The Common Good
September-October 2000

Undoing Racism in Flint

by Margaret Williamson | September-October 2000

Michigan city turns dialogue into action.

Five hundred community leaders in Flint, Michigan, attended intensive training this spring to understand and combat racism. The Flint "undoing racism" movement—highlighted in the Clinton administration’s publication Pathways to One America in the 21st Century: Promising Practices for Racial Reconciliation—is now a national model.

Flint’s mayor, Woodrow Stanley, proclaimed an "Undoing Racism" week this spring, and participants in the anti-racism workshops have included the mayor, fire chief Therron Wiggins, members of the print and electronic media, community activists, block club presidents, corporate leaders, city council members, foundations, the arts community, and a university chancellor. At least 100 teens who participated in Undoing Racism retreats are now active in the movement.

The seeds of this year’s events were planted in 1997, when the Community Coalition and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation convened a diverse group of 40 community leaders for a half-day meeting presented by the Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond. The Peoples Institute is a grassroots training organization founded in New Orleans in 1980, with branches in California, Michigan, Georgia, Minnesota, and New York. Civic leaders attending the briefing agreed that Undoing Racism workshops could be helpful in the city’s effort to address racism. Flint had recently been identified as the sixth most-segregated city of its size in the United States, which lent a sense of urgency.

The Community Coalition received a grant from the Mott Foundation to organize four Undoing Racism workshops. Twenty people participated in the first workshop, held in November 1997; 125 attended the following three workshops, including the mayor and fire chief, who decided to encourage city employees to attend future sessions.

The Undoing Racism workshops explore the politics of race in the United States. Those in attendance are asked pointed questions: Why are people poor? Do institutions perpetuate racism; if so, how? Do you personally perpetuate racism knowingly or unknowingly; if so, how? Participants learn that the concept of race is a specious term that is based on the premise of white superiority, and that white people benefit by the race construct with institutionalized privilege granted to all white citizens. Further, participants explore internalized racial superiority and internalized racial inferiority.

Why did the mayor and fire chief think it important for members of the fire department to attend Undoing Racism workshops? Fire department personnel are required to work together as a team; a life can depend on another’s actions. The needed cooperation could be hindered if anyone thinks that people of other races are inferior or superior based on skin color. In the Undoing Racism workshops, fire department personnel have the opportunity to explore these questions, discuss race issues, and more often than not find that they are more alike than they ever imagined.

The Undoing Racism workshops have not cured racism in the Flint fire department, but it is a beginning. Thirty-seven fire department personnel have attended the workshops, as well as 55 other city workers and administrators. The city’s mayor and fire chief have shown courage and provided a model for others by taking the difficult step of examining racism in city government.

MARGARET WILLIAMSON has served as president of the Community Coalition in Flint, Michigan, since May 1995. For information on how to bring Undoing Racism workshops to your area, contact The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, 1444 North Johnson St., New Orleans, LA 70116; (504) 944-2354; fax (504) 944-6119; pisabnola@aol.com.

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