“It’s been the tipping point for the nation but for me it’s long overdue.”

Marie Louis, MSW, Clinical Supervisor, The New LIFE School

On Memorial Day, May 25, the name George Floyd became etched into the minds of the American psyche when he died beneath the knee of a police officer calling for his mother and unable to breath. On that same day, Christian Cooper’s name became known in New York City, when his peaceful bird-watching activities in Central Park’s Ramble collided with a White woman and her unleashed dog. Within minutes, she wielded her phone as a weapon, calling the police to say, “There’s an African American man, I’m in Central Park, he is recording me and threatening myself and my dog…Please send the cops immediately!” These actions again demonstrated acts of racism towards Black males in this country and, in the case of Floyd, resulted in the death of another Black male at the hands of the police. Greatly disturbed by these acts, LSSNY CEO Dr. Damyn Kelly reached out to all staff members to have a conversation.

“Upon hearing about these incidents that happened on the same day, I immediately sent an email to our staff,” stated Dr. Kelly. He wrote, “I am writing you this evening out of a sense of frustration, anger and concern. Concern, as I am unsure as to whether this is the type of email the CEO of a large social service organization should write when the city is facing a multi-billion dollar deficit, millions of Americans are unemployed at numbers not seen since the depression…However, I decided to write out of a sense of obligation. A sense of obligation as one who seeks to fight for equal opportunity, as one who believes in social justice and as one who believes that human service organizations and those who work in the sector have an obligation to not only act in ways that enhance the quality of life of those we serve but also to speak out against injustice when we see or experience it. More importantly, I speak as a Black male. One who could have been murdered by police in the same manner as George Floyd in Minneapolis or suffered the indignity of being threatened with police intervention as experienced by Christian Cooper in Central Park.”

LSSNY Chief Program Officer Kerron Norman also felt the frustration. “Because of ongoing incidents of racism and police brutality against Black and Brown communities, we had to ask our staff if they were okay,” she says. “We were also in the throes of the COVID 19 pandemic. Every day we heard accounts of its devastating impact. There was this sense of collective grief.  You don’t know how people are coping with these injustices, health, and economic concerns so it is important to check in. I understood Damyn’s anguish. It was a lot to bear. He is a Black man, the leader of a nonprofit organization in which the staff and constituents are largely comprised of people of color facing social despair.”  

Kerron further explained, “A very common phenomenon is that people come to work after one of these tragic deaths and act as if nothing has happened.  It is the experience of unspoken hurt, fear, anger, and grief that is devastating. I’m proud of the courageous level of leadership Damyn demonstrated. He made space for our collective humanity.  We unpacked feelings of outrage, fear, and pain from incidents like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, as well as many other social injustices. While we didn’t know them, they could have been any one of us. We know this to be true.”

In his email to the staff, Dr. Kelly suggested the formation of a Social Justice Committee, a forum where staff could share concerns, learn from one another, and have compassionate dialogue about uncomfortable topics. The ground rules included being aware of one’s own prejudices, not being accusatory in speech or tone, and welcoming each other in a faith-based environment.

One hundred seventy-two individuals participated in the first meeting of the Social Justice Committee. “I was filled with great pride and joy to see so many participate,” said Dr. Kelly. “It was also empowering to hear the personal narratives pertaining to racism, colorism, oppression and the dynamics and use of power. It took great courage from those who spoke to share their poignant stories.”

The committee’s ideas for social action included participating in the Juneteenth parade in Harlem as an organization, registering voters, and urging LSSNY’s clients to participate in the census. But the most popular idea put forth was the formation of a book club focusing on topics of race, privilege, racism, oppression and other “isms” that impact the lives of LSSNY’s staff and clients. The Social Justice Book Club, which is conducted entirely online due to the pandemic, has enabled LSSNY staff to constructively analyze racism, power dynamics, and the impact of White supremacy on our nation.

While some advocated for the reading of a book written by a person of color, after a vote, the consensus was to choose a book written by a White minister — David Billings, a son of the South — whose book, Deep Denial: The Persistence of White Supremacy in United States History and Life, was unknown to most staff, but whose topic was of particular interest. Billings offers an explanation and analysis of the roles that community-based organizations can play in strengthening and empowering communities — one of the goals of LSSNY. He included a study guide, and Kerron Norman arranged a discussion between him and the LSSNY staff.

The book has meant different things to different members of the staff. “Although I am Latina and aware of racism, I didn’t realize that because I’m a light-skinned Latina, I benefit from some of the White privilege,” said Early LIFE teacher Dianne Rios-Mora. “It was a big eye-opener for me. Even though I know what it’s like to not have privilege, the Black community experiences this in a deeper way.”

Sarah Strole, LCSW and Program Director of Safe Haven, says that she intentionally did more listening than talking during the online book club discussions, in part because she’s Caucasian, and in part because she didn’t want staff members to listen to a manager’s monologue. She explained, “Society has placed much of the burden of solving racism on the people who are most disenfranchised and historically oppressed, and that is part of the problem. Racism is a white person problem. Historically, what happens is that white people can ignore racism because we have so much privilege and as a result have benefited from that privilege.”

With the greater understanding brought about by these discussions, LSSNY plans to translate these ideas into action. “Having greater knowledge will help us better serve our students as well as their families,” says Marie Louis, MSW, Clinical Supervisor, The New LIFE School. “It’s important for me to not re-traumatize our population but instead come up with ways we can help heal the entire community. We can do this by integrating African-American or Black history into our curriculum.”

Sarah Strole also stressed the importance of incorporating anti-racist work into Safe Haven’s programming. While the program talks to the unaccompanied minors in its care about labor laws, child abuse, and trafficking, there’s no formal conversation about racism and police brutality. “Many of the kids are Black and would benefit from these conversations before leaving Safe Haven and living in a new community,” she says.

Kerron Norman, Chief Program Officer at LSSNY, has seen positive benefits from the book club. “We’re reaching a new level in understanding each other as colleagues and have gained a greater appreciation for working with communities of color,” she says. “Many of our constituents are in socioeconomic distress. We have learned that many of our staff are now facing similar circumstances given the pandemic’s severe impact on minority populations. The financial realities that people are facing is compounded by racial and social injustice. It is all very traumatizing. We are reminded of how intrinsically linked we are. The important thing to remember is our humanity. It will help us with our work,” she says.

Recommended Reading from LSSNY’s Social Justice Book Club:

Books:

Deep Denial: The Persistence of White Supremacy in United States History and Life by David Billings

Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Critical Reader by G. Hines & J.M. Humez

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by R. DiAngelo

Before The Mayflower: A History of Black America by L. Bennett

So You Want to Talk About Race? by Ijeoma Oluo

Black Robes, White Justice by Bruce Wright

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America by Juan Gonzalez

Latina Empowerment Through Leadership: Mindful Stories From Inspiring Women by Catherine Munoz Graces

Inventing Latinos: A New Story of American Racism by Laura E. Gomez

The Latinos of Asia: How Filipino Americans Break the Rules of Race by Anthony Christian Ocampo

Critical Race Theory by Richard Delgado

Articles:

How Race-Related Stress Impacts Employees and What Companies Can Do to Help by Laura Holland Stokes

The Relentlessness of Black Grief by Marissa Evans

Recommended Book Store: LitBar