A meditation on continuity and the long view
by Orissa Arend
I recently stumbled on to the last day of an Undoing Racism workshop presented by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. It reminded me that organizers must take the long view. I needed that reminder because this particular snapshot of human history is pretty bleak: elected officials bent on destroying the electoral process, in the service of what? An ego? Mother Nature having an “I told you so” moment because we thought we could ignore her care and impose our made-up laws on hers. Women and doctors getting arrested for what just weeks ago was considered common-sense or life-saving health care. And on and on.
Continuity, thank God, is a real thing in New Orleans. The degrees of separation are never the proverbial six. More like one or two and they often radiate in several directions. I found out about the People’s Institute workshop taking place last week because my husband, Richard, is a mediator for the Independent Police Monitor. Full disclosure: I’ve been involved with the Institute for about 25 years. In fact, I used to work for them, setting up local trainings. They fired me 3 times! Or maybe they would say I worked myself out of a job. I guess a bossy, impatient white girl like me can get on the nerves of some in a people-of-color organization.
Undoing Racism Work Continues
But I loved the workshop so much that I just kept organizing them or stumbling into them. These days, I am always welcomed with open arms. I go because I can count on learning something new. We are organizers. We never (or hardly ever) throw anyone away.
Here we were at the TEP Center (Tate Etienne Provost Center) in the Lower Ninth Ward, brave enough to come together in person in the lingering days of a pandemic. Imagine this room full of people – 12 or so New Orleans Police Officers, a few people who independently monitor their work, and a handful of mediators – all strategizing together about how to undo racism in the NOPD, in ourselves, and in various institutions, in the midst of a crime wave. Laughing, crying, and learning together.
The day began with Leona Tate talking to us after a riveting film about how she and Gail Etienne and Tessie Prevost as 6-year-olds desegregated McDonogh #19 escorted by U. S. Marshals through a crowd of haters. Traumas piled up as the girls entered white schools all the way through their high school years. But these three brave little girls, so innocent that they couldn’t tell a mob from a Mardi Gras parade (as Leona Tate tells it), grew up to be steadfast educators, organizers, and activists.
Last fall they were able to show their grandchildren how the Leona Tate Foundation and Alembic Community Development had bought, saved, and renovated the very building where they had been spit on, beaten, and terrorized – 5909 St. Claude Ave. — and made it into a comprehensive educational program, a Civil Rights museum, a training center, and affordable subsidized housing for seniors. There’s the long view. There’s consistency. And there’s God’s grace at work.
This is where the People’s Institute is housed and where the training was held because the Institute has been an integral part of the formation of the TEP Center. This People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond is a perfect example of organizers living out continuity and taking the long view. That has allowed hope to abound.
Take a look at the trainers at this most recent workshop. Ron Chisom, now in his 80s, co-founder of the Institute with the late Dr. Jim Dunn, started the workshop off. If ever an organization could be tempted to rely on one leader, this would be Ron. As a charismatic genius and also a good organizer, he never let that happen. The Institute constantly raises up new leaders and trainers. Today there are hundreds all over the world.
Another trainer was Barbara Major. She was at my first workshop all those many years ago. An effective trainer in all settings, I noted that Barbara’s righteous anger has not dissipated. But it has given energy to her talent for humor and empathy so that now she resonates more fully with white people like me.
Then there was Rev. Tyrone Edwards. In 1970 he and his brother Alton were Black Panthers in the Desire Housing Project feeding hungry children, protecting elders and marshaling a hard line shoot-out with the police. His mother, Ms. Lubertha, one of the few Panther parents who supported their revolutionary children, told me in 2003, “Somebody has to not have fear.” But that’s another story. In fact it’s a book, Showdown in Desire: The Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans. And here’s Rev. T today. New NOPD recruits and supervisors pay rapt attention as they learn from him about racism. And, by the way, he’s still revolutionary. Hope, for me, springs from the long view.
The white trainer, Leslie Runnels, it seems, has learned from her People’s Institute elders like Diana Dunn. But she has her own stories and experiences as she lays out history and the manifestations of internalized white superiority, how it has dehumanized us people called white.
There was a young trainer, Shak, whom I had not met. He is brilliant and funny in his delivery. He channels the original People’s Institute concepts – gate keeping, the feet of oppression, why people are poor, the importance of history and culture – into fresh new explanations that resonate with people just coming into awareness of how race functions in systems.
I came away thinking that when I feel discouraged about the way systemic racism manifests in our fair city, I need to study the past, connect with my community, and act as I am able to catapult a shared vision into the beyond and beyond and beyond. I believe that each of us has our given role to play.