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In Grand Rapids, equity work is co-opted for influence

In this community, organizers fall victim to misconceptions of equity perpetuated by people who seek out power, influence and prestige.
2nd #notmypresident Rally Grand Rapids Rally November 12, 2016

2nd #notmypresident Rally Grand Rapids Rally November 12, 2016 /Steven Depolo

Breannah Alexander

Breannah Alexander

In the age of co-opted movements for the sake of advertisements gone terribly wrong (hey Pepsi, what's good?), the best way to look at a community’s commitment to equity is to look at the way it treats its organizers.

My time in Grand Rapids the last two years has been interesting. I have been angered beyond measure by the continued abuses of the police department and watching commentary from a police chief so empathy deficient towards the trauma inflicted on black children that it makes me sick. I have been given entry into spaces where folks are working hard to make positive systemic change in situations where the odds don’t seem remotely in their favor. I have met women of color working hard in a community that has a caste system that places them at the very bottom; victimized twice over by racial injustice and gender oppression. Most importantly, I have met organizers whose love exceeds understanding and explanation continuously stand up in a space where they are the scapegoat for stagnation and the demon of choice in a community that has chosen to participate in palatable change at its convenience. To be an organizer is the ultimate show of love for humanity – you have to give every single damn to do that work and do so unapologetically. I’ve seen individuals with that love put their commitment to social justice and equity (those are not the same thing by the way) before their own well-being. Organizers sacrifice so much to make communities better.

In this community, organizers fall victim to misconceptions of equity perpetuated by people who seek out power, influence and prestige.

“Doing” equity work is sexy right now. It has a ring to it. Remember when “diversity and inclusion” was all the rage? The result of that movement was policy reversals that left historically disenfranchised populations behind as the term “diversity” became a nuanced dream for those looking to circumvent systemic change while the concept of inclusion remained largely ignored. Additionally, conversations around economic inequality fell to the wayside as wealth gaps continued to increase and upward mobility seemed more and more out of reach for communities of color. Undoubtedly what could have been a moment that revolutionized what leaving no one behind looked like became a quota game with little to no impact on the biased mindsets of executives and decision makers who continue to believe that “lifting yourself by the bootstraps” is possible for folks who were prevented from acquiring boots in the first place.

Diluting language around oppression and creating variations of concepts at odds with their origins becomes a tool for limiting the effectiveness of dismantling oppressive systems. Being a diversity and inclusion expert became as simple as saying, “diverse groups should be at the table” without any real knowledge or training on what it takes to make that happen.

The same has become true of local practitioners masquerading as equity advocates when they are instead advocating for a pedicured exclusion of certain types of people.

In Grand Rapids, equity advocates will tell you that inclusion is a priority whilst excluding those affected by decisions being made from having a voice. Equity here looks like women of color being vilified for creating safe spaces for themselves to heal – erasing their oppression by dominant culture and by men within their respective racial/ethnic groups. Equity is the ability to heal without judgment on terms you’ve decided are safe for you and those around you. Equity here looks like people of color advocating for racial equity while embracing and advancing homophobia and transphobia. That’s not equity; that’s dangerous.

There’s a laziness associated with co-opted movements for change because education takes time and changing behaviors takes work.

As a heterosexual black woman I don’t understand everything there is to understand about experiences that are outside my own. As an equity practitioner I surround myself with people who I can trust to hold me accountable for my rhetoric and behavior as well as ensuring that I continue to learn more about other people and their experiences. My duty as an equity practitioner is to listen, learn and never place value on the lived experiences of other people because of their social positioning, title or influence. The experiences of all disenfranchised groups matter.

So maybe this is where we start: equity is an argument of quality. If your work does not address inequitable policy while providing a service, it is not equity work. If your politic says that heterosexual black men are the only ones deserving of access and justice, your politic is not equitable. If your community does not honor the sacredness of healing space and recognize the need for historically marginalized groups to heal together in safety, your sense of community is equity deficient.

Over the last decade West Michigan has seen an incredible upswing of investment into community based action and institutions moving forward equity work related to race, gender and sexual identity movements. These investments are not for equity when it comes at the expense of another marginalized group. Silence by LGBTQ movements when black death occurs is problematic. Silence by racial equity movements with trans lives are taken is problematic. But perhaps even more than the silence, what you say about groups in which you do not belong becomes an exercise in what your advocacy is. Equity work requires something beyond tolerance; it requires empathy for that which you can’t imagine and relentless advocacy for groups where the intersections of multiple layers of oppression become a life-threatening prospect.

In Grand Rapids, the first step towards actually working for equity as a permanent fixture in our institutions is holding those around us accountable for the actions they take (and those actions they don’t). Stop electing city commissioners that say and do nothing when black teens are targeted and traumatized by police officers they are tasked with holding accountable. Stop investing in institutions (and by extension people) that sell you the sexy illusion of equity rather than tangible change and transparent commitment. Stop asking marginalized groups to do your work for you (i.e. sacrificing their emotional health to help you be empathetic, creating all of the education spaces that would otherwise not exist because you won’t organize them, etc.) – the Internet is full of resources on equity (like Race Forward, YouTube, NYT, PolicyLink, etc.) and so is the Public Library you pay for. Start believing the accounts of everyday citizens from marginalized groups. Start listening to those who underline their oppression within your institution and engage them in authentic efforts for change. Honor organizers who risk their lives to elevate that which we don’t want to see because they love this community enough to fight to make it better.

Equity starts with confronting the ways in which you are complicit in systemic oppression and continuously recognizing there is room to grow intellectually and empathetically in those spaces. There are people here doing this work the right way; ask yourself if you’re taking the lead from the right folks and hold every space accountable for what it says it is because trusting that what it says it is, is what it does is often how Donald Trump’s become President.

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