You don’t need me to tell you that racism is one of the most important issues driving the current political crisis in the United States. You also don’t need me to tell you that there’s nothing new to that statement. Race has been an issue since the first slaves were brought to Jamestown in 1619. Even earlier. After all, the genocide of Native American populations was already well underway as was slavery in other parts of what was mistakenly referred to as the new world.
On the other hand, I might be able to convince you that things might be different now. New civil rights (and more) movements just might help us overcome what today’s activists call systemic racism.
There are actually a number of such efforts. Some have been around for a long time. Others were created more recently, especially following the rise of right wing and white nationalist populism, the election of Donald Trump, and everything else that has roiled the United States ever since, especially, in the dreadful year that just ended.
Here, I simply want to introduce you to one of them which I’m privileged to be a part of—the United States Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation or USTRHT for short. While I happen to think that the USTRHT can take us a long way, I’m more interested in having you use the USTRHT as a mental jumping off point that leads you to find it or another initiative that better addresses your interests and takes advantage of your skill set.
The Back Story
The USTRHT is new, having only been created at the very end of 2020, And, as you will see below, it is very much a work in progress to the point that you can actually say that we are still creating it.
It is a coalition that brings together average citizens, national and local leaders, a network of funders, celebrities, activists, academics and more who, in the words of some of its founders, want to:
- Realize that we all carry the pain and trauma of systemic racism
- Understand what good race relationships look like
- Accelerate the journey to lasting racial justice, equity, and healing
- Jettison systems of mass harm that damage
Together, we hope to address the frustrations that have burst out into the open since the start of the pandemic in early 2020, knowing that those issues have a long history that literally goes back to the dawn of American colonialism.
Although it is still being created, it has already brought four initiatives together and continues to gather partners and projects.
House Resolution 100. On June 4, 2020 U. S. Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) introduced a resolution calling for the creation of Truth and Racial Healing Commission. By the time the Congress adjourned, the resolution had 170 co-sponsors. A similar resolution was introduced in the Senate by Cory Booker (D-NJ) which had 13 co-sponsors. As is the case with all pending legislation, the resolutions lapsed with the end of the 115th Congress. Our team briefed the Biden-Harris transition team, and we are hoping that a version of the commission will be created during its first hundred days.
The Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Framework. In 2017, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation created its own framework for Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation and funded pilot projects around the country. Each develops its own initiatives, but all work on some combination of redefining narratives on race, enhancing the rule of law, expanding social inclusion, encouraging economic empowerment, and supporting trauma healing. All of those goals are designed to help Americans build better relationships across racial lines.
Advocacy Coalition. Shelly Marc, then Lee’s chief of staff, began organizing a coalition of to advocate for the creation of the commission and expansion of the kinds of work Kellogg is funding. The Breathe with me Revolution has taken the lead in the effort, hoping to turn last year’s protests into lasting policy change. As of this month, 229 organizations have endorsed the call for creating a commission, ranging from Sojourners which has deep roots in the Evangelical community to March for Our Lives which led the protests following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland FL.
Academic Partners. I am personally involved because the teams behind the USTRHT sought academic partners. The fact that one of them is the African American studies program at UCLA should come as no surprise. I am involved because the founders reached out to the Carter School Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University where I have a courtesy research appointment. In the last year, we had created the John J. Mitchell Program for History, Justice, and Race as well as the Mary Hoch Center for Reconciliation. We bring to the table our experience working to create and support truth and reconciliation projects both in the United States and around the world at the local as well as the national levels. Because I also wear my Alliance for Peacebuilding hat, we have been able to integrate USTRHT into AfP’s broader efforts in the United States.
Artistic Contributions. Breathe with Me has close ties with the Black Action Music Coalition, among others. Just last week, it released a video by Alicia Keys, Khalid, Mary J. Blige and nine other artists, “17 Ways You Could Be Killed if You Are Black in America” which had been viewed at least one million times in the first 24 hours after its release.
What We Are Doing
Last week, we invited potential funders to an information session on the local initiatives. While we mentioned the advocacy work, the academic partnerships, and the outreach to the. Biden administration in passing, we really wanted to showcase the grassroots initiatives because they will be at the heart of what the USTRHT hopes to accomplish now that we realize that cultural change is at least as important as the introduction of new policies or the creation of new institutions at the national level.
Most of the presentations grew out of the work Kellogg has been supporting for the last four years. Here is a sampling of what we heard about changes that are already taking place in communities around the country.
- Native Alaskans First has created what it calls accountability partners. Like most of the Kellogg funded initiatives, its leaders understand that we can’t put government on a pedestal, but we also can’t ignore elected and appointed officials. Still, as is the case in all of these programs, the organization stresses the need for the people to define a vision of the world they want to create and then use it to leverage state and federal officials.
- The work Kellogg funded in Chicago is among the most advanced. It started in 2017 when the local team trained 40 racial healing facilitators and held 30 study circles. Now hundreds of community based organizations are involved. It has expanded to the United Way which has convened more than 200 business leaders and is in the process of raising $500 million for a series of projects. The mayor’s office is now involved with a United We Heal project to overcome the legacy of an economy based on racial injustice. The project has now spread to the state government where one of the initial funders of the work in Chicago heads the Department of Human Services and sits in Governor Pritzker’s cabinet. Together, they have created Healing Illinois which has given $4.5 million to 200 organizations around the state after receiving more than twice that amount in requests.
- Lansing MI made the headlines in 2020 when a group of white supremacist militia members occupied the state house. Needless to say, that and other events deeply troubled Black and Hispanic communities in Michigan’s capital region. Luckily, it had a well-established TRHT group that had been doing what it calls deep policy and deep movement work as part of a state-wide coalition in this case with deep ties to the Black Lives Matter movement.
- The Community Foundation of Flint MI overcame its initial reluctance to engage with TRHT because it was already overstretched given the city’s water crisis. In the last three years, however, it has leveraged the $800,000 it received from Kellogg and others to build a new model of bottom up philanthropy so that people of color do not feel dehumanized and left behind. Ironically, the work done in adapting the TRHT framework for use in a public health crisis helped the community weather the “storms” that the COVID pandemic brought to the region.
- The initiatives are not all local. For example, the Association of American Colleges and Universities has adopted TRHT in its work with the next generation of national leaders—today’s students. It now has 28 centers which work not only on campus but on town-gown issues as well. Their goal is not to replace existing DEI initiatives but to use their roughly 400 trained practitioners to add civility and empathy to discussions that cross racial lines
- The Maryland state government recently created a state-wide Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission–first of its kind anywhere in the country. Its goal is to “salvage” the history of what happened a century ago or more and support survivors and others in those communities. To that end, it is using part of a six figure Department of Justice grant to set up a restorative justice fund because you can draw a direct line between the racist violence of the past and the systemic inequalities of today, including the ways that the COVID pandemic has affected people of color in the state today.
- We heard how people in Dallas are reacting as the fact that they live in a city built on stolen land and built largely by enslaved labor. A coalition has spawned initiatives like Dallas Faces Race and created a New Community Vision for Dallas. They realize that doing this kind of work in the south and in Texas in particular is not easy. So, they raised $4 million in 2020 alone to support a variety TRHT efforts.
Our Role Going Forward
It truly is too early to tell how USTRHT will evolve. The situation is too fluid, and many key decisions will be made by others, including the Biden administration.
What I can do is suggest what the Carter School and others in the American peacebuilding community could and should bring to the metaphorical table. As impressive as our coalition partners are, we have been included because we have at least three things to add.
- As I will argue in more detail in next week’s post, our first challenge it to add peacebuilding values to these efforts. Rather than building a peacebuilding movement, per se, it makes more sense for us to infuse our values into existing efforts. We actually have more experience using empathy, mediation, reconciliation, and other tools than our partners do. If I’m right, by adding them, we can help speed up the impact of initiatives like the ones the Kellogg Foundation has funded.
- We have learned lessons in our international work that could and should be useful as we turn our attention to problems here at home. These range from the intellectual tools of conflict mapping and systems analysis to the nuts and bolts of setting up and running truth and reconciliation commissions. That starts with research that has identified upwards of forty local initiatives that involve some form of racial reconciliation which you can vaguely make out in this image from last week’s event.
- For reasons that are not altogether clear to me, the American peacebuilding community can reach out beyond the “usual suspects” who show up to do this kind of work, who have typically come from the progressive side of the political spectrum. While most of my friends and colleagues do, too, we have intentionally reached out to peacebuilders in the Evangelical, LDS, and other communities where we will have to work effectively if we do want to transform race relations—or anything else for that matter—in the United States.
Let me close with an invitation. As I mentioned earlier, ours is not the only initiative worth supporting. I personally know of dozens of others that focus on race and even more that are taking on other issues that have roiled the United States either in the last year or throughout its long history.
Find the one that works best for you. Give it your all.
Because we have a lot to do and time is growing short.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.