The Problem With Working on Racial Justice

March 22, 2016

Since returning from maternity leave, I have met with dozens of leaders.  Together, we have been grappling with the question of how we can confront racial injustice in our communities given all we are up against.  In this email, I want to share with you some of my learning and reflection about where we are and next steps.


The Problem with Working on Racial Justice

The problem with working on racial justice today is that we can’t solve things by winning one campaign or besting some Goliath.  In the era of the Civil Rights Movement, there were clear enemies – the likes of the KKK and Bull Connor.  Today, while there are extra-racist people out there, mostly racism lies in the unintentional racial biases that we all have, even though we really don’t want to be racist.  In this way, fighting racism is like fighting sadness.  It is inside of us.  Like the citizens of Flint, MA, we have been forced to drink a kind of toxic water.  Our toxic water fills us up with the silent and invisible poison of racial biases we don’t even mean to have.


How Can We Work Together When We Can’t See Each Other’s Pain?

When last month a Black man died at the hands of the police, it was striking how different the responses were from our communities of color and white communities.  At our meetings, many in the Black and Latino communities expressed fear and questioned the police’s report of the facts, and advocated for community review and police accountability.  Several white ECCO leaders asked why we were looking into the case, when the police’s account seemed clear-cut and the the man killed was a criminal.  Regardless of who was right, what became clear to Alexandra and me was just how hard it is to understand each other when our different communities have had such different experiences.


How can we move forward together, when we experience the world in such different ways?  How can we take risks together when we don’t have deep enough relationships to trust one another?


The Good News

Even despite our differences of experience, we have been able to accomplish a great deal together.  Just this week, the State Legislature passed the RMV sanctions bill we have been working on.  Thanks to the work of ECCO and others in the Jobs Not Jails coalition, over 7000 ex-prisoners will gain access to drivers’ licenses, which will prevent recidivism and help ensure that returning citizens have access to good jobs and better life opportunities when they get out of prison.


We have also made progress in our relationship with the Lynn police department.  On April 25th, we will be continuing our conversation with the Lynn police chief, bringing 15 Lynn-based leaders to explore how we can work together to support trust, training, and accountability between community and police.  (Email me to let me know if you are interested in joining!)


Yet, if we really want to create change, we need to build trust and training within ECCO, and explore how we can expand our impact.


The Way Forward

The Beloved Community leaders, staff, and I believe the way forward is to take a deeper dive into relationship building, taking more time to get to know each other and learning racial analysis together.  Second, we believe we need to get beyond just Lynn, looking at mass incarceration and racial injustice at the county level, which will allow more of ECCO to leverage our collective power on this critical issue.  Finally, whatever specific campaign goals we set and whatever decision makers we target, we believe we must also target the public, working creatively to shift public opinion and inspire a greater sense of moral urgency around ending mass incarceration and racial disparities in our justice system.


What is Next?

At the end of this month, ten ECCO leaders and I will head down to Baltimore, MD to learn best practices from PICO groups working on racial justice around the country.  We will be learning about PICO’s county strategy for addressing mass incarceration, and exploring the possibility of developing small inter-racial learning cohorts to build deeper relationships and analysis.  Rather than jumping from one short-term fight to another, I am proud of our leadership for taking the time to explore how we can do things right to make things right.


I look forward to continuing the conversation with you.


Blessings for a life-giving Easter and a joyful Purim,

Rabbi Margie

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