Racial justice is not a program. It is not a person. It is an orientation.
Cheers went up around the room. Executive directors and board chairs clutched YWCA’s freshly released manual for racial justice training. Our national conference had been building to this for days and the room was packed. We were ready, we just needed some fresh tools to get there.
A little background. YWCA has worked on racial justice for a long time. It’s been right there in our mission, eliminating racism and empowering women, since the 1970s. But like most organizations, we’ve done better at some times than others, and our understanding of racial justice has grown and changed as we have.
The facilitator, YWCA’s Director for Mission Impact Donte Hilliard, begins, “Our last racial justice manual was published in 1996,” and there are gasps and groans. He says, “And you know there is still someone out there using that manual. That’s not to fault them – they’re using the tool they have in front of them. But we’ve learned a lot since 1996. The world has changed. Let’s be real, we’ve learned a lot since November. So we’re publishing this new manual to reflect that.”
As if we need reminding.
We had spent the day before on Capitol Hill, lobbying our legislators to fully fund domestic violence services, childcare, and affordable housing. After 200 meetings on the hill, everyone keenly felt how much representation matters. A CEO from Pennsylvania had a polite, if strained, meeting with a Representative who still doesn’t think we should use federal dollars to help women escape their abusers. She was frustrated and tired. She asked hopefully about our meetings with staff for Senator Harris and Leader Pelosi, but I felt defeated too. I had been preaching to a small, exhausted choir.
Fortunately, we came back together at the end of the day. And a powerful, radiant Symone Sanders told us, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, if the door’s locked when you get there, then you run around the back of the house, jump in through the kitchen window, grab a chair from the kitchen, drag it to the table, squeeze yourself in and say, ‘I’m so sorry I was late, where are we?’ And if you’re already in the room,” she admonished, “invite us in! Young women and women of color have the solutions and the organizing and the skills we need, we just need you to invite us in and move.”
She challenged us to get real about the difference between diversity and inclusion. “Inclusion means an invitation to plan the event, not an invitation to sit on the panel once we’ve planned it.”
Knowing nods and affirmations rippled through the crowd.
So by the time Donte Hilliard handed us YWCA USA’s new racial justice training manual, we were hungry. In the room were staff who have been running anti-racism programs in Charleston, South Carolina for 20 years and staff who were hired four months ago to address employment barriers for people of color in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. There was a young woman from our junior board at the Washington, DC office, and a domestic violence survivor in her sixties who started volunteering at a YWCA in Washington state over forty years ago. Women had come in from YWCAs in Queens and Anchorage and rural upstate New York and San Diego and Miami and Cleveland and Chicago and Toronto and San Francisco. Black women, white women, Latinas, first nations women, all ages, all religions, all sexual orientations, all abilities, and we were ready, with all our hearts, to link arms and make a shift for racial equity.
Like many organizations, we are clear-eyed about the hard conversations and difficult choices that face us in the future. But we know we can make them wisely, guided by an inclusive network with a wealth of expertise and experience and power to share. In the end it’s the only way we’ll get to where we need to be – together.