Racism and Education Forum Offers Authenticity and Hope
By Tom Fiebiger
Taiyon Coleman and Shannon Gibney, two intelligent and thoughtful black women college professors, writers and mentors, provided a spirited dialogue on "Race and Education" at Redeemer Lutheran Church on February 14, 2017. This forum was the fourth in a series of forums on systemic racism and ways to try and understand and change it that is being sponsored by Redeemer, Westwood Lutheran and Edina Community Lutheran Church.
Shannon Gibney teaches English at Minneapolis Community and Technical College and Taiyon Coleman is an Assistant Professor of English at St. Catherine University. Ms. Gibney was raised in an upper middle class family in Michigan. Her parents were white and adopted her. Ms. Coleman, on the other hand, spoke of her family roots in the south, followed by her being raised by a single mom in Chicago, where she and her sister argued over going to the store because neither one of them wanted to be seen buying food with food stamps.
Both women, from different economic backgrounds, shared similar experiences and challenges encountered while working as black women professionals in an educational system already rife with racism when they entered it to do their teaching. We learned that their teaching often involves much more beyond helping students navigate sentence structure, and includes being a lifeline, mentor, cheerleader and support system to young people on the edge, homeless or without the support systems to make it on their own in a broken educational system.
Ms. Gibney spoke eloquently of her struggle working in an educational system where she found herself the subject of complaints and attempted reprimands for raising issues in her class of systemic racism and having white male students file complaints against her because the discussion made them feel "uncomfortable." She spoke of how her white colleagues were reluctant to speak out in support of her and some became more supportive of her over years of watching her being treated in a discriminatory fashion for questioning a racist educational system that our country has constructed.These white colleagues found themselves in a system where their speaking out might hurt them professionally, and yet needed to realize they needed to be less afraid and a part of the solution for things to begin to really change.
Both women brilliantly articulated the balancing act needed to both teach and mentor students in a systemically racist educational system and pick your battles to try and make a difference to incrementally change what is broken. They shared their own personal struggles as advocates in their roles as parents of students of color in a system that treats their children inherently different and with lower expectations than white students - just because they are black. They artfully responded to questions from an audience asking what white people can do to grow, learn and be a part of the change.
During the question and answer session Ms. Coleman received a "comment" from a woman who shared with the audience how Ms. Coleman"s teaching and mentoring of this woman's daughter had been truly inspirational and life changing and had motivated her daughter to be the kind of teacher that Ms. Coleman had modeled. Life changing stuff.
Ms. Coleman spoke openly of being the black person at social gatherings of her white friends and how she became noticeably less welcome when she spoke out about her concerns for the safety and future of her black son in a society where they are at risk for being shot by police. This is yet another facet of racism and education.
Ms. Coleman and Ms. Gibney have been friends for over a dozen years and their friendship, integrity and comfort of conversation back and forth truly benefitted a sanctuary full of folks hungry for such authentic conversation about what's real in our world today with respect to racism and education. The audience received a real education.
Reflections by Heather Anderson
I was so thankful I took the time to attend our recent Town Hall conversation hosted at Redeemer. Shannon and Taiyon were such an inspiration. Last week was crazy and I had to throw overtired kiddos in the car, but I wouldn’t have missed their wisdom for anything. I was moved by their vulnerable sharing of their personal and professional struggles over the last few years. Their use of the word violence to describe racial discrimination against students in the school environment really resonated with me. They shared how much innocence and faith we need to learn and create and how detrimental our schools can be for our kids of color.
Both Shannon and Tai shared of times of isolation and sadness when their white co-workers and friends understood and empathized with their struggles as black women, but refused to stand up or with them publicly. Hearing their perspective so painfully and honestly deeply impacted me. They were witty, raw, intelligent, and I hope I can hear more from them.
Racism and Criminal Justice Reform Forum
By Thomas Fiebiger
Senior U.S. District Court Judge Michael Davis spoke at Redeemer on January 18th as part of the year long series on systemic racism and ways to make a difference that Redeemer Lutheran, Westwood Lutheran and Edina Community Lutheran churches have partnered together to present. But the Judge's presentation was so much more than a primer on our broken criminal justice system. It was inspirational and aspirational in this time of uncertainty.
Judge Davis started his thoughtful and prophetic message the way he ended, with a sense of history and the importance of taking the long view. His great grandfathers both fought in the Civil War. They were slaves who had escaped and fought on behalf of the Union to end slavery. Judge Davis aptly referred to the Civil War as this country's "second founding." You see, prior to that, slavery permeated our country. Even after the "second founding" we continue to live in a country where black people and other folks of color are treated as less than. Our criminal justice system, according to the Judge, continues to systemically lift up and perpetuate that disparity. Judge Davis spoke of the required mandatory minimum sentences that he, as a federal judge, often through tears, was required by law to visit most harshly upon Blacks and Hispanics. We also got a glimpse into the judge's soul, as he was vulnerable in a way that let us see the human toll such a process takes over the years on a black man of great intelligence and accomplishment and who is blessed with a generous heart grounded in justice.
The Judge spoke of the need to create real opportunities for young people of color in our community if they are to have any meaningful chance to succeed. He spoke of the opportunity he had to be successful and the importance for all to have that same opportunity. The Judge noted that means tackling poverty and economic insecurity so our children have basic necessities like places to live and food to eat. It means figuring out a way to not make folks, primarily black males, continue to be punished by our society after they have already served their sentences. Judge Davis noted how when black males have convictions, it immediately limits their future options in life - including real job opportunities and housing options. These convictions prevent them from receiving student loans so they have an opportunity to move forward and can create a meaningful future.
The Judge urged people to get involved, to physically show up and view their judges hand out sentences in court and hold those judges accountable for how they sentence citizens, particularly citizens of color. He urged us, as people of faith communities, to continually contact our congressional and legislative representatives about sentencing reform and other issues that perpetuate systemic racism in the criminal justice system.
After a 40 minute presentation, Judge Davis generously spent another hour answering a wide variety of questions and responding to comments from a full sanctuary of community folks who were there to learn and engage in real dialogue.
Judge Davis made it clear to all in that sanctuary that, after a 40 year legal career of service to people and justice for all, with 34 of those years as a judge, he was as he proclaimed "still fired up."
People of Faith — Becoming a Disturbing Presence in a Church Living in the Tension of White Privilege and Racism
T om Fiebiger (taken om blog tomfiebiger.com)
My church, Redeemer Lutheran Church in north Minneapolis, has partnered with a couple suburban Lutheran churches to commit to a year long series on “Racism and. . .” We started in September and in October we tackled “Racism and People of Faith.” We heard personal, thoughtful and honest reflections from former ELCA presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, who is white, and our church’s pastor, Kelly Chatman, who is black. We followed those reflections with small group conversations and then a question/answer opportunity.
While the journeys of our speakers were different in many ways, they were similar in their rootedness in the radical love of Christ. Both spoke of the hunger on the part of people of faith for evangelical defiance. We were challenged by Bishop Hanson to be a disturbing presence in our churches and the world and encouraged to live with the inherent tension that presence creates, remembering that at the core this needs to be about doing the work of God.
Those of us who are white and that have lived a faith experience steeped in whiteness and privilege were given the opportunity to reflect on how black people of faith must feel when the music, worship and stories of our ELCA churches is steeped in that same white privilege and tradition. What is the message sent to people of color when our almost all white ELCA invites people of color to join “us” and the “us” is really the white “us” . . . not God’s “us?” Inviting people of color to worship as we do, is not about being one people of God. It’s about protecting our white traditions and privilege, and continuing to be comfortable while other children of God are then left by us to be uncomfortable. Saying to our brothers and sisters of color that, yes, we want you to come and worship with us, with our white traditions, and be like us, is not truly being about the work of God. And, if we’re honest and authentic, we know that in our hearts.
To be a disturbing presence and truly be about the work of God, we need to, as white people of faith, lean into that tension that is created when we do talk about white privilege and racism. Ultimately, it has to be about more than talk. It means living our lives in Christlike ways that call out and reject the white privilege and racism that is ingrained in our culture.
Can those of us who are white rediscover our childlike curiosity to generously listen and learn from people of color, embracing fully who they are as individuals, children of God, and part of God’s diverse community of believers, each created in God’s image? We, as Lutherans, are steeped in our own church traditions, including our own tradition of white comfort. Leaning into that tension and discomfort does not come easily; but, what’s the alternative?
We, as white people, have the luxury and privilege of disengaging in or leaving a church community when conversations and actions start to become a real and disturbing presence. Yet, that is precisely the time we must lean in and embrace the tension. That’s where we learn and grow. That’s where we are human. Being a disciple of Jesus is, by definition, radical. When those of us who are white make following Jesus, an itinerant preacher of color, comfortable, we are choosing to be more white than Christian. Don’t walk away. . . just because your white privilege lets you.
The weekend following this conversation we had at our church I attended, with over 400 people of faith, an inspiring gathering, titled “Journey toward Justice: Privilege and Race in Our Church.” It was an opportunity to gather and begin to talk frankly about the sin of white privilege and racism. The speakers’ unapologetic truth-telling, coupled with articulating practical ways white folks can take action to immediately make a difference, was encouraging. But the conversations also revealed our humanity and how we are both sinner and saint – all of us at such different places along the “journey.” We began to unpack some of the difficult questions surrounding white privilege in our predominantly white churches. We also saw how our own white fragility made these necessary conversations incredibly challenging.
Jim Wallis, our first speaker in September, in his book, “America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America,” talks of “white fragility.” Wallisreferences a 2011 journal article by Robin DiAngelo, professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University, where DiAngelodefines white fragility as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.” DiAngelo notes that, for white people, being called out on racism can mean they are being identified as a “bad” person. This is an intolerable place for white people to land. It is a huge challenge to our core identity as good, moral people. DiAngelo notes this white fragility also comes from our own deep sense of entitlement. According to DiAngelo, we have set our white worlds up to preserve that “internal sense of superiority” and we resist what challenges that narrative. And, DiAngelo says, we do this all while proclaiming that race is meaningless to us.
Nobody likes their world and identity to be challenged. My hope is that those of us who live daily with our white privilege might prayerfully work to let Christ into our hearts to be that disturbing presence in our own internal sense of superiority and entitlement.
One of the poignant questions raised in our small group discussions following the sharing by former Bishop Hanson and pastor Chatman related to confronting our own white privilege. The question was asked, “What are white people willing to sacrifice or give up?” Perhaps we can begin with giving up our own sense of superiority and entitlement and a white fragility that continues to bind us to sin.
We trust that our grace filled God, with powers beyond our limited human understanding, will lead us, his children, to a place of wholeness where we reimagine our collective commitment towards racial justice.
Jim Wallis kicks off lecture series on race
By Erica Seltzer-Schultz
On Wednesday, September 20th, Redeemer hosted Jim Wallis, a Christian writer, political activist, and former spiritual advisor to President Barack Obama, as part of a lecture series co-sponsored with Westwood Lutheran Church titled “Race and…” Founded in the wake of the Jamar Clark murder last November, the monthly series aims to bring these congregations together to have deep conversations about the way race affects a number of different issues in our society. The next conversation, titled “Race and the Church,” will held 8pm, Tuesday Oct. 11th at Redeemer, and will be led by Pastor Kelly and Pastor Mark Hanson, Bishop Emeritus for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Following a beautiful hour of song and poetry by the Poetic Diaspora, Wallis told the packed audience that, after spending the day in the more secular environment of Augsburg College, he was now going to speak frankly as a Christian to Christians. Race, he told the group, is not simply a social construct; it’s “an idol we made up to justify slavery.” This “idolatry of white Christianity separates white Christians from God.”
According to Wallis, “Slavery is not over; it has just evolved.” He pointed to the poor quality of many inner-city schools and the profiling and violence inherent in our present-day policing, arguing that white people would not tolerate it if it was happening to them. God, he said pointing to Genesis chapter one, made “mankind in our image, in our likeness.” Yet our society does not treat people of color as children of God. Wallis told the story of a young person in Ferguson who said, “I still feel like I’m 3/5th human.” Reminding the audience that whiteness is a construct developed along with race, Wallis said, “If white Christians acted more Christian than white, black people would feel safer.”
When Wallis was a child, his white parents told him that, if he got in trouble, the police would help him. But black parents, regardless of their class status, have to teach their children how not to get shot when they are being profiled by the police. Wallis posed the question, What if every white parent also discussed with their children what black parents have to tell their children? He admits that it would probably make them uncomfortable, even angry. And, yet, Wallis sees discomfort and anger as good. “It’s this discomfort that leads to change.”
According to Wallis, 72 percent of white Christians believe that the shootings of young people of color are part of isolated incidents, yet 82 percent of black people feel that they are part of a larger pattern. Wallis sees our contemporary racial geography at the core of this discrepancy. White people so often live in places devoid of people of color, so there’s often a very real lack of understanding in regard to the racism people of color face.
Wallis cites the development of relationships and empathy through storytelling as key ways that we can attack this divide. He told the audience about his two sons who, upon becoming close with their non-white teammates, grew passionate about the discrimination they face. Noting the segregation so often inherent in schools, workplaces, and faith communities, Wallis asked the audience, “Who is at the table in our lives?”
Wallis recognizes that there are not many places that can build this bridge, but sees religious communities as offering important potential. “Multi-cultural congregations shouldn’t be admirable, they should be essential,” he said commending Redeemer for its diversity. But he added, “Diversity is not enough. We must change the narrative. We must get people to hear each other’s stories. Churches are a safe place to do that.” Wallis sees this multi-congregational forum on race as an important start.
For Wallis, changing the narrative is not just a side project; it’s something we must “bet our lives on.” Within the context of the upcoming election, he feels we are at a key moment in our country’s history where racialized politics have gone from implicit to explicit. “We must fight for the future and soul of our nation.” He describes faith as “the substance of things hoped for,” and believes it’s at the core of this fight. At the end of his talk, Wallis urged the audience to show moral courage. “Trust your questions and believe in what you can do in a place like this.”