Who does this brokenness serve? Well...us : Comments from the EHOC Conference

[a talk shared by Adelaide Lancaster at the 2019 EHOC Conference themed “Facing Segregation”]

On March 15th, 2012 my husband and I learned that we’d be moving to St. Louis in less than 8 weeks. I knew almost nothing about the city and didn’t know anyone who lived here.  So I took to Facebook and relied on friends of friends to help fill in some blanks. Surprisingly I quickly received a lot of advice and even a connection to a realtor. What I shared was that we had a 2 year old and a newborn, desired a short commute, and that we’d be utilizing public schools. We received a predictable short list of inner ring suburbs in response.

A week later we traveled to St. Louis to find a place to live. With our 7 week old in tow we drove around neighborhoods and tried to imagine ourselves in various communities. Within 24 hours our fate as residents of Webster Groves was sealed. Given that I was moving from 900 square feet in Philadelphia, the thing I was most excited about was allllllll the storage space. 7 weeks later the moving truck pulled up in front of our current house. 7 years later I’m still unpacking the implications of this process and our decision.

I recognize how influential my social network was in very efficiently and even reflexively steering me to the town where we landed. I see how little data I provided to help shape our outcome, and how uncritically I examined our city, it’s history and even the suggestions given to me. I marvel at how unsophisticated my understanding was, as a person and as a parent, about how much the choice of where we live would shape our lives and the “normal” that my children see and experience everyday. I of course didn’t see my choice as reproducing inequity and reinscribing racial divides, but it has.

And this happened in spite of the fact that I actually had learned a lot and cared a lot about racism. Or that’s what I would have told you anyway. I believed that both individual and systemic racism were real and happening. I had thought a lot about my own journey of race and spent most of my graduate school years in a program with a heavy emphasis on racial identity development.  But it was still a largely intellectual exercise. I hadn’t really considered enough the intersection between my proclaimed values and my personal and parenting choices. I was just moving to the suburbs in the mid-West and bringing with me all my assumptions of what that meant and looked like. In truth, a diverse neighborhood wasn’t really concordant with that vision and I wasn’t curious enough to consider why or committed enough to seek a fuller picture. I was living into the myth that our neighborhood just happened to be white even though I really did know better.

This is admittedly a really unremarkable story. But it’s important context for the next chapter, which I’m about to share.

Like many in our region the killing of Michael Brown was a moment of reckoning for me. This tragic event lay bare the well-known and long-standing divides in our community. It also shone a bright light on the silence and indifference of the community I had now begun to think of as home. Most importantly for me it was the moment when I was forced to reconcile my purported values with the life I was living. There was next to no visible evidence of my commitment to racial justice – not just as a person, but as a parent. As I thought nonstop about the pain of Michael Brown’s mother, I was forced to recognize that I had never talked about race with my children and had done a paltry job of peopling their lives with the stories and history of people who don’t look like them. I had never told them that they were white. As the unrest in our city grew so did my dis-ease.

The next spring I met my business partner Laura Horwitz. It was the first time I encountered another white parent who was holding the dis-ease as heavily as I was...and who wanted to do something about it. She was someone who I could tell about suffocating silence that I was experiencing in my community and my worry that no one I knew really cared about what was going on.

As we pushed strollers around Forest Park, she shared the question that was keeping her up at night.  “Why - given how philanthropic our region is, compelling our research base is, and how incredibly sustained our protest movement has been - are we so stuck?”

Together we wondered: Who is responsible for holding the status quo in place? Who was giving elected officials and leaders the impression that the costs of doing nothing were low, and the costs of doing something were too high? Who does this brokenness serve? Well...us.

In that conversation we challenged ourselves to be bold. We began to wonder together what it would take to shift the political will for change in the region. We also challenged ourselves to take concrete action – to start somewhere. That meeting put into motion a series of steps to start an experiment designed to uniquely wrestle with this question: How many white families would we need to engage to unlock our stuckness and reduce the barriers for the regional leadership we already had?

Six months later we launched We Stories based on research from a variety of fields and our best understanding about how to catalyze both individual and community change. We knew that the focus of our intervention would be families with young kids, not just because we could touch multiple generations but also because we know that the habits and patterns of white families are the fuel that drive many of the systems we have in place – housing and education chief among them.

We chose an entry point for our work that has become an important part of how we are known. That entry point is diverse children’s books. We use curated sets of texts to open up critical conversations in white families about race, racism, and structural inequity … and to introduce questions that we believe should be part of the family lexicon.

For example our Neighborhoods kit introduces families to books about diverse and vibrant neighborhoods and asks them to consider how similar or different their own neighborhood is…and then it asks them to get curious about why.  It equips them to ask across a multiplicity of contexts: Who is present? Who is missing? And…WHY?

These children’s books are also paired with topic specific adult-level resources, such as For the Sake of All, Dismantling the Divide, and Richard Rothstein’s article “The Making of Ferguson” to help families situate these conversations within our regional context and to put themselves and their circumstances into the story of St. Louis. But while books are the starting point they are far from where we end.

These newly opened-up conversations, and the awareness they raise help families see not just the larger systems at play but also the coded and false narratives that help keep things as they are: lucrative for some, dangerous for others. This leads to a lot of grappling…grappling about the reality of resource hoarding in our neighborhoods and schools; grappling about the nature of public safety and policing, and grappling the costs of segregation and disparity to us all. Through continued work we support families in moving off the sidelines of inaction and towards opportunities for change. Together we work to disrupt false narratives, introduce missing stories and ask the leaders and institutions around us “how did we get here?” And “who does this serve?” Together we set new-to-us patterns of civic engagement at both the municipal and regional level.

We amplify, ask for, and catalyze equity work in our schools, and encourage our elected officials to consider housing policies that enable our communities to be more consciously inclusive. In some municipalities we get behind existing leaders of color, in some municipalities we forge coalitions of white folks willing to speak truth to power, in some municipalities we’ve invested in building multi-generational, multi-racial groups interested in advancing a shared vision of what’s possible for our communities.

In a system as broken, divided, segregated and disparate as ours, it’s not about getting a whole bunch of white folks to make a neighborhood choice they see as “better” or even “woker”. Our work is about getting more white families to see the whole system, recognize their role in perpetuating what is, and find ways to step off the sidelines - no matter where they are situated - and engage in the opportunities to create consciously inclusive spaces across our region.

We haven’t yet answered our core question of just how many white families it will take to move the needle enough for lasting change…but we are clear that there’s more willingness than we feared. In less than 3 years we’ve grown from 2 families to 850 across 86 of our regional zip codes – and we continue to grow. For the most part our families have traveled farther and faster than we imagined. We are often running to keep pace with their engagement and activism.

As a community it’s not really for us to define exactly what should be; but it is up to us to say “this isn’t what we want”; it is incumbent on us to push for something different; it is our responsibility to make sure that our elected leaders and community stakeholders understand that the cost of doing nothing is catastrophic.