Moving as an Anti-Racist: Acknowledge, Align, Amplify, Ask, Activate | Not in Our Town

Moving as an Anti-Racist: Acknowledge, Align, Amplify, Ask, Activate

Gwendolyn VanSant is the leader of Multicultural BRIDGE in Lee, MA. In 2017, Gwendolyn and her team helped launch the Not In Our Town movement in the Berkshires to unify communities throughout the county to stop hate, address bullying, and build safe, inclusive communities for all.

Earlier this month, Gwendolyn spoke with both WGBY and Berkshire Bank for an in-depth discussion about the killing of George Floyd, the protests that have erupted across the country, what can be done to create change, and how to take care of our communities right now. Here is a summary of what we discussed in both conversations. Please share this video and resource.


On what we see happening across the country:

  • What we’re seeing is an uprising. It is important that people are able to express themselves around what isn't actually new at this time. A visceral reaction is happening because we’re in the middle of a pandemic. 

  • People have been squeezed. With COVID-19, health and economic inequities have been exacerbated. People are dying. People have been isolated in their homes. People are not able to grieve their elders and family members in disproportionate amounts in Black communities, and we are constantly fighting against this tide. Black people are being killed every day, but to have this murder televised and in our faces at this moment, there was nothing else to do but to uprise.

  • I'm heavy-hearted… I can't get the image of [George Floyd’s murder] out of my head, but I’m also proud of our communities for standing up for what we need.

  • People are dying. For White people, it’s important to ask yourself, what would you do if your family members were dying and communities were hurting like this? 

  • It's important to see positive news of people coming in peaceful protest, and coming in droves, to help clean up the streets. We need to see much more of this rather than all of the violent images we’re getting in the media outlets. 


Putting the demonstrations in context:

  • When BRIDGE does work in the Berkshires, we spend a lot of time asking White people to open their eyes and look around them. You have to work at not seeing racism; it's on the news every day, and you see the disparities if you look. If everybody is White, there’s a reason; it’s not just an accident. 

  • Ask questions like, Why are people here? Why don't people stay here? Why don't people live here? Then, What advantages do I have? When you look at your workplace environments, you see the types of jobs people of color have. Lean in to a consciousness that helps you see the world as it really is.

  • Look at the historical background in the U.S. I recommend reading Mehrsa Baradaran’s The Color of Money first, but there's also The Color of Law and The History of Race and many other books... Our country and its history has always been tied in with a racialized identity. Race is at the foundation of our country. Other countries that we know to have been violent and hostile towards certain groups came to study our racialized policy. We haven't really accepted that history ourselves or even been taught it. 

  • It is hard for White people who have been able to move through channels that have been set up for them (offering privileges and access) to make the commitment to learn about racism… But once you begin to do the inventory of what you know, who is around you, who works with you, who makes all the decisions about where resources go in a community… then you'll understand what these uprisings are about. 


On what people of color can do to take care of themselves right now:

  • Find safety where you can. Cry, sing, rest, heal. What is happening right now is trauma, and it can reverberate every time we see it again on the news. So do what you can to find and create safety.

  • In your organizations, ask for what you need from your manager and the organization. Look for and ask for what you need.


Moving as an anti-rascist

On what it means for White people to be an “ally” versus an “accomplice”:

  • At BRIDGE, we do workplace training and with that revenue, we support community organizing, racial justice organizing, immigrant advocacy, and we work with high needs families. And we're asking for as many people as possible to consider becoming accomplices.

  • Allies are people who are willing to stand alongside you who are willing to witness and testify and affirm your experience... that's important because often that is denied and that adds to health disparities and isolation for people of color.

  • Becoming an accomplice is when you start shifting resources, actively looking at what resources you have or where you see them, and shifting them for positive social impacts with Black and Brown communities or other isolated communities. That's what we need because when you are being cut off from access to health and education and thriving in your career path, it’s hard to take care of your families and create any generational stability. 

  • There's a step beyond that: co-conspirators. That is when people start examining policies, pushing on delegates to make equitable policies to undo disparities that have been there. I believe this is the only way change happens. People of color have been crying and screaming and writing and studying and singing and dancing and doing everything for hundreds of years; it's really going to be the people in power and the people who have access to this power--even if they've never utilized it--starting to think about, “What resources are around me? What can I influence? How can I shift resources?”


On how White people can show support to people of color right now:

  • For White people who want to be supportive right now, be specific in your offers of support to people of color. Don’t be paralyzed by your own feelings or anxiety. Ask how you can help so that people who are traumatized don’t have to do the work to think about it. Give them space if they need space, then ask again without badgering. But make an inventory of ways you can help and make those offers.

  • Show small acts of kindness. That call or email or text is never too late.

  • Listen to Black people about what White love looks like. Go easy, don’t make assumptions. Remember that a lot of the work needs to be done at home, with you, your family, and your team. Practice cultural humility. What you think is safe may not feel safe.  If it feels like a stretch, a little bit of an ouch, do that work first.

  • In organizations, leaders and managers need to understand that people can’t produce at the same levels right now. Ask questions of your team members, and don’t make any assumptions during a pandemic or during this time of what’s happening in our country. This is heart-work and relational work based in humanity. This isn’t about blame or shame; it’s about human beings.

  • Look for the people who have been left behind and get the resources they need to thrive.

  • Most importantly, align with communities that have been marginalized and ask them what they need and work alongside them because they know best what they need. White people often get this fire burnt up in them to help and then they just go do without checking in with communities that have been taking care of themselves throughout all this for a long time. Align yourself with organizations that serve these groups, that are trusted with people that represent these communities, and ask what they need. See what resources you have to offer and offer them.

  • In short, Acknowledge... Align... Amplify... Ask... Activate.


On how to begin understanding racism:

  • Racism is actually not a feeling or a judgment; there are other words for that like prejudice or stereotypes. Racism is about structures. It's power and privilege and prejudice all combined. When I talk about racism, I'm not calling out your character as an individual; I'm saying there are structures that have created the racial divide.

  • We're not actually making the decision to be divided as Black and White; it's already been made for us. We confirm racist structures as we move through our day, every day. When people understand that we're all a part of this, we're actually all victims to... Some of us benefit more than others, but we all are suffering. 

  • I talk to White people of lower economic backgrounds, and I explain how this isn't about either/or. It's not that we're taking something from you to have rights as Black people and for Black communities to thrive. We've been sold that bill of goods. We're literally brainwashed that there is an either/or! When we work for racial justice, we’re working for Black people to actually have the same starting point as White people and the same opportunities to thrive, not to take something away from White people. 

  • White people can sit back and begin again to educate themselves and see it differently. But that takes a lot because there's anxiety, shame, and guilt... There should be White anger about being lied to… lied to in school, being withheld information. Educate yourself, be curious, be willing to see the world differently than you've been told that you need to see it.

  • There are White people who know all of this and are still protecting their own survival for their own people. But so far, I have been affirmed that more White people than not have been socialized to not know these things. It takes courage and humanity, really the human heart, to be able to really lean in and shift one’s perspective on reality.

  • We talk about how hard it is to raise youth of color to constantly be on guard; it must also be very hard to raise kids not to see racial disparities and racism. We need to look that.


Ways to create change at multiple levels:

  • There are so many different levels to create change. Use a systemic analysis like we do at BRIDGE. 

    • At the personal level, educate yourself and your family. If you are a person of color, it’s about unpacking internalized racism.

    • At the interpersonal level, begin developing relationships where you see the “other” as a human being with the same needs and wants and desires that you have. If your heart isn’t touched, you can’t move through the racism we’re dealing with in this country.

    • At the cultural level, start asking questions and undoing norms that are set in White culture… policies that are set to preserve a norm that doesn't reflect any community, that doesn’t reflect human beings. Question White middle class norms of what is appropriate or professional.

  • Then get to work being an accomplice. Start undoing systems that hold people back and out, that keep the status quo. Go to your delegates, work on your school committee, work on your police department. Start somewhere. Go anywhere and start asking questions about policy, saying, “This is what our community needs.” 

  • Unpack racialized policies.

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