EmbraceRace

How the COVID crisis can spur us to advance authentic, multiracial democracy

Even before the global pandemic, it was clear that our democracy was in trouble. Now, as COVID-19 creates terrible loss, it is also opening the space for us to imagine and create a better democracy – one that upholds the values of voice, racial justice, and power sharing to solve public problems. A democracy that embraces multiraciality and works for all of us. An authentic democracy we will be glad to leave for our children. 

Watch this EmbraceRace conversation (from 5/26/20) with Carolyne Abdullah and Martha McCoy from Everyday Democracy about how we can use this crisis to reimagine and strengthen our collective life. A lightly edited transcript and related resources follow. 

EmbraceRace: So, as you know, this conversation is called, "How the COVID crisis can spur us to advance authentic, multiracial democracy." Now that is a big topic, but it's absolutely true that as unspeakable as the tragedy of this moment is, it's also an opportunity for us to really come together and to clarify what's important and how we can work better as a country. How we can be the true multiracial democracy that the idea of America, for many of us, is but has never realized. So we're excited to have that conversation even in this dark moment.

First let's introduce our guests. 

Carolyne Abdullah is Everyday Democracy's Senior Director of Strengthening Democratic Capacity, and leads the organization's programming unit and strategy for helping neighborhoods, towns, cities, and states across the US to build their own capacity for public engagement that leads to concrete changes on seemingly intractable problems. So, if you have a local issue that's not being solved, Carolyne is to blame, I think is the takeaway from that.

Martha McCoy is the Executive Director of Everyday Democracy, which is a national organization recognized for advancing community engagement and problem solving through a lens of racial equity. I've known Martha for a long time. So glad to have you on, Martha. She's passionate about advancing a deep understanding of racial equity throughout her work across the US and with her friends, family, community, and the children in her life. So glad to have you here. Let me jump right in.

It's virtually always true that, certainly for the issues that we deal with- race, parenting, democracy, et cetera, racial justice, equity, that the people who do this work professionally are bound to it in intimately personal ways. Often coming to it, in fact through personal roots, and then the professional gets layered on. What do we need to know about each of you personally, to understand how you came to this work? Carolyne, let's start with you.

Carolyne Abdullah: Good evening, and thank you, Melissa and Andrew, I'm happy to be here and the guest, for sharing your space with me this evening. I'll jump right in to the question, which sounds like, "What's your 'aha' moment?" I really don't have an "aha" moment. I think my life is an "aha" moment. Being born a woman of color and raised in the Deep South doesn't give me the keys to the kingdom to say, "Those are the reasons for my doing the work that I do, but more importantly, believing in the work that I do."

I feel my lived experience in the South, in the Midwest, on the East Coast, and in New England, collectively have contributed to the experience that I've had, and also contributed to my need urge to seek knowledge and an understanding for the racialization of society I grew up in, and to figure out how to live my way out of it. To get out of it, so to speak. For me, that society is one that's rooted in slavocracy, and I mean that in the broadest terms. I mean in terms of not just chattel slavery, but also the extermination of Native peoples, the exploitation of Asian communities and child labor, the Latinx community, but also sexism and everything else that's been exploited in this society all contribute to what I'm calling a "broader slavocracy" that gave birth to the United States.

And so I wanted to understand mainly how work I could do could affect that experience being different for other people. And so, Everyday Democracy's focus is really on inclusive principles to really improve community and community life of people in those communities so their quality of life is better. And so that's really why I'm here.

I'm here because the principles that Everyday Democracy builds its work around: Inclusivity, racial equity, explicitly but not exclusively, relationship building, mutual accountability, trust, power sharing and decision making. Those are some of the principles that I believe in. And so, that brings me to the work that I do. So that's really why I'm here, Andrew. Thank you for allowing me to share that with participants.

EmbraceRace: Carolyne, you said, "For your children, or for the next generation of folks." Part of the way we frame this conversation about the democracy that we can build for the next generation and subsequent generations. And one thing, knowing that you've both been doing this work for quite a while, and doing it with people, hand in hand, broad diverse stakeholder groups across the country with a whole range of issues. And to be doing this now, of course, you're doing it at a very tense time. I'm wondering if over the course of the time you've been doing it, if the trends you're seeing in the realization of everyday participatory democracy, if these are favorable trends over the course of 20-30 years, however long. Is it going in the right direction? But first things first, Martha, how did you come to this work?

Martha McCoy: This is so much fun. Thank you so much, Andrew and Melissa. How wonderful to be with my longtime colleague, Carolyne. My journey has some interesting similarities to Carolyne's. I too was raised in the South. But of course, as a white woman, my experience was so different and my "ahas" actually began when I was a child experiencing painful confusion over the racial disparities I was seeing.

For me, I was so fortunate that the power of connection, the power of relationships across difference happened early in my life, and I will be ever grateful for the church, the multiracial church community. I wasn't part of a multiracial church, but in a summer program in the Deep South, in Georgia, I worked with other children of color, I mean we were 13-14 years old, and it changed my life because at that time, I had my first mentor of color. An African-American woman mentored me. And it changed the path of how I began to ask questions.

I can't say that I came to Carolyne's and Everyday Democracy's full analysis, and I'm still on that journey in many ways, but it began to open my eyes. So then when I did my student teaching, instead of teaching in the suburbs, I taught in the city of Richmond, which was primarily kids of color. And again, I was mentored by a black woman who was my teacher in that. And again, I saw inequities up front and center when I was in the rural south, having a chance to make connection with people who were experiencing extreme poverty, but realizing that they were not, "The other," really had a profound impact on me.

There's so many people in our society who don't have the chance to have that kind of connection. And for me, the painful part as a kid and as an early 20-something came by seeing the horrible juxtaposition of what most white leaders in my city were saying, and what white teachers were teaching us, and then knowing that there was this other reality. And I couldn't wrap my mind around it. Ultimately that, and many other reasons of pain of exclusion in my own life really led me to do some seeking about what kind of impact did I want to make in the world, and ultimately led to the work that I've committed myself to, which is to advance authentic participatory multiracial democracy. And for me that is what gets me up every morning and puts me to bed every night. So it's a great venture to be part of.

EmbraceRace: Thank you. Okay, so if we could go a little bit more into Everyday Democracy, which is a very provocative name. I think I grew up like a lot of people, but in my case, child of immigrants, reducing democracy to voting, and not really thinking that we had more power than that, but we had to exercise that right. So, Everyday Democracy is not every 4 years. What do you mean by an authentic, multiracial democracy?

Martha McCoy: Yeah, it's so typical the way we grow up thinking about democracy. We think about, "Oh, people have free and fair elections. That means they have a democracy." And what we don't think about is that democracy isn't what we have, it's really what we do, and that democracy should be something that is part of our lives every day. Voting is great, and it's very important. It's one way to have a voice. And it happens to be the most solitary democratic thing you can do. You go into the voting booth alone and it's important, but what happens in between? And oftentimes to get people to think about how they would envision this. Instead of thinking way out there to the structures of electoral systems and everything, we ask people to envision "What kind of community would you like to raise your children in? What kind of democracy, if you were thinking of your local community as a democracy, what kind of community would that look like to you?"

Instead of thinking way out there to the structures of electoral systems and everything, we ask people to envision, 'What kind of community would you like to raise your children in? What kind of democracy, if you were thinking of your local community as a democracy, what kind of community would that look like to you?

Martha McCoy, Everyday Democracy

And people across the country, different ages, different ethnicities, different backgrounds, come up with surprisingly simple answers. They say things like they want to have spaces where they can actually work with people different from themselves. They want to be able to dispel stereotypes of themselves and others. They want to be able to listen and share honestly. They want to truly work together to tackle community problems. They want to share power with public officials. They want public officials to pay attention to them, and public agencies like police departments and schools. And a surprising number of people, and this kind of speaks to the trend question, they know there is something about racism that has to do with how democracy is not functioning in our country. And so people frequently understand that there's something about racism they don't get, and they want to understand it, but they don't know how in the world to begin. In many ways, that's not surprising because where would they learn it? Where do we learn those things? The systems that Carolyne spoke about are baked into our institutions. So when people start imagining, "Okay, it would mean all these things that we would have, and we would be able to constructively talk about and understand racism and use that lens to create better solutions to our policing, to our healthcare system, to our schools."

Now, I have to say, people are not entering the door of, "I want to more deeply understand racism and apply it to problem solving." That's not where most white people are entering. I think the white people we're seeing, in terms of the trends, are white people looking for on ramps to this conversation because they kind of get that they're really behind the curve. They hadn't seen what was on its way in terms of increasing racism around the country, increasing racist rhetoric, how disparities are being revealed. So I think in terms of people's consciousness, we see more interest in people thinking about that. So when you put all those things together, and I would say what you would find if you were living that daily life in your community, that would be everyday democracy.

EmbraceRace: That's great, Martha. Carolyne, I want to come to you. And I know that not only does Everyday Democracy place a real premium on racial equity, and already what you both said makes that clear. Racial equity is at the center of your work. And I want to come to you, Carolyne. What is the relationship between racial equity and everyday democracy, between racial equity and multiracial democracy?

And I want to do it using something Martha said as a point of departure. Martha, you said that when you ask in all sorts of groups across all sorts of demographics what they want in their community, part of what you hear again and again is, yeah, they want to be able to reach out across lines of race, ethnicity, class, these identity lines. They really do want inclusion, these sorts of things. And we know they want to have a chance, at least, to dispel stereotypes. And we know that those stereotypes interfere with the practice of actually doing those things.

We had a webinar not long ago on integrated schools. And the question is, and we know that a lot of people of all racial stripes, across class and political lines, will say, "We want diverse schools for our kids," but in practice, it turns out to be pretty far down the list of things that they want for those schools. What gives you faith? What have you seen that gives you faith that there isn't this big principle practice gap where people say one thing, and they may say it sincerely, but in practice, because of stereotypes, because of all these things, actually they're not necessarily willing to go very far?

Carolyne Abdullah: Thank you, Andrew. Interesting question. Hopefully I'll take a stab at this idea of the language we're using, which is racial equity, everyday democracy, multiracial democracy. We focus on the concept of equitable democracy. And I just want to say, I think the language that we choose is relevant for those of us creating it because for the most part, I believe, it protects and it safeguards what we see as our identities. But this is what happens, I think, when the experience of some people in a governing structure feels different than experience of others, because of the racialization in a society.

So for me personally, there is no difference between what I would call racial equity and a multiracial democracy, as you have called it. Because we all have been form and fashion psychologically within a racialized society, no less than a racialized world. And so, it is the racial undoing we want to focus on. It is the undoing of a racialized society- politically, economically, socially and structurally. Not because we don't want to acknowledge and recognize the diversity of society, but because diversity to me has been corrupted by a mental framework which allows for abuse of power and abuse of authority which results in discriminatory practices in laws and in policies based on that diversity.

So we're working toward, what we would call it, equitable democracy. Which simply means a democracy that does work for everyone. If we can bring that about in practice, not theory, a multiracial, multi-ethnic, or a multi-identity democracy of any sort, it would be called an equitable democracy that truly does work for everyone. But I do understand we are part of a living experiment right now in America. So that being said, I understand where we are. My focus that we're trying to really think about and get the movement really energized about, is where we're trying to get to. Because next year, or 5 years from now, we'll be revisiting these same concepts called something differently. So, I'm focused on the end and not necessarily some of the narrative that's gotten in the way, so to speak, because sometime it can become divisive. And we really don't want division within this movement. So, does that help, or no, Andrew?

There is no difference between what I would call racial equity and a multiracial democracy, as you have called it... It is the undoing of a racialized society- politically, economically, socially and structurally... So we're working toward, what we would call it, equitable democracy. Which simply means a democracy that does work for everyone. If we can bring that about in practice, not theory, a multiracial, multi-ethnic, or a multi-identity democracy of any sort, it would be called an equitable democracy that truly does work for everyone.

Carolyne Abdullah, Everyday Democracy

EmbraceRace: Thank you, Carolyne. I want to come to you, Martha, because what you do, it seems to me, like what we do, actually feels like some incredibly helpful projects. We're doing this because, it seems to me, in part because we actually do meet a lot of people that take this seriously, that want to do this work. And mean it seriously. Not to say there won't be bumps along the way, and they won't discover things about themselves, as we do with all of that stuff, but they want to do that. And at the same time, I think about... I won't even go into the details, but a friend who wrote this amazing article about pushing back against elite public schools in New York.

And she was advocating for removing it so that we could essentially democratize access to those elite public schools in New York. And she wrote an amazing article on it, and the very first comment was from someone who said, "You make the mistake of thinking that I give a **** about other people's children." That person obviously doesn't speak for everybody. But how much are you seeing people who really might be willing then to give up a system that supports their perspective and status for an equitable democracy?

Carolyne Abdullah: Yes. And Martha can speak to this too, but we have examples of people who are system actors, actually. And we can get into this a little bit later, but whether they're in the criminal justice system, or the educational system, or other public institutions who have actually now talking about issues like racial equity. Talking about, what does it mean? And I think a little bit later in the program, we can talk about some specific work that we're doing. But yes, the answer is yes, to your question. That there are examples of people who I have seen personally.

And I think about the criminal justice system with this huge set of actors, from the courts, the prosecutors, defense attorneys, pretrial advocates, and people in all these various aspects of that system, who have actually talking now about, how do we actually work on reducing this disproportionality that the Black and Brown folks are locked up? Who've never had the conversation a year ago. Well, they're having that conversation right now, and trying to figure out how to reduce these numbers. So yes, there are examples.

Martha McCoy: I would love to weigh on this. I'll just add one concept here that helps me a lot, and that's the concept of democratic infrastructure. Because we have infrastructure for all sorts of things. Like capitalism, we have great infrastructure for capitalism right now. It's hard not to buy things. The opportunities are so compelling. It's like you have to make a decision to not buy things if you have the money to do it, it's so compelling.

What we haven't done, is we haven't used all the knowledge we have as a society to create compelling opportunities for people to participate together as community members, to deepen their understanding of racial equity and structural racism together, and to work together to solve problems. In places where those opportunities get created, we basically work with what you might call the community leader architects of that. They are working together across races, across ethnicities, across sectors of the community, across informal and formal power structures, to say, "How do we create these opportunities across the community to examine our racial and cultural history, to see how we got to where we are today in our education system and our healthcare system?" And to talk together across difference to say, with the voices of the people most affected at the table, "What can we do differently so that the system works for everyone?"

It's like we're building a structure that's appealing to the better angels of our nature instead of having structures that right now our democracy is in real trouble because a lot of the structures are not supporting our abilities to work together in equitable ways. In fact, they are harming our abilities to work together. So there's so much to done in our democracy. But what we see that's hopeful is, people catch this vision of building these opportunities, and they build them into their communities over decades. And so for us, one of the big questions we're asking ourselves right now is, "How do we help people scale those opportunities so they're not just happening in pockets of communities?"

What we haven't done [historically] is used all the knowledge we have as a society to create compelling opportunities for people to participate together as community members, to deepen their understanding of racial equity and structural racism together, and to work together to solve problems... Right now our democracy is in real trouble because a lot of the structures are not supporting our abilities to work together in equitable ways. In fact, they are harming our abilities to work together.

Martha McCoy, Everyday Democracy

EmbraceRace:

Thank you both. I'll go to you, Carolyne, about how COVID is showing this crisis that you have been talking about for a long time, and we've been talking about, this crisis in multiracial democracy. How has COVID revealed the crisis in the work you're doing with multiracial democracy?  

Carolyne Abdullah:

Good question, Melissa. And yes, we have, like most places because of COVID-19, had to rethink how we interface with our communities and our partners. And on the ground they're having the same issues. And in a lot of different issue areas are aspects of our work, whether it's education or whatever, we're seeing some of the really horrific challenges that people are up against. We know in the healthcare system itself, it's really alarming. We know that disproportionately people of color, communities of color and culture communities, are at the apex of COVID-19 and what's happening there. And we're wondering, not having healthcare access already in place, a lack of all the prenatal and health delivery systems that normally are accessible to people of privilege, not being there for most people of color.

And now with the pandemic, you're just seeing the explosion of that disparity in our communities. And so we're wondering things like, why aren't we not beginning to identify these hot spots with communities of colors and working with social workers and other system actors? Even like local community groups like United Ways and YMCAs and Boys and Girls Clubs to reach out to the clientele to get the word out. Using culture media locally to get the word out about safety and precautions, who to call, where to call, where to go. Using our own social systems at the community level to embrace the civic capacity that's already there, but now it's really in disarray. So we're like, why is the governing structure not stepping in those spaces to make this happen?

But on the flip side, you see things that happening in some of these cities, like the Mayor of Columbus, Ohio just declared racism as a public health crisis. So you do see some evidence of some of the cities trying to do better, trying to release some of our fellow citizens who are locked away in pretrial detention, earlier. Some conversation about elderly inmates who may be released and be on e-monitoring. We need more of that.

So in the age of a pandemic, all the disparate that already been there historically are still there. It's just simply that the light is shone on them in a much more larger spotlight. So it's lifted up, and I hope that the structures in place will be built around people in community who really know where to go and they understand what the community needs are, and we can work in partnership with those groups.

We are trying to work with our educational partners right now in New England to create some pathways for going back to school, whenever that starts up again. Working with parents of immigrant children, working with parents who English is a second language for them, and their students. Just really figure out how we can make that transition, that's going to be successful for those children. So basically, it is showing up in all kind of ways. And we are trying to be in partnership with our partners on the ground as this is happening.

The barrier of course is social distancing, to some degree. But I think we are having to think about, well, not recognizing, I think, the lack of things like broadband access in rural communities. Or not everybody has a laptop at home. Or if you have three or four children at home and they all have to be doing schoolwork at the same time, how does that work? You may have one desktop and no laptop. Your internet may be unstable, like mine is sometimes. So, it's really trying to figure out how do you serve people who are at the margins in ways that are meaningful and of value to them?

EmbraceRace: Carolyne, thank you for that. And Martha, I want to come to you. And I wonder if you could say a bit more. So Carolyne just gave us some examples. You talked early about how yeah, there are pockets where some remarkable work is being done. That was true before COVID, I imagine it's true now during COVID. So we've heard this thing many times about opportunity being the flip side of crisis. That crisis forces us often to come up with innovation or to put more will behind things, partial solutions that we had before. What are you seeing where people are taking advantage of opportunity in the middle of this crisis?

Martha McCoy: Yes, thanks, Andrew. Yeah, so like Carolyne was saying, I think so much the curtain has been pulled back on the real truth of the foundation of our democracy being structural racism. How foundational it is to our democracy, in addition to the ideals that are competing with it. So our hope really is that as more people see that, they will turn to examples like we can show from communities around the country who are really taking advantage of a really difficult time for our democracy and doing something about it.

I'll give an example of, last week we were part of a virtual national convening with 40 sites around the country who are working on reducing racial and ethnic disparities in their jail populations. So much of criminal justice reform is at the local level. Again, we think of it as this federal prisons and all that, but really so much incarceration is happening at the local level. And if local people in the system and people who are affected by the justice system sit down together to talk about structural racism and come up with plans for reducing disparities and acting more equitably... We heard these incredible stories about prosecutors changing their practices. About judges changing their practices.

Now, this is not like magic, because it took many years to get these systems in place that are disadvantaging people of color and that are not good for any of us. But we are seeing these hopeful signs in places we've worked for. I just have to tell one story about a person who was on a panel from the city of Charleston, South Carolina, where the justice system is taking this challenge on. So they're engaging with the community, including with those most affected by the justice system inequities.

So a man, a community leader, shared that he had been incarcerated for 19 years. And he saw the inequities in the system up close. And when he came out, he said he wanted to dedicate his life to changing the system. And he wanted to have a voice in the system, but he didn't know how to do it. He said this vehicle of the community creating dialogue that was connected to change in Charleston, he felt like he was at a bus stop and the right vehicle stopped and picked him up and said, "Here's a place where you can use your voice to create these opportunities." Because now he's creating opportunities to change practices in the Charleston, South Carolina system.

Same thing with policing groups we've worked with. The community of Syracuse, New York that we've worked with, through an interfaith agency for many years, over the last 20 years has engaged tens of thousands of people in deep discussions of structural racism and how they affect the schools, and what teachers are doing in the schools, and how teachers are bringing that new insight to the schools and how the schools are hiring. At the same time they're bringing those insights to the police department and the police are engaging in that conversation with the community.

On our website we have what we call a ripple map. We had a national project that started about 12 years ago that we're still working with these communities. It's called Communities Creating Racial Equity. So 2 years ago we decided, as these communities were embedding this work, to do ripple maps with them of what changes were happening in their community as a result of the work, and it's really powerful to take a look at that. Seeds of hope.

Community Q&A

EmbraceRace: Yeah, that was lovely. I'm going to start with questions from folks who sent them in or just now put them in the Q&A. So here's one from Linda. "Can you speak to how our education system, especially K-12, may establish a culture of multiracial democracy? I believe this concept has to start with children."

We believe children are a powerful part of this as well. Imagine if we all grew up thinking democracy is something that you do. Imagine how different.

Martha McCoy: In the number of schools that we've worked with educators who are doing this, absolutely children are being part of the conversation. For kids to be part of the conversation, is absolutely essential. Because only the children can say to their teachers, "This is what I need in order to be treated fairly." And it takes special skill to facilitate those conversations and to help teachers uncover ways in which they unintentionally have sidelined children or marginalized them. Because oftentimes with discipline policies and the way children are called on, or the way they're cultivated, or the expectations that are set, the myriad of ways that we see racism permeating the culture of our schools, we see hope in the signs that there are some school administrations who are building a culture of racial equity across their school, whether it's in terms of policies and practices, engaging with the community, building new curriculum, those kinds of things.

There was even a school system that we've worked with for a long time where there was division in the community because some of the football players took the knee at a football game, and it caused a lot of division in the school. Primarily, not all, but primarily along racialized lines. And so, what the organizer there did, who works with racial equity in the school system, is they organized dialogues so that kids could come together across those differences and hear from each other and understand better why that was happening. And to transform something that could've been seen as, "Oh, there we go again, dividing over something that we can't agree on." Actually, once they did talk about it, there was a fair amount of agreement about how they understood what was going on in that way. So it's everything from outside the classroom to inside the classroom, to hiring and policies, and parental engagement too, which is so critical.

EmbraceRace: Thank you, Martha. You know, Carolyne, I want to come to you with a related question that someone asked, that I think a lot of people might be wondering. So, imagine you have a lot of people listening and a lot of people will listen later, and they might be thinking, "This sounds exactly right. This resonates. Everyday democracy, participatory democracy." And they might be thinking,  How do I do every day, participatory democracy in my community? "You've given lots of good examples, but gosh, this is new territory for me." Can you give me some manageable way of beginning to get a purchase on what this might look like? How I might contribute in my own community? Especially in a context when so many people are overwhelmed. Most of us probably feel overwhelmed. And departing from the routine, the new routines we're just establishing for ourselves, may feel very challenging.

Carolyne Abdullah: Yeah. I've noticed that with some of our conversation we've had with our partners, the same question is arising. People are trying to figure out, "What now? How do I start?" Actually, the advice is not any different than a non COVID-19 environment when you say, start with a few people. Start with those who are closest to you and try something out with them.

Now obviously, Everyday Democracy is an organization that we're here for you. We're here to actually walk you through a process. But oftentimes we will simply say, "Identify with a few people what you see as the issue. What is the thing that is at the top of your list of what's going on in your community right now? And would those top two or three things be resonating with a lot of folks in your community, even some who don't necessarily look like you? What would you say those top two or three things are?" And then we'll talk about, "Well, if you want to make this happen, actually engage the community and young people in the community at the same time. Get a small group together, and make sure you include the youth voices, the young voices, in that conversation about let's try this out. Let's try out a process and see how it works for us. And then if we think it'll work with larger folks in our community, then let's call Everyday Democracy to really roll this thing out."

So, we always say start small and work your way up. You have to start where people are. And that's kind of hard sometimes when we kind of feel we know what the end should be. But you're not trying just to get people who look like me or think like me to that end. You're trying to bring along a whole country of people who for the first time, could be the first time for them. And so, you have to start where people are in this work, in this process. And so we say start small and work your way up. And we're here every step along the way.

What is the thing that is at the top of your list of what's going on in your community right now?... Get a small group together, and make sure you include the youth voices, the young voices, in that conversation... Start small and work your way up. You have to start where people are.

Carolyn Abdullah, Everyday Democracy

EmbraceRace: Everyday Democracy, the website has a lot of resources. A lot of guides and guidance. Actually, Carolyne, I saw earlier today, a short video you both have videos on YouTube, but I saw one from you, Carolyne, where I don't know, four minutes, five minutes, pretty modest length, where you're saying, "Here are some places to start." So-

So kind of in that vein as well, we are getting a bunch of questions in response to when you, Martha, said earlier that what people are looking for is an on-ramp, and a lot of people saying, "How do we provide on-ramps?" Or, "I'm a white person myself who is looking for on-ramps." And how does that relate to ripple maps?

Martha McCoy: Oh, interesting. Interesting. I would say the on-ramp... that's a great question, but I would say it begins with maybe a safe conversation with one or two people you really trust with some resources to guide you in your conversation. It's kind of akin to Carolyne's start small advice, because it takes a lot of practice to do this, and it's not like you're going to walk up to somebody, a stranger, and say, "Do you want to talk about race?"

You have to find somebody who can have a different perspective, but wants to go on that journey. But I would say doing it in the context of community problem-solving also makes it much more tangible for people. Because you can deepen your own understanding, but there's nothing like being in conversations with lots of different kinds of people, trying to figure out what to do about a particular issue, and developing relationships with those people over time. There's something about that that really provides a powerful draw to stay in that conversation. 

And the ripple mapping is really what happens after people, say in a community 200 people are going through dialogues all across the community talking about how racism affects strong starts for children, which is one of our guides. And imagine you get to that and then people are working on the action steps and are working with public agencies. And then over years they continue the dialogue, they continue the action. Things are happening. Ripple effects are happening. Policies are changing. They're becoming more equitable for the children of the community, and we're listening to the voices of the children in our community.

One of the most powerful experiences for me was being in a community where they were talking about, what can we do to make sure the community works for all of our children? And one of the people from one of the agencies stood up and said, "Yes, we're going to start changing some of our practices and policies, but it also changed my attitude toward whether I would speak to the kids playing basketball on my corner." And I think that kind of gets to the notion of Everyday Democracy because it's what happens in our institutions. It's how we're listened to. It's how we're attended to. It's how children are paid attention to. It's how all of us who are the most vulnerable in our society, but also have so much power and potential, if those structures are there to support our participation. It's about that.

And it really is powerful when you see that unfolding. And it kind of begins with a first step. And I know, I think I alluded to my journey, it's been a long journey since I was 13 asking those hard questions, and I've been in so many dialogues about racism all over the country in so many settings. Part of me, my heart opens and my brain opens every time that happens. And we've seen that happen. And I had to be on airplanes to do that. But we've seen it happen countless times in people's communities. That they hadn't had those conversations before. But it has to lead to something. To change. It's not a book club. It's serious. And so you can't talk about it and then sort of say, "Well I've learned a lot," or, "I feel so much better about myself because I had that conversation." It's really we should all say, "We understand the problem better. How can we fix this?"

Everyday Democracy is about how we're listened to. It's how we're attended to. It's how children are paid attention to. It's how all of us who are the most vulnerable in our society, but also have so much power and potential, if those structures are there to support our participation. It's about that.

Martha McCoy, Everyday Democracy

Carolyne Abdullah: One thing I would add to what Martha said is that since people have to start where they are, we have resources that allow people to even begin affinity groups. We have a guide dialogue, or a tool that we call Around Race. Sometimes people need to have that place to build confidence in who they are as a collective group based on their identity, however they choose to identify. And so we do that have resource available for people to begin to talk, start there before you enter another integrated conversation with others. That does build people's confidence in terms of, "I'm part of a community that's diverse, but yet I know that I have to address those issues that are affecting me and my community as an aside to this other conversation." So it allows folks to start where they are and build that confidence going forward.

And the last thing around that, it reminds me of one of our partners, and Martha was alluding to, in Maryland, who really the school system was about how do we create better outcomes for students where race or ethnicity or class are not factors? And they believe in encouraging every aspect of the child. So it's conversations and dialogues around those issues, whether it's a student, teachers, staff, the administrators, the superintendents, the principal, the parents, the caregivers, but also the bus drivers, the cafeteria workers, the janitorial staff. Anyone who touches the life of a child within the school learning environment is brought into those conversations because it's so critical. Because we all have a touchpoint in our child's learning, in our child's development. So that's really, really important as well.

EmbraceRace: I want to stay with children for a moment. You both emphasized several times the importance of engaging children in these processes, in these conversations, in this decision making. And yet I think it's fair to say that as adults, we typically don't take children seriously in that capacity. So we love them, we protect them, we may be building a future for them, we think of them as future adults who'll become the decision makers, but we tend not to think of them as full human beings now who have contributions to make, and whose opinion and voice should be elicited/solicited.

I'm sure that most people, if not all of us on the call think, oh in principle we also believe that children need to be involved in these conversations. In practice, again, we don't typically act that way, including with our own children. What can you say to people to convince them that, "No seriously, it's not just a nice idea. You really need to bring young people to your table and take what they have to say seriously."

Carolyne Abdullah: Well, would you want someone making a decision about the house that you're trying to buy without asking you, as an adult? Or would you want someone else to decide which doctor you're going to go to for that headache you have? So why should we assume that a child, or our children, doesn't have the capacity to at least weigh in on things that affect them? No, we talk about this idea of intergenerational equity at Everyday Democracy because we do believe that all ages have a role to play in longstanding community change work.

Now, how it looks would be different depending on the age of the child. But it doesn't mean that child doesn't have the right, actually, to be a part of the decision making. Unfortunately, we are so, I guess, cultured into believing that our job as parents is to give birth to the thing, and then we protect the thing. I'm a parent, I'm saying this now. We protect the thing, but that from the moment it comes into our space, we're always trying to teach it this, teach it that, teach it this, and we never ask the thing like, "What do you think? Do you want to do this?" I mean, my mother put me in piano lessons against my will. No one asked me, and I was forced to learn something.

And I guess my point is, the more we ourselves experience people making decisions for us, that's the touchpoint for me to say, "How would I feel?" My child, regardless of his or her age, has the right to say, "That feels good to me," or, "That doesn't feel good for me." If it's even deciding what color the screen should be, can the child decide? Can the child weigh in on that? And as we get older, the older we get, particularly around educational experience, I think it's critically important if we really believe this idea that all voices matter. When does voice stop? When a child begins to speak, he or she has a voice.

Now we can choose to disregard it, and that child will shut down. And he or she will say, "Okay, I'm going to live my life according to what Mommy and Daddy wants me to do until I'm 18 or 21." And then you have a child who will probably say, "I'm not going to raise my children any way my mom and dad raised me." So you don't want that. You want the child to have the space and a sense of freedom, a sense of participation, that his or her voice, or their voice, matters. And we can do it in little ways along the way. That's why I think the idea of ages regardless of the generation, is critically important for the very, very young and the very, very old.

EmbraceRace: Thank you, Carolyne. And Martha, I just wanted to come to you for part B of that, because it seems to me that the importance of including all voices, including those of young people, even children, matters as a serious process issue. How do we make decisions collectively? Take that seriously. It might also matter as a function of outcomes. As someone who has been, unlike the vast majority of us, actually in conversations where children's voices are elevated and taken seriously, can you tell us something about what might surprise us? What might we observe about the way including children changes the kind of outcomes we come to?

Martha McCoy: Yeah. I think for me, one of the things that surprises adults the most is how much children are observing, and how much they're taking in. I've seen children as young as 10 be part of a community conversation that's going into some pretty deep issues. And I think adults are often very surprised at how wise the opinions are, and how much the children are observing.

We've seen a couple examples of that in some work that we were doing in South Dakota with tribal communities that were next to a primarily European-American community, began to work together. And they started bringing children into a lot of their dialogues. And it really affected how they saw what needed to happen in their schools in terms of culture-sharing, in terms of the Yankton Sioux culture needing to be lifted up so that it was with the European-American mainly culture that was going on in the schools in terms of proms and traditions, and things we may not think of as huge things, but they are. It's like being able to go to a place where you can get your own hair done. It's the things about life where you think, "I'm a valued part of this community. I can have a voice. I can be part of this."

And so much of that I do think starts really young. Every year we have what we call a Civil Ambassador Summit in the Hartford community for people who stand up, it's very moving, and take a pledge to be a civic ambassador for 2 hours a week to meet with someone who's different from themselves to bring equity into their community in whatever small or large way they can. At last year's summit, there were four 10 year old's that spent the whole day there. And I have to say, they're my favorite people to talk to because they are so full of hope. They are just like, they are going to make the world better. 

For me, I come home flying from that event. And I love hearing them share. And out of some of our work in Connecticut actually, there's now a Kid Governor race. Fifth graders can run for Kid Governor. The Kid Governor who won last year, her platform was LGBTQ rights. I always go to meet with the Kid Governor in her office or his office and talk with them about the future of our state. And I mean, part of what we are doing as adults, because not long ago we were kids, comparatively, is people model for us what it means. And so, this father brought his 10-year old son to the Civic Ambassador Summit for the day and said, "He just joined the NAACP with me, so I'm bringing him to this event."

So, I would say, I love the Iroquois Nation principle, The Seventh Generations, and I love to look back seven generations to all the heroes and sheroes who led to what we know now. And then I think it's our intergenerational equity responsibility to look ahead seven generations and say, "What kind of world do we want to leave?"

EmbraceRace: Yeah. That's a hard note to end on and a great note, as well. Thank you so much. Wow, this was a really amazing conversation.

Martha McCoy: Thank you so much. This was so great. Thank you to all the participants. I wish we could've seen you by face, but it was nice seeing some of your questions and comments.

EmbraceRace: Thank you both. Thank you both for a good hour and for amazing work.

Carolyne Abdullah: Embrace race. Love your community.

Related Resources

Everyday Democracy has a bounty of resources for "doing democracy" that you should check out. Resources mentioned in this conversation include: 

  • Facing Racism in a Diverse NationA six-session discussion guide to help all kinds of people take part in meaningful dialogue to examine gaps among racial and ethnic groups and create institutional and policy change. Available in English and Spanish. 
  • Dialogue for Affinity GroupsA supplemental guide intended to give people with similar racial or ethnic backgrounds an opportunity to talk with each other about issues of racism in sessions preceding and following the regular diverse dialogue sessions of a community-wide study circle program. 
  • Dialogue to Change Process - an adaptable approach to community engagement that is grounded in years of experience and learning with communities throughout the US. In this process, diverse groups of people meet over several weeks, and take part in activities that build trust, provide opportunities to share honestly, learn about an issue and work together on solutions and action.
  • Intergenerational Equity Framework - Intergenerational equity is the practice of treating everyone fairly and justly regardless of age, with special consideration to the structural factors that privilege some age groups over others. 
  • Ripple Mapping Tip SheetCommunity engagement and Dialogue to Change strategies can lead to many positive changes in your community. However, direct impacts can be tough to track. Ripple Effects Mapping (REM) allows you, along with local leaders and others in your community, to assess impacts from your Dialogue to Change efforts.
  • Dialogue to Change Guide for School Districts / Video and Additional Information - Making sure that all young people have equitable opportunities to do well in school and in life is key to the health of our communities and our whole democracy. This brief guide is designed to help you bring this essential work to your local school district and community.

Carolyne Abdullah

Carolyne Miller Abdullah, Everyday Democracy’s senior director of Strengthening Democratic Capacity, leads the organization’s programming unit and strategy for helping neighborhoods, towns, cities and states across the U.S. build their own capacity for public engagement that leads to concrete changes on seemingly intractable problems.

Martha McCoy

Martha McCoy is the Executive Director of Everyday Democracy, a national organization recognized for advancing community engagement and problem solving through a lens of racial equity. She is passionate about advancing a deep understanding of racial equity throughout her work across the U.S., and with her friends, family, community, and the children in her life.
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