UnidosUS Affiliates take on the fight for racial justice and healing

The police killing of George Floyd led to protests and calls for justice across the country. At UnidosUS we stood with our Black brothers and sisters and said, “tu lucha es mi lucha.” And we have always believed that every American has a part to play in fighting for racial justice, as well as helping the nation and communities address and resolve the disparities caused by historic structural racism.

Our Affiliate leaders have also been taking on this work in their communities. Through the support of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, two UnidosUS Affiliates have been part of the initiative Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation (THRT) that seeks to “unearth and jettison the deeply held, and often unconscious, beliefs created by racism.” In this year’s National Day of Racial Healing, we elevate the voices of these Chicago community-based organizations—Gads Hill Center and Northwest Side Housing Center—who are on their own journey of reflection and liberation.

By Beatriz Paniego-Béjar, Content Specialist, UnidosUS

When the W.K. Kellogg Foundation created the National Day of Racial Healing in 2017, they wanted “individuals in organizations and communities [to] come together to explore their common humanity and build the relationships necessary to create a more just and equitable world,” the foundation writes. They see racial healing as essential, since it is at the heart of racial equity: “Through racial healing, we can all forge deep, meaningful relationships, lay the groundwork to transform broken systems and create a world in which we are a new force for positive change.”

CELEBRATE OUR COMMON HUMANITY

Gads Hill Center’s clients and staff are Latino and African American. Maricela Garcia, the organization’s CEO, explains that “it is critical for the organization to recognize that staff are the product of racial injustice.” So they have begun their work on racial healing with their own employees.

Maricela Garcia, Gads Hill Center President and CEO.

“We need to create the space for us to process the impact that living in a racist society has had for all of us,” Garcia shares, because “liberating ourselves from the hurt that racism has caused in our lives is going to impact each other.” As part of the TRHT endeavor, Gads Hill Center is asking their staff to become part of racial healing circles, where they are offering opportunities of reflection and liberation on the racist experiences they’ve lived and felt, giving them the chance to process and release adverse past events. Just as the Kellogg Foundation explains, “[t]hrough racial healing, we recognize our common humanity, acknowledge our truths from our shared history and understand our collective potential and shared values.”

As a new measure taken after last year’s protests, this Chicago Affiliate is requiring every new staff member to participate in these circles and “integrate this new competency as one of the tenets of what is expected from staff to develop at Gads Hill Center,” the CEO continues explaining. “The full awareness of the impact of institutional racism is what we expect from everyone to go through from the get-go. We are in the process of developing our own facilitators to be their own internal resources.”

Gads Hill Center started this learning process with a core group that underwent the training TRHT offers. After that, it was the manager’s turn: “It was critical that the different layers of leadership could understand what it was, experienced it, and see the value in implementing it,” Maricela Garcia says. By February, the organization expects to have everyone on their staff trained in Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation.

“After we finish with the staff, we are going to start with the parents, with whom we’ll need to be a lot more flexible, because many of them work,” Garcia explains. “Our goal is not to remain within the staff and leadership within the organization: the next concentric circle will be parents, and then children.”

Garcia and her team are now in conversations with TRHT’s education department to figure out what curriculum they’ll need to develop “in order to take the elements of this model, and apply it and adapt it to the different ages of our children and our youth.”

A PROCESS OF TRUST AND UNDERSTANDING

After having participated in racial healing circles herself, Maricela Garcia expresses the hardships of having these conversations: “There’s a lot of hurt and emotions that are part of reflecting on how much racism has affected our lives. I think it takes a lot of courage for people to be ready to have those conversations and trust that others are going to understand,” she explains. “Some people are afraid, and we need to give them the time, respect their readiness, and make sure that they will join when they are ready.”

James Rudyk, Executive Director of Northwest Side Housing Center (NWSHC), also shares how he felt being part of these dialogues: “It was definitely a hard conversation to have.” Chicago-based NWSHC saw the importance of going through this effort because it is an opportunity for the organization to talk about race. They have had six TRHT conversations: “We did a circle as an entire staff; then we broke up over the course of eight weeks,” Rudyk explains. “During that time, as a White leader, I decided to undergo racial healing training, and we will be holding racial healing circles within the community” because, as he expresses, NWSHC feels they owe it to their community.

Belmont Cragin, where the organization is based, is the fastest growing Latino community in Chicago. For Northwest Side Housing Center, racial justice starts with representation: “We believe pretty strongly that people of color, particularly Latinx, undocumented, and mixed-status families, need to be represented in the work that we do,” Rudyk shares. Their work focuses in empowering the community to be leaders: “It’s really about building the power of the Latinx community. It’s important that they are able to speak truth to power.”

COUNTERACTING MYHTS. FINDING RESILIENCY

The idea of “work hard and you can make it” is one of the myths NWSHC is counteracting, Rudyk explains: “That myth is pervasive, and it’s made its way into the homes of the folks that we serve,” he says.

Staff at the organization have had to have hard conversations with their clients because of the backlash received regarding the Black Lives Matter movement. As Rudyk told his community: “Your lived experience may be this, but it doesn’t justify what you’re saying about this individual.” And even though the discussions were hard, “no one didn’t participate, no one stopped and said, ‘this isn’t for me’,” he tells.

NWSHC Executive Director James Rudyk, in front of their offices in Belmont Cragin. (Photo by Jean Lachat via The University of Chicago).

This learning process continues showing the resiliency of our communities, their empathy, and their willingness “to take risks and chart the unknown,” the Executive Director says. Young people, parents, renters, and small business owners, all from the Belmont Cragin neighborhood, have come together to have these uncomfortable talks: “We’ve seen the community come together and not shy away from this conversation.”

THERE’S NO PLAYBOOK

Our Affiliates from Chicago started this racial healing journey last year and they are committed to it. Maricela Garcia expresses how staff and clients are growing together to become a more deeply thinking and analytical organization. James Rudyk says that this process is about people, about changing minds and hearts, and bringing people together.

“We’re at a crossroads at this moment,” Garcia says. “The lack of accountability, the overrepresentation of people of color in the COVID cases and the deaths, the ones that lost their jobs were people of color, who worked in low-paid jobs, etc.— this has just revealed how much work we need to do in our society to achieve our equality.”

The racial healing work Gads Hill Center and NWSHC are undergoing is setting them as catalysts of social change in their neighborhoods, and to be organizations that serve their clients with a racial equity lens.

Follow UnidosUS (@WeAreUnidosUS) to learn more about the National Day of Racial Healing, a call to action for racial healing for all people. Join us!

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