summer, “reminds me of the consequences of what racism can and does do.”

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., known for his courage in confronting racism during the civil rights era, also recounted, as a young boy, seeing signs of “white men, colored men, white women, colored women, white waiting, colored waiting,” while growing up in Alabama. He thanked the Kellogg Foundation for its initiative, for “getting in the way” of racism to help America achieve “a more perfect union.”

Before departing the stage, Lewis embraced Christopher. “Congressman Lewis just invited me to Alabama with him,” she said. “I guess that’s an invitation I’ll have to accept.”