Episode 4, 41 min listen
How can a community achieve sustainable equity? Join as Dr. Susan Glisson shares information about her method for supporting communities as they embark on a process of racial healing and equity. Along the way, Susan will share her experiences with different communities and projects.
If you're looking for a great reading list, check out these references from the interview:
Sherrylin Ifill, On the Courthouse Lawn
Further reading about James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman in Neshoba County, Mississippi.
Holly Watkins performance of, “I’m Gonna Sit at The Welcome Table,”
More about the 16th St. Baptist Church bombing
Adrienne Maree Brown, Emergent Strategy
Ervin Staub, “Preventing violence and generating humane values: Healing and reconciliation in Rwanda”
Dr. Cornel West quote, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
[00:00:00] This is State of Inclusion, a place where we can all come together to safely explore and share our ideas at the intersection of equity, inclusion, and community. I’m Ame Sanders. Welcome.
At the heart of any equity and inclusion efforts are the people who tirelessly work to make a difference in the world, and for the people they serve. Who are these Equity Warriors? What motivates them and what even brought them to this work to start with? But, even more importantly, what keeps them going in the face of such overwhelming and exhausting work? We’ll talk with a few of them, and we’ll learn how they are making a difference in their community and what they hope for in their next chapter.
Today, I’m interviewing. Dr. Susan Glisson. Susan is the co-founder and partner of Sustainable Equity LLC. Throughout her career, she has been engaged with many communities and [00:01:00] organizations in their journey to advance social justice. As founding director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, Susan engaged in years of community-based trust-building and advocacy. And then, in 2016, Susan retired from the Winter Institute and co-founded Sustainable Equity to work with communities, public institutions, and businesses to foster effective historical dialogue in order to build trusting and respectful relationships. Susan has also been widely recognized for her leadership. To mention a couple of awards:
- The Fannie Lou Hamer Institute Humanitarian of the Year, in 2012.
- The International Award for Promoting Civil and Human Rights Around the World from the International Organization of Human Rights Agencies, in 2012.
[00:01:57] She’s also called on as an expert by many. Susan serves as a member of the National Advisory Board to the Myrlie Evers-Williams Institute for Elimination of Health Disparities at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. She also chairs the Mississippi State Advisory Committee United States Commission on Civil Rights and is an international researcher for the Apartheid Archive Project at the University of Witwatersrand.
I’m so pleased to have her on our state of inclusion podcast. So first, let me welcome you to the podcast. And, wow, let me just say that is a pretty impressive body of work, and I have not come close to touching all of it. For some who don’t understand about your work, tell us a little more about what you mean by racial reconciliation and community trust building.
[00:02:54] Thank you so much. It’s an incredible opportunity to be able to be with you today and my people as we say in the South my people come from South Carolina, from Ninety-Six South Carolina. So, it’s always good to talk to folks in South Carolina.
-What is Reconciliation?
You know reconciliation is a funny word. It’s a freighted word. When we first started doing work in Mississippi, it was a phrase that we used to describe the work that we do, but then we began to discover it sometimes acts as a proxy for the conversation itself. It’s a word that White folks often feel comfortable using because reconciliation seems to gesture more towards individual behaviors and a lot of White folks understandably don’t view themselves as having racial issues, they reject the label of racist, for instance. And so, they’re much more comfortable thinking about race as an individual interaction. That’s where you get that phrase, “you know, but I have lots of Black friends.” But for Black folks, we would begin to hear “Well, how can you [00:04:00] have reconciliation? If you’ve never had a Conciliation.” Reconciliation to them would imply that there was a period in the past where things were wonderful and rosy, and we’re trying to get back to that place. And for Black folks, they understand, and, clearly the history shows, that kind of place never existed. So, talking about just even that word gives us insight into the challenges that we face because of the experiences that different folks have had. White folks have had a very different experience growing up often than Black folks have.
And so, we actually started to try to begin to use the phrase “Healing and Equity” because we wanted to separate out both the need for recognizing that there are deep wounds in our country as they relate to systems of racial hierarchy and also that there are institutional structures that we need to address that continue to help to reinforce that kind of racial hierarchy.
[00:05:00] So that’s the kind of equitable work that we need to do or the justice work that we need to do. So, just talking about that word helps us dive in a little bit to why some of this work can be complicated. Even just the terms you use can stop a conversation. So, we think we introduced a new way of talking with each other about this work. We don’t necessarily dive right into talking about race. We start first pedagogically with the idea of confirmation with the idea that we need to help create a civil and brave space for individuals to be able to be self-reflective to begin to examine where some of their attitudes and mindsets might come from. To share some of their stories about who they are so that we can create a beginning sense that we’re all human beings with some similar concerns. We all love our children, and we all want to be treated with dignity and respect and finding those kinds of common values helps to dispel some stereotypes that folks might have of each other, and that starts to really create this process of building trust, which we think is pretty necessary. In fact, we really think it’s a prerequisite to having any effect of conversations on race. And then, as you do that, as you start to create that container of trust, then you can begin to introduce some of the kinds of topics that lead you into more thoughtful conversations about race.
-From Individual Trust to Community Trust
[00:06:38] In listening to you, though, I hear the idea of creating individual trust within a group of people who’ve come together with this purpose. But how does that become community trust?
Absolutely. That’s a great question. We think about our work as a three-phase process. And so we think about that first phase as [00:07:00] self -reflection as trust building as community building so that the group can begin to practice new ways of interacting with each other that are respectful, they begin to learn how to move through discomfort and conversations, so that they don’t leave the table when things start to get a little tense, and then as they’re able to do that as they’re able to sort of develop that discipline, or as my partner Charles Tucker says, develop the muscle memory of how to do that. Right? You don’t go to the gym for the first time and lift 300 pounds. You work up to it and you train your muscles to be able to respond in certain ways. So, we do the same thing with respectful dialogue. Once you have that sort of base foundation for having hard difficult conversations, then you begin to examine history, you begin to look at the systems that are in place that maintain a sort of status quo that is inequitable. [00:08:00] You look at the history of whiteness, creation of races as a social construct, among other social constructs that create problems for us as human beings.
-The Best and Most Effective Conversations about Race are the Ones that are Most Local
And, I’ll tell you one thing that’s important to us. We also, in every Community, every location, in every corporate space, in that second phase that’s really about education and examining systems. We asked people to focus on the local stories. Sherrylin Ifill, a wonderful attorney who’s the head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, years ago, wrote an incredible book about growing up in Maryland. She wrote about two lynchings that had occurred in Maryland, and it’s called On the Courthouse Lawn. And, she said one of the problems of having conversations about race is that we try to throw 400 years, or 200 thousand years, of history into a conversation. We try to talk about slavery, we try to talk about the Middle Passage, we try to talk about Jim Crow, we try to talk about the civil rights movement, we try [00:09:00] to talk about the latest celebrity faux pas around race, and we put it all into the same conversation. And, you’re never going to get very far. It’s too much. It’s too overwhelming. So, she says the best and most effective conversations about race are the ones that are the most local.
So, in working in Philadelphia, Mississippi we didn’t talk about the ark of the Great Migration, for instance, we talked about what happened in 1964, when James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner came to that community, and what the individuals and that community did to those young men, and what the individuals who understood that it had happened, right, Once the murders had occurred. Then we can begin to talk about the community response to that fracture, to that injustice. So, it’s helpful to understand the larger arc. But we, in that Phase 2, we try to encourage a deep understanding of the history of a specific place, and how those stories have [00:10:00] shaped and framed the way that people interact with each other, so that they can then begin to think about, well, what are the things that we can do right here, where we are, that can make a difference. And in that phase, people might begin to work on some projects together. They might do something like invite more people into the community conversation which is an action. They might decide they want to focus on doing something with young people and having conversations with young people. Or, they might find out who were folks that are hurting in our community who are vulnerable, let’s try to figure out some ways to respond to those folks if we’re not already doing that.
-Transforming from Power Over to Power With
Those kinds of conversations then sort of organically lift up the opportunity to start to talk about what we talked about in Phase 3, which is how are we going to transform our understanding of what power is and how power can operate differently in different spaces. How do we transform from “power over,” which is about a small group of people imposing their [00:11:00] will on others and how do we begin to transform and talk about “power with” which is collaborative, which is about democratically deciding the kind of work that we need to do together. And how do we create, using Complexity Theory, sort of safe to fail projects that are going to allow us to start to do some actions that are meaningful, that are sensitive to local dynamics, and that start to address power dynamics.
[00:11:28] Wow. So, let me just reflect on what you’ve said for a minute and kind of recap. That’s a lot for our audience. So, the first step is around self-reflection, and respectful dialogue, and moving beyond your comfort zone.
The second is about examining history, and the systems that are in place, and looking very locally at what has happened in your own local environment. And, the third is talking about how to move the power dynamic from “power over” to “power with”, so that you can look at what you’re going to be able to do right there, in that local space, together.
[00:12:05] Absolutely. Absolutely. And, so then what that looks like, those outcomes, are different for each community. I would say right here it’s important that certainly understand people be listening, and saying, but that sounds like a lot of talking, right. We’ve been in many communities where folks will sort of be skeptical and confess to us that they think we’re just talking. When are we going to get to action? There’s the rush to get to an outcome, but that’s actually why we called our company Sustainable Equity. There’s an incredible book by a sociologist named Charles Payne, who incidentally wrote my favorite book on the civil rights movement called, I’ve got the light of Freedom, about the movement in Mississippi. But, he examined reform efforts in Chicago school systems over a period of decades. The book is called, So Much Reform, So Little Changeand he was able to discern that one of the [00:13:00] reasons that all these different reforms routes hadn’t yielded any substantial results is that they were often introduced into spaces where people don’t trust each other. So, it didn’t matter how smart, or thoughtful, or effective somebody thought a particular action or initiative was going to be. If you introduce it into spaces where people didn’t trust each other enough to implement it, then you weren’t going to get anywhere.
-Only Cheap Talk is Cheap
So, I like to talk about that people say that phrase, “that talk is cheap,” and I like to say, “that only cheap talk is cheap.” If you’re doing intentional, thoughtful, respectful, searching values informed conversations, that’s not cheap talk. That’s the kind of talk that leads you to trusting relationships that then can better inform the kind of outcomes that you want to create. Because, where we are in 2019 is that slavery ended, theoretically, right? We know that. Human trafficking still continues, but slavery in this country, in the way that it [00:14:00] looked from 1619 to 1865, that’s over. Segregation, Jim Crow, we know that ended with the laws that were the result of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s, but we still have these problems.
So white supremacy has continued to be the through-line. Throughout our history and all the outcomes that we’ve worked for, the actions that we’ve taken up to now have not changed that fundamental mindset, that fundamental attitude, and if we don’t take the time to address that, then we’re not ever going to make any substantial progress.
[00:14:33] So, when you were at the Winter Institute, you worked with, I don’t want to call it a methodology, but a method of working with communities called the Welcome Table. Reading a little bit about it, it sounds very much like what you’re talking about, here.
-About the Welcome Table Approach
Can you tell us about how the Welcome Table worked, and how you used that, and how communities used that to move themselves forward?
[00:14:58] Absolutely. So welcome table comes from, of course, that great civil rights anthem, I’m Going to Sit at the Welcome Table One Day, and it began to emerge in the Philadelphia process that I mentioned earlier. I was invited there by community leaders in 2004, which was the 40th anniversary of the murders of James Chaney Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. The community wanted to tell a different story. They knew that media likes to come when there’s an anniversary like that and they’ll, often have superficial conversations with folks, and, you know, declare not much has changed in this place. Right. The New York Times led an article about a community process with, “there’s no marker at the site where the three young men were murdered,” as if that would be a demonstration that something had changed.
And, we sat in a space, a multiracial group Black, White, and Choctaw all there. And in the first meeting, they asked me to share some of the work that we had done at the University of Mississippi in [00:16:00] engaging publicly with our history, the University’s history of desegregation, and the riot that occurred when the university desegregated, and what the university had done on its 40th anniversary to acknowledge and to apologize for that period of time. And, that led to a conversation about, sort of, well, what should we do. And, there were differences of opinion about what to do. There were Black folks in the room that that suggested that they have an honorary march to the courthouse. And, in that space, you could just see the White folks get paler. But you know, we’re Southerners,, and we’re polite, and we don’t say anything in a meeting when we’re uncomfortable, you know, we just shift and get another cup of coffee and a piece of cake. So, the conversation continued, and then, a White gentleman said, well, why don’t we have a have a proclamation. And, I could see Black folks roll their eyes and Choctaw folks roll their eyes, but nobody said anything because we’re real polite here in [00:17:00] Mississippi.
And so, basically, nothing was accomplished at the first meeting that we had, other than people said, well, you know, that was real good meeting, let’s come back, let’s come back, and have another meeting. So, after that meeting was over, I stayed in the space with Leroy Clemens, who was the chair of the NAACP, and Jim Prince who was the owner and publisher of the Neshoba Democrat, the local paper. They had an existing relationship. They had gone to the first integrated schools together, and they had worked together as interns at the newspaper, and so, they could speak a little more freely with each other. And, they said, “Wow, I mean I’m glad we had that meeting, but it didn’t seem like we sort of got anywhere.” And, Jim said, “Well, you know, Leroy, what was the problem with having a having a proclamation? It seemed like that didn’t really get any kind of traction.” And, Leroy I said, “Well, you know, for Black folks that’s just words on a page. That’s like the Emancipation Proclamation, [00:18:00] that didn’t free anybody, necessarily, and if you want to talk about what proclamations have done to Black folks, I mean to Choctaw folks, just ask about the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, that they were forced to sign and then everybody lost their land. So, having those kinds of pieces of paper with magisterial words on them that then never do anything, they just collect dust in somebody’s office. That doesn’t sound like action, that doesn’t sound like something we should do. And, while we’re on the topic, what was the problem with having a March?” Well, then Jim said, “You know when White folks think of marching, they think of a protest, they think of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, and they maybe think of dogs, and fire hoses, and that.” And Leroy said, “Wow. I had no idea that’s what y’all thought about when you heard the word marching, and the dogs were attacking us, they weren’t attacking y’all.
So, it was clear that even they were using the same language, they did not understand the words in the same way and didn’t have enough [00:19:00] sense of trust to be able to have an honest conversation about what they were really talking about.
So, we stopped planning. We stopped talking about what was going to happen on June 21st, 2004. And, we just sat in a space, in a church, there in Neshoba County, and the community just got to know each other. They started telling each other stories. They talked about why it was important to them to try to do something about this case. Black folks talked about, you know, thinking that they didn’t believe they were any White folks who cared what happened. And, they learned that was not the case. And, White folks talk about feeling ashamed, and feeling guilty about that case, and feeling like Black people held every White person accountable for those murders. Then, they learned that wasn’t the case.
We know now, of course, I didn’t know at the time, but we know now that our brains respond more to narrative than they do to facts. And, so that sort of storytelling process was what [00:20:00] begin to weld the group together. And, through those conversations, they said, you know what, we need to do a call for justice, in the case. We need to ask the state of Mississippi to reopen this case and hold someone accountable because we never have, and then beyond that, we also need to start talking about education in our local schools so that our children know what happened in this community. It’s been a public secret that everybody knew, but nobody talked about, and we want to make sure our children never engage in any of this kind of behavior again.” And so that’s what they did.
They, Stanley Dearman wrote this beautiful call for justice, called it Recognition, Resolution and Redemption, and they came together with 30 community leaders, and the governor, and four congressman, and 1559 other people June 21st, the anniversary of the murders, with David Goodman and Carolyn Goodman, the mother and brother of Andy Goodman, and they issued that call for justice, and then they followed up that meeting with the local DA and state attorney [00:21:00] general, and that led to a reopening the case. And, that led to an indictment, and a conviction of the ringleader of the murders, Edgar Killen, on the 41st anniversary of the murders of the three young men, but the story didn’t stop there, right. After the international media came and descended upon the Neshoba County, during the trial, the next day, after sentencing, the local group, the Philadelphia Coalition, had a civil rights education summit for teachers and had teachers from all over the country, and all over Mississippi, come and learn how to how to better teach the civil rights movement, in a more accurate and accessible way. They began to engage in a different kind of politics. And, in this majority White town of Philadelphia, just after that, and in the next mayoral race elected a member of the coalition, their first African-American mayor of the town, who’s since been re-elected twice. They began to desegregate their social spaces, including the Little League. They began to spend public monies differently, and I [00:22:00] just learned the other day that the city school, which has been predominantly Black, and the county school has been predominantly White, are now going to merge and become one school system. Miraculous. Every single piece of that journey was a miraculous journey. But, none of it would have happened if people hadn’t taken the time to talk to each other in intentional, thoughtful, respectful ways that built trust and enabled them to engage in actions that were more meaningful to that community and more informed by a justice perspective.
-My Community Needs to Change, Where do I Start?
[00:22:31] Well, this city had, or this community, had a precipitating event, something that triggered them to consider this. And while we’re talking about how this is lasting in Communities, one of the questions that it brings to mind for me is, how does a community start on this? What is something that, if you’re a listener out here and you think I know my community needs change in this area, I know we need to do something different, how [00:23:00] do I do that? What do I do? Where do I start?
You know, it’s easier than you think. You start by just reaching out to your friends and asking them if they think maybe there’s some changes that need to happen. And then, you start to sort of widen that net. But, you can start with six folks. You know, you can just try to get a group that’s as representative as possible, within your network of folks, who think that there’s something better that can happen in a community. And then, you start to have some conversations. And, we talk about having conversational norms at the beginning of that kind of conversation. We use guideposts we call them but they’re pretty routine kinds of norms that you can start to use: that you’re going to suspend judgment, and identify your assumptions, that you’re going to respect silence, that you’re going to tell your truth and not what they say or what you heard somebody think might have happened, you’re going to turn to wonder when things get difficult. When you hear something somebody says, and you find yourself shutting down, or you don’t agree with [00:24:00] what somebody’s telling you, you’re going to instead turn to wonder, and wonder what happened to that person that brought them to that that place and that conclusion. Or, you are going to try to interrogate yourself. Why are you responding in the way that you’re responding? You’re going to trust that circle, you’re going to trust the process that you create and know that everything is not going to be fixed in one or two conversations that it’s a methodical, committed process that has to happen over some months, or even some years. That’s how you start. And, when you can start to ask honest questions, open and honest questions, which by the way is a question you don’t know the answer to, you don’t have some preordained thing that you think somebody’s going to say, you really want to learn what somebody is thinking, you want to help them deepen their thinking, that’s when you’re ready to start to look at the history of your community, right You can start to ask yourself questions about what are the racial interactions like? What’s the employment rate here? Who’s employed, in [00:25:00] what kinds of jobs? What’s the housing situation like? Do we have affordable, accessible health care in this community for folks? What are our schools like, are our children being educated well? Are Black kids being tracked into certain kinds of classes and White kids being tracked into other kinds of classes? You know, I’m just lifting up some of the typical kinds of things that might be the manifestations of this sort of racial hierarchy, and you can start to look at those kinds of things that are problematic, and then, you can start to do something about it. But it all starts with just reaching out and being brave and taking a little bit of a risk to have a local conversation.
[00:25:34] So, one of the things that I’m sure our listeners would like to understand is a little bit more about you. How did you come to this work? What brought you to this work? Because, it can’t be easy, and it must be exhausting, and maybe even feel hopeless sometimes.
[00:25:53] It’s funny. I was just doing a little genealogical research on Sunday. My father died when I was four years old. He was 37. He had a had a heart attack. So, I’m always I’m always looking for stories about my daddy, and so, I was I was looking him up, and I found I found him in the 1940 census in Richmond County Georgia, which is Augusta. And, they had my grandparents, his parents, and some of his siblings, who were older, and then they had they had my daddy, but they had him listed as a daughter. And so, I thought, so I’ve been teasing been teasing my mom about my miraculous birth. So that’s one thing, maybe I’m not even supposed to be here, I don’t know. But the short answer is, my momma raised me to leave places better than I find them. Whether that means you help clean up after dinner, or if a child is crying you comfort the child, and to just start to expand what that what that means in terms of [00:27:00] the places that I find, and also, over time, learning that’s not trying to parachute in and save anybody. People know their communities best themselves. It’s just trying to support good people who want to do hard stuff. And, I had a pretty amazing college experience at a university in Macon, Georgia, called Mercer University, that had some pretty giant personalities. A man named Joe Hendrix, who became a kind of adopted father to me, who had gotten Mercer to desegregate before it was made to by public officials. And he was very close, he was best friends, with Will Campbell, who was a minister from Amite County Mississippi, who had actually been a chaplain at the University Mississippi in the 1950s, before he was run off because he was an integrationist, and he left the state and moved to Tennessee, and he threw himself into the civil rights movement. He was the only White person at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He escorted the Little Rock Nine into Central High [00:28:00] School. But he also, at a certain point in his life said that his work was not just to support civil rights, it was to try to minister to, and understand why White folks were making the decisions that they would make. So, he began to minister to members of the Klan. He said in one of the amazing books he wrote, Brother to a dragonfly, “we’re all bastards, but God loves us, anyway.” That was his definition of Christianity.
And so, those two gentlemen were deeply influential in my understanding of how I was supposed to be in the world and the things that I should care about. And, largely because of them, I ended up coming to Mississippi, though it was a place that I was scared to come to, because in Georgia, we were raised to say, “thank God for Mississippi because, if it weren’t for them, we’d be last.”
We said that in South Carolina, too.
I figured it was a popular phrase around our region. And, of course, it’s not fair to Mississippi. There’s some there’s some amazing people. My God, Fannie Lou Hamer was in Mississippi, right? So, what I learned is that they were good people here, who had been doing hard work, and had made some significant changes, and that mostly those changes are not appreciated, and not given the kind of support they need, and so I decided that this was the place that I that I wanted to be.
[00:29:08] Wow. Well, so you found a very impactful career and a life path for yourself. So, you know, I read that you had retired from the Winter Institute. Well, I’m just telling you girl, you don’t look very retired.
You know that I don’t I don’t feel very tired. But, honestly, it was, you know, having been at the University of Mississippi for 20 years. Being an executive director, it involves a lot of paperwork, and it involves a lot of forms. When I started out, it was just me in my car, going to communities and getting to work with folks and getting to mentor young people as I had been mentored. And, by the last few years there, I really was just sitting at a desk and doing paperwork, and doing [00:30:00] fundraising, and that wasn’t feeding my soul.
[00:29:00] So, you left all that behind.
I left all that behind, happily.
-This Works across Different Settings
So, you started your own work, your own partnership. So, tell us a little bit about that, and how it’s similar to, or different from, what you’d been doing before.
It is it is similar to the early work that I was able to do, in the sense that Charles and I are able to be in circles with actual human beings, and hear their stories, and share our stories, and try to discern, together, a way forward that helps make the world a better place for everybody. It involves very little paperwork, and that’s important to me. I mean, we evaluate what we do, we do surveys, and we ask people how to make things better how to make our work better. But, most of the work is spent in this space. So sustainable Equity, you know, we took the Welcome Table process, and we’ve been able to tweak it a little bit, as our understanding has grown. The one of the things I never got to do before was read some books, right, to just see what’s new in the [00:31:00] field, and talk to my colleagues in the field around the country, and start to try to improve the work even more. We’re always trying to be more effective.
So that’s what we do. We stayed in Mississippi because we believe in the future of Mississippi and we want to be a part of it. I work with the group started by Millennials, in 2017, called Mississippi votes, which is about encouraging youth leadership, and civic engagement, and voter registration, and voting rights. I’m very proud of the work of that group.
And then, we work with University of South Carolina, in Columbia. We introduced the Welcome Table to them. We actually began to work with them while we were at the University of Mississippi, but now we’re in a long-term relationship with them, helping to train local folks: staff, faculty, and students to begin to spread out across South Carolina and do this work, across South Carolina.
One of my former students at Ole Miss, Jennifer Gunter is the executive director of that process, and I can’t communicate effectively how proud I am of her, and John Dozier, and the good people at University of South Carolina. And then, we also [00:32:00] got connected to the John J. College of Criminal Justice, which has a national network for safe communities run by a giant in the field of violence reduction, named David Kennedy. And, they reached out to me, because they had gotten a grant from the DOJ, under the previous administration, to work to build trust and social justice between police and marginalized communities.
And they asked us to be a part of that process and help craft what that would look like and it very much mirrors what we have done in Mississippi with those, what I call, sort of public rituals of atonement of apology that a public official makes about a particular horrific incident in the communities past. And then, with the deliberate creation of listening circles to begin to build trust and to do some work together. And so, we started in their pilot city, which is Birmingham. We were there for three weeks, in October of 2016, with rank-and-file police officers, doing a sort of modified version of the Welcome Table with them around public safety. And at the end of that process, I could go into lots of details. I [00:33:00] love that group and continually amazed at how brave they were to be a part of that process. But at the end of the three weeks, they decided to create a group called Birmingham Equally United, and that group has met every week, since 2016. They’ve done community walks together. They work with kids, and high schools, and middle schools, and they decided that one of the things they wanted to do was to make sure to train incoming police cadets in the history of the police department, in thwarting civil rights, so that they could help reset the relationship that the police department had with the local community. So, we planned that process for about a year, and then we just did the pilot on November sixth. We spent a day with these, my goodness, they seemed like they were 12, but I guess they’re old enough to be police officers, and they were delightful and wonderful. And we did some trust-building stuff with them in the basement of 16th Street Baptist Church, where the bomb went off, and the four little girls were murdered. And then walked across the street to [00:34:00] the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and they started to learn very difficult history, that the uniform that they were wearing had been engaged in. And it went well enough that they want us to come back and do it three times next year, with the next three incoming classes. And so, we have a corporate client that you may have heard of, they’re called Facebook. There are a lot of good people who work there who are trying to create a culture social justice within that company, and so we’ve been working with folks there. Really fantastic and hard stuff given, of course, what all is going on in terms of the question about technology and how it’s used and how it’s been used in our country. So, I’m grateful to know that there are such good people there, who are wrestling with those issues in very thoughtful ways.
[00:34:43] It’s interesting that you’re moving from civil rights issues of yesterday and the history that we still carry with us, but you’re also looking forward to the civil rights issues that our technology is creating for us, right now, and that may or may not have been recognized.
Obviously, many of the challenges we face have been recognized, privacy those kinds of things, but there are more to come that we don’t know about, over the horizon.
So obviously, that’s a long trajectory, a long view you have.
It’s because we get to hang out with really smart folks. We know this is not just about what’s happened in the previous four hundred years. It’s about what’s happened, yesterday. We often start this process that Welcome Table process or Sustainable Equity process with the sort of, story circle, that we learned from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee mentors in that group that taught me that process. And, we will ask people to tell a story about the first time you noticed race as the elephant in the room, and that leads to some very powerful kinds of stories, but later in the process we will often ask folks to tell us the last time you noticed race, as the elephant in the room. And, folks will absolutely tell [00:36:00] you sometimes a story that happened that morning to them on the job. So, this is not an issue that’s gone away. Donald Trump is not a surprise to me, because we have so long avoided trying to actually have those difficult conversations about race. And, until we actually grapple with the history of white supremacy, that is the foundation of this country, we’re going to continue to have these problems.
-How has this Work Changed You?
We’ve talked about how communities have changed and about how the work that you’ve been involved in has transformed or changed communities. How has this work changed you?
Oh, my goodness. Charles would laugh, and he’s sitting nearby, so I expect to hear him laugh.
I think it’s made me more patient. We have a joke. There’s a there’s a cartoon, called Chowder, that has a character that said, “waiting hurts my soul,” and it does, you know. I want things to change right now. But I’ve learned that it takes time [00:37:00] and you got to do the work. So, at least with community engagement, I think it’s made me a more patient person. I’m much more willing to hear where somebody’s coming from even if they say something that might, you know make me cringe a little bit. I mean, I’m a White woman. Certainly, raised with privilege and advantage, even though I grew up in a poor family. There are ways in which I could have access to things that Black folks could not. And, I understand that because of this process, and therefore, I have an obligation to try to engage with White folks, especially, around that issue, but I know that White folks are nervous, and they don’t want to say the wrong thing. They don’t want to be accused of being something, and so I’m much more part of the call-in culture than the call-out culture. That’s definitely been a change. Before, I might, you know, maybe I might want to punch somebody, but that’s not that’s not going to help anything.
It’s important to understand how this work isn’t about changing [00:38:00] somebody else. It’s about working with people, and we all are changed through that process. So, we have to be willing to expect that, look for that, and want that to happen. So thanks for sharing that.
So, I’ll be really candid. Your work inspires me.
Oh, my goodness. Thank you.
-Whose Work Inspires You?
[00:38:11] I want to ask you who else’s work inspires you?
Oh, my goodness. So many, so many folks. The person that I’ve been following religiously is Adrienne Maree Brown, who wrote this phenomenal book called, Emergent Strategy. She is an activist. She is out of Detroit, was trained by the amazing iconic civil rights activist Grace Lee Boggs, and I think in her book, she’s really captured some of where we need to be going to look to the future.
You know, I really [00:39:00] love the work of Rebecca Solnit, who is a writer and an activist, especially around and on environmental issues. I have had the pleasure and honor of working with young people over the course of the last 22 years. And, those young people truly in the way that they’re fearless, and the way that they’re fierce, they asked hard questions, they get out, they do good work. They are truly what get me out of bed every day.
Before we wrap up, because I know we’re running out of time, is there anything else that you want to say or add to this podcast?
You asked amazingly wonderful questions. You really modeled open and honest questions. And, so that to the extent that this has been a good dialogue, and I’ll leave that to others to judge, it’s because of the good questions that you ask, the kind of conversation that we were able to have. So, I want to honor that because a lot of folks don’t praise the value of conversation. Hannah Arendt talked about friendship as a political act, about creating [00:40:00] that individual relationship that you could ask maybe the dumb question that you were afraid to ask out in public, but you could do that within the confines of a friendship.
And so, I talked about her work and I talked about that possibility, the political possibility, of friendship and what that can mean in terms of transforming relationships, and then I talked about the need for being an active bystander. You have to have both, you have to do the individual work and the systemic work. When you see someone being discriminated against, or you see something happening in your workplace, or just out in the world, you know, as people are doing, picking up that camera and filming police brutality. Ervin Staub, who’s done a lot of work around Rwanda and how very quickly that genocide occurred, talks about that role of being an active bystander and creating a larger culture that that lifts up the values of freedom, and liberty, and respect, and mercy, and justice, and implementing those in public. You know, Dr. Cornel West talks about it as, “justice is what love looks like in public.” So, I like to talk about the love that [00:41:00] happens in a friendship, and then the love that happens in a community through social justice.
Well, Dr. Susan Glisson, I just want to thank you so much for your time this afternoon, and for sharing yourself and your wisdom with the group. We really appreciate the work that you’re doing.
Oh, Ame. I’m grateful for the connection. I’m grateful for you, and your spirit, and the work that you do, and your vision, and I look forward to staying connected. It’s going to take all of us to get this work done.
This has been State of inclusion, and we’ll be back again next week with another episode of Equity Warriors.
Guest: Dr Susan Glisson
Host: Ame Sanders
Social Media and Marketing Coordinator: Kayla Nelson
Podcast Coordinator: Emma Winiski
Sound: FAROUT Media