Chatham Organizing for Racial Equity teaching through ‘twin pandemics’

Posted 6/9/21

The practical reality of a constructive, community-wide conversation about racial equity in Chatham County is something that’s never far from Karinda Roebuck’s mind.

For Roebuck, the executive …

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Chatham Organizing for Racial Equity teaching through ‘twin pandemics’

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The practical reality of a constructive, community-wide conversation about racial equity in Chatham County is something that’s never far from Karinda Roebuck’s mind.

For Roebuck, the executive director of CORE — Chatham Organizing for Racial Equity — the “twin pandemics” of the past year have created plenty of opportunities for those conversations to happen.

“We have so much going on,” she said. “I mean, we were in two pandemics, right? Aside from COVID, we were also in the pandemic of racism. And struggling with new normals. And the unfortunate killing of George Floyd was difficult to see, and very traumatic, extremely traumatic for people of color.”

The national attention to Floyd’s death, and the conversations that followed, she said, allowed groups such as CORE — founded in 2016 in Pittsboro — “to sit back and do some really deep strategic planning, and working on our infrastructure.”

“And I do think that with the response we had, because of the national attention, that there’s more dialogue, and there’s more people open to learning more,” she said. “And we were happy to provide that.”

It’s also been a year of transition and transformation for Roebuck and CORE. The national discussion on race, galvanized in the wake of Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, gave more opportunities to teach, to train and to organize — including planning the community-wide Juneteenth observance CORE will host at the Pittsboro Fairgrounds on June 19 (see sidebar story for details).

CORE was founded with the goal of providing educational opportunities for the greater Chatham community, including Racial Equity Institute (REI) training — done via Zoom videoconferencing since the pandemic — for organizations, institutions and individuals requesting it.

Its most recent four-part Racial Equity Fundamentals training series concluded this week. It featured 90-minute virtual modules on the fundamentals of equity, a historical examination of racism, a study of power dynamics, and a look at applied equity. About 40 people registered; the program’s materials were assembled mostly by CORE staff.

Racial equity — equal outcomes, not just equal opportunities — is part of CORE’s vision for the communities and institutions of Chatham County, achieved through education, organizing and reconciliation. All three of those efforts come together in CORE’s REI workshops, which more than 500 Chatham residents have attended in the last three years. Workshop alumni can also discuss issues related to race and equity during monthly meetings hosted by CORE.

Stephanie Terry, CORE’s program director for organizing, said the need for racial equity is evident in Chatham, just like it is elsewhere.

“Chatham County, like most of our country, still maintains an achievement gap amongst Black and white students in education, has disparate outcomes in wealth income measures and has disparities in maternal health outcomes by race,” she said. “Structural racism persists in Chatham County and the first steps in solving this most pervasive problem is developing a shared analysis about race and racism.”

‘I’m being heard’

Although CORE has its detractors, many in the community have voiced their support for its ongoing work and for broaching such sensitive topics, according to Roebuck.

“We really think that it’s important for us to be able to identify root causes of disparities, of racial disparities, by looking at our history,” she says. “And so we do just a kind of a brief look into history — but we really talk about how past policies and laws have affected our lives today. And then the big question of — What do I do with this now? So we talk about what power is, and what community power is, and what you do with this information.”

The organization occasionally gets invited to do training sessions for some people “who don’t necessarily want to be there,” according to Roebuck.

“And we have had a ton of attendees sit there with their arms crossed and their backs to us,” she said. “And by the end of our training series, at this one place, I remember distinctly this gentleman uncrossed his arms and turned around and looked at me. And he said, ‘I feel like I’m being heard.’

“And I appreciate that. And I think that’s one of the big things that we talk about in our group agreements at the beginning of every one of our training sessions. We point out that it’s OK to disagree with what we are saying. And we encourage you to speak up, we encourage you to share what you’re thinking and feeling, because somebody else may be feeling the same thing.”

What Roebuck says is not OK is “to attack or blame or shame to somebody for their thoughts and their belief systems. And we really do begin with the understanding of perspective, and the power that is in our perspectives, and how we can — from polarized groups — come to a center to be able to have a conversation.”

In its workshops and work with client organizations, CORE addresses the subjects of racism, racial equity, biases and socialization head-on — but with the understanding, or even the assumption, that some of the definitions and tenets of those subjects might be unfamiliar to hearers.

In its just-completed series, for example, in a discussion about “implicit bias,” attendees learned that so much of most people’s understanding takes place at an unconscious level. Not being aware that we have implicit biases, many of us remain largely unaware of our own tendencies to rapidly and automatically associate people, groups and objects with our own personal positive and negative connotative preferences.

The resultant actions might be different than our intentions and, in some cases, run contrary to our own stated beliefs and attitudes, Roebuck says. That makes those biases incredibly powerful.

Biases, of course, are at the core of racism. CORE defines racism as “an institutionalized system of explicit and implicit biases, that result in attitudes, processes, behaviors of aggression (micro and macro), oppression, discrimination, and marginalization, revolving around a fictitious belief of social and political constructs of race, where whiteness is believed to be superior, the standard of the norm, and deserving of privilege at the expense of BIPOC resulting in dehumanization, trauma and inequality of every aspect of Black and Brown people’s lives.”

A construct, not a fact

By looking at race and the myth of race — and the fact that because Black and white people, for instance, are 99.98% genetically alike — CORE workshops teach that race is not a biological fact.

That construct, Roebuck says, first appeared in the United States in the early 17th century as a means for European businessmen to profit from free labor and as a method of social control to prevent European and African indentured servants from seeing their common oppression. In time, it became a social and political reality — norms that were internalized into society in the United States.

Even a century and a half after slavery ended here, CORE education sessions teach that our biases and socialization continue to inform our individual perspectives. They create mental associations which can lead us to internalize preferences in favor or disfavor of the things and people around us.

Understanding both bias and socialization as “twin informants” of perspective, and the power of perspective, enhances our understanding of the issues, attendees learn. It also improves critical thinking and problem-solving skills and strengthens our relationships with others. It improves our attitudes through the use of empathy, which — when applied community-wide — leads to reconciliation.

Which, again, is at the heart of CORE’s vision.

Better infrastructure

During the pandemic, CORE itself has become more organized. It’s in the process of becoming a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. It has added board members and is in the process of adding even more; it has partnered with the Durham-based Southern Vision Alliance as a fiscal agent to help with fund-raising, fiduciary support and infrastructure help. A new website has been launched (corenc.org) as well.

For Roebuck, who also works as a trained midwife, the pandemic has given her time to learn the nuances of a growing nonprofit and to leverage the support of CORE’s volunteers, which includes its white caucus members — some of whom helped lead the effort for the removal of the Confederate monument at Pittsboro’s historic County Courthouse in November 2019.

Since that occurred prior to the killing of Floyd, Roebuck said it put Pittsboro and Chatham County in a unique position — a rural area engaging in spirited discussion about the issues of race, equity and justice.

“Because of the statue, right?” said Roebuck, who also serves as co-chairperson of the Chatham Health Alliance Equity Committee. “And the statue was important. The removal of a statue was an important action in Chatham County because it really put that discerning eye on what’s going on, and what it means and what symbols represent. It was a chance to address structural racism.”

And for people of color, she said, Floyd’s death “brought that out in a visceral sense,” creating even more conversation around those issues.

It’s a conversation she hopes continues.

“I would say that we’ve had a lot more support than we’ve seen resistance,” Roebuck said. “And the people who are enrolled in our courses, they still have a lot of work to do.

“We have this veil … especially with our history … we have a veil across our eyes. And what we’re trying to do is just kind of poke holes in those veils so that you can see there’s another narrative, there’s another perspective to history.”

A perspective that’s eye-opening for many, she says.

“For some of them, it makes them uncomfortable, for sure,” she said. “And we tell them to embrace that, that uncomfortableness, because that’s where change happens. I can guarantee you that the caterpillar that’s turning inside the goop is not comfortable in there in that cocoon. But he emerges as a butterfly … I know that not everybody agrees with us, and that’s OK. But if we can get enough people to hear what we’re saying, and we can listen to each other, then I think CORE will make an impact in Chatham County.”

Publisher Bill Horner III can be reached at bhorner3@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @billthethird.

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