Cover Story

Area Leaders Say Momentum Can Generate Action to Address Systemic Racism

Seizing the Moment

Vanessa Otero

Vanessa Otero, interim director of the Healing Racism Institute of Pioneer Valley.

Vanessa Otero said the phone started ringing just a day or two after George Floyd was killed on a street in Minneapolis and the world, and this region, began to react to what it saw — and felt.

On the other end of the line were those in leadership positions at area businesses, institutions, and nonprofits who wanted to know what the Healing Racism Institute of the Pioneer Valley (HRIPV), the 501(c)(3) Otero now serves as interim director, could do to help not only educate those at these companies and agencies about racism — something it’s been doing for several years now — but take the conversation to a different, much higher plane.

And then convert the talk into far-reaching action.

“Every day, we have two or three organizations reaching out, people who have been through our two-day session, saying, ‘can we talk about what more we can do — the what now?’” she said. “And we’ve initiated a process to add that ‘what now?’”

Elaborating, she noted that, in response to these inquiries, HRIPV — which has seen more than 800 area residents and business leaders attend its signature two-day sessions, where participants learn, grow, and process the effects of racism within individuals and the community as a whole — is committed to formalizing and institutionalizing an expanded roster of services that includes everything from onboarding training for new hires at area companies and agencies to full- and half-day training sessions for staffs and boards (more on all this later).

These phone calls — and HRIPV’s commitment — provide just some of the many forms of evidence that George Floyd’s death, more than any similar incident before it or since, has created a real opportunity — as much as all those we spoke with regretted the use of that term in this circumstance — to bring about real and lasting change when it comes to systemic racism and equal access to opportunity.

“We’ve just reached a tipping point,” said Ronn Johnson, president and CEO of Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services in Springfield, who is being honored by BusinessWest as one of its Difference Makers for 2020. “We’ve reached that point where we’ve really grabbed hold of something that has the potential to change social policies.”

Frank Robinson, vice president of Public Health at Baystate Health, who has been actively involved with the Healing Racism Institute since it was blueprinted by John Davis, a director of the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation and others after they were inspired by a similar initiative in Grand Rapids, Mich., agreed.

Ronn Johnson

Ronn Johnson stands near a mural depicting the names of dozens of victims of police brutality. The art has become an inspiration to many visitors.

He told BusinessWest that the George Floyd killing, coupled with the way in which the pandemic has further exposed racial inequalities, has created a compelling opportunity to create a dialogue about not just racism, but the systemic racism that exists in many corporations and institutions.

“I call COVID the great magnifier,” he noted. “The pandemic has created an opportunity, if you look at the glass as half-full, to visit problems that have been magnified by its presence. Someone talked about COVID as a magnifier, and then they talked about the ongoing structural problems it has revealed as the virus of 1619, the beginning of slavery.

“We’ve done a good job of getting folks to understand racism and perhaps their role in it,” he went on, referring to the HRIPV specifically. “Now is the time to deepen that conversation so we look at some of the structural and systemic issues that perpetuate the problem — and that’s a slightly different conversation than the ones we’ve been having.”

But while there is general optimism that the confluence of events in this unforgettable spring of 2020 will indeed change the landscape in profound ways, those we spoke with acknowledged there is much work to be done, and none of it is particularly easy. So much work, in fact, that some are feeling overwhelmed by the assignment confronting them.

The place to start, said Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College (HCC), is with each business, each institution, and each individual asking what they can do to address this issue in their own way.

“And if they’re already taking some actions, they need to ask what more they can do,” she said, adding that this is exactly what HCC is doing. It already has a number of programs and initiatives in place to help level what has historically been an unlevel playing field when it comes to access to opportunities for individuals of color, but Royal acknowledged that more needs to be done.

Mark Keroack, president and CEO of Baystate Health, expressed similar sentiments.

“Just in the past few months, it’s become clear that it’s not enough to travel the personal journey yourself and get your head and your heart in the right place,” he said. “You also need to be aware of the fact that all around us is this system that tends to favor white people. And then the question is — what are you going to do about it? And it’s not straightforward; there’s a lot of thinking and learning, and trying this and trying that.”

“We’ve just reached a tipping point. We’ve reached that point where we’ve really grabbed hold of something that has the potential to change social policies.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how the events of the past several weeks have indeed created an important opportunity to address the large and complicated issue of racism in this country — and how to maximize that opportunity.

Changing the Conversation

Tracing the history of the HRIPV, Davis turned back the clock almost a decade, to a trip to Grand Rapids that was part of the City2City program that also took leaders of this region to Greensboro, N.C., Bethlehem, Pa., and Chattanooga, Tenn. During that visit to Michigan, while hearing about efforts to drive economic development, revitalize the central business district, and improve schools, participants also heard about a program within the local chamber of commerce called the Institute for Healing Racism.

A small group of those participants returned to Grand Rapids to experience the two-day Facing Racism program firsthand, and upon returning, they established the regional anti-racism workgroup to gauge interest in pursuing the development of a similar initiative in Western Mass., said Davis, noting that, with the Grand Rapids program as a model, the Healing Racism two-day program and curriculum was established.

“The minute I saw it, I said, ‘we’ve got to get this going in Springfield,” said Davis, noting that this wasn’t the first effort to create such a program in Greater Springfield — others had been attempted in the ’90s — but it was the first that gained enough traction to get off the ground. And it was clearly needed, he noted.

“It was something I could see in the community — there was a clear lack of understanding about racism; no one wanted to talk about it,” he told BusinessWest. “Everybody talked about it in their own little worlds, but the conversations I witnessed were not the conversations that were needed. If you did a survey of the white population and asked them how many were racist, 99% would say they weren’t racists. But if you did a survey of people of color and asked them if they lived in a racist society, they’d all say ‘yes.’ So there was a huge disconnect that I could see.”

Frank Robinson

Frank Robinson says the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified issues of racism and inequality and helped provide a real opportunity to take the conversation to a higher plane.

In an effort to address this disconnect, two-day sessions, again modeled on those in Grand Rapids, were created where participants did a good amount of listening to those of other races. And by listening, participants, which included police, business leaders, nonprofit leaders, a district attorney, members of the media, and other constituencies, learned that issues of racism and inequality were real in the Pioneer Valley.

The challenge, and the assignment, moving forward is to continue the dialogue, but also take this initiative to a higher plane, Otero said.

“We’d like to get to the point where, as in Grand Rapids, we’re embedded in organizations so that we can leave them with capacity to train and have these conversations in institutions so that they become anti-racist institutions,” said Otero, who took the helm of this agency just a few weeks ago and is still awaiting her business cards. “Because the antidote to out-and-out racism is ‘I’m anti-racist,’ which means you’re taking action to address this issue and you realize your privilege within that system and are taking action against it.”

Elaborating, she circled back to those phone calls and e-mails and inquiries about ‘what now’ when it comes to educating people about racism, broadening the conversation, and institutionalizing new policies and ways of doing things.

“Building on what’s already there, we’ve created a menu of services that we could work with organizations to implement,” Otero explained, “to ensure that anti-racism conversations continue to happen and grow, to the point where the organization itself can make the decision to be anti-racist, because that’s the key to institutionalizing this kind of work and this kind of thinking.”

“We’ve done a good job of getting folks to understand racism and perhaps their role in it. Now is the time to deepen that conversation so we look at some of the structural and systemic issues that perpetuate the problem — and that’s a slightly different conversation than the ones we’ve been having.”

This ‘what now’ has been in place for some time, she went on, but it hasn’t been effectively “activated.” To provide this deeper roster of services, the HRIPV will need an infrastructure, she said, as well as a large cadre of trainers and facilities. And this will likely require funding in the form of a capital campaign.

But the need is real, and the agency is committed to having these programs in place later this year, she told BusinessWest.

Moving Beyond Words

Johnson acknowledged that, in the wake of the Floyd killing, statements condemning police violence and systemic racism have come from all corners of society — CEOs of major corporations, athletes, political figures, prominent actors and musicians, nonprofit leaders, and ordinary citizens.

These statements are appreciated, and do have value, he told BusinessWest, but the emphasis now must be on moving beyond words and into the realm of action to recognize, understand, and address actions and policies that contribute to systemic racism and inequality.

And this is starting to happen on a number of levels, he and others noted, citing everything from NASCAR’s decision to ban the confederate flag at its events to the NFL acknowledging it was wrong to discourage its players from kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality, to new bills aimed at banning police use of chokeholds.

But if the region and the nation are to fully seize this moment in time, they say, every business, institution, and municipality has to take a truly deep dive on this matter and make a commitment to effect real change.

And those we talked with expressed optimism there is now the requisite amount of momentum to do just that. And it has been created by what many described as a perfect storm of conditions — the incidents involving George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and many others over the years; the racial inequalities exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic; and the fact that so many were home watching these events unfold. Despite incidents of violence and looting, those we spoke with believe the protests and marches, such as those in Springfield and other area communities, have created mostly positive energy and, in many respects, resolve not to let this opportunity be lost.

“I give credit to the young people for doing this — they’re carrying the passion,” Johnson said. “I was talking to a vice president at one of the local colleges; he’s talking about meeting with students who are not even on campus and may not return to campus, but are intent on finding out what this particular college is going to have to do to change in terms of some of the social conditions they’ve experienced.”

John Davis

John Davis, one of the founders of the Healing Racism Institute, says the agency was created to start a much-needed dialogue about race and racism.

Others we spoke with agreed, but acknowledged that progress can only come if the words in those statements and advertisements that so many businesses and institutions have generated in recent weeks are backed up with action and a lasting commitment to change.

“I would to say to my colleagues at other nonprofits … ‘look at your organizational structures — you’re serving largely Latino and African-American families, but your boards are almost all white,’” said Johnson, adding that, at many of these agencies, diversity exists at the lower levels of the employment spectrum, but not at the top. “They need to take a look at the leadership and make sure it reflects the composition of the folks they are servicing; that’s important for us to do.”

Even before the events of these past few weeks, many area businesses, institutions, and nonprofits were already looking inward — at policies, practices, and procedures — with an eye toward making them more anti-racist, to borrow Otero’s phrase.

And now, this confluence of circumstances is compelling some to look harder and deeper at what they’re doing (or not doing) and how.

At Baystate Health, Keroack said, the events of past several weeks have brought greater urgency to the discussion about the many forms of systemic racism, especially when it comes to public health.

“Here, as in so many communities across the country, communities of color are disadvantaged in some very fundamental ways when it comes to chronic disease burden — more asthma, more diabetes, more obesity, more hospitalizations for mental health, more maternal mortality, more infant mortality,” he explained. “And a shorter life span at birth; in some neighborhoods in Springfield, the average life span is 70, versus other neighborhoods where it’s 80, and suburban communities where it’s over 80. Your zip code really affects your health status in a very fundamental way.”

In response to this, Baystate is working with accountable-care organizations to address the health concerns of an assigned group of people — in this case, 40,000 people who receive care at inner-city health centers.

“But practicing medical care is not going to get where you need to be,” he went on. “You need to address the social determinants of health — housing, nutrition, transportation, legal aid, and public safety … and there’s a ton of work to be done.”

Meanwhile, the company is looking internally, at its practices and systems, with an eye toward creating greater diversity at all levels.

“We need to look at the systems that are in place, both in society and for me in this large organization, around hiring, advancement, and representation around the table of diverse voices,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve worked very hard to build diversity on our board of trustees, but we still have a long way to go in terms of our leadership ranks.”

At the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC), there has been action in the form of new policies and procedures when it comes to hiring and posting positions, said the agency’s executive director, Kim Robinson.

These included the formation of something called the Race, Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Committee, which was formed by employees at the agency last year to address such issues within the organization. It was spawned in part by a housing study undertaken by the PVPC that revealed a number of disparities and what she called a “segregated community” across the region.

Christina Royal

Holyoke Community College President Christina Royal says racism is “structural and systemic,” so Band-Aid solutions are not going to fix root-cause issues.

“From that time on, we’ve been talking more and more within our organization about the need to do a race and equity plan for a region,” she said. “We think this is work that would be very interesting to undertake with other groups committed to this kind of work and seeing equity, social justice, and economic opportunity.”

While exploring when and how such a study might be undertaken, the PVPC has looked inward and seen a need to change language in its handbook and adopt several new policies when it comes to hiring.

“We’re going to require race, equity, and diversity training for every single one of our employees,” Robinson said. “And we’ve been evaluating where we post jobs to see if there was any inherent bias in that. We’ve added some additional avenues because we want to make sure we’re getting the word out to lots and lots of people.”

Looking Ahead — with Hope

At Holyoke Community College, Royal said the school continues to address issues of race and equality through initiatives designed to remove barriers and help see students through to completion of what they’re working to achieve. And it does so with the understanding that the problems are real and require lasting solutions.

“Racism is structural, and it’s systemic, so a Band-Aid solution is not going to fix the root-cause issues,” she explained. “It does start with having a commitment and an obligation to speak out against hatred, intolerance, and prejudice so we can really work toward building a truly equitable society.

“I feel a lot of pain with what’s happening in the world, but I also feel there’s a purpose to it,” said Royal, who is biracial and acknowledged that, five years before she was born, it would have been illegal for her parents to marry. “I do feel a sense of urgency and responsibility to contribute toward making our world better and our Pioneer Valley region better.”

She said equity remains a huge issue at her school and within society in general, and thus HCC has made it a priority to level the playing field when possible.

“We know that there are achievement gaps between our white students and our students of color,” she noted. “And we have a responsibility and a commitment to do better in this regard.”

She started with a town-hall meeting on June 3 to create dialogue about what was playing out on the news, but acknowledged that the school’s commitment goes beyond conversation.

“It starts with speaking out, but it doesn’t end there,” she said. “Authenticity of commitment to these issues is very important because, as I said, a Band-Aid approach isn’t going to work.”

Surveying the landscape around him, including a new mural at Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services that memorializes victims of police aggression and the people who have come to see it and take a selfie in front of it, Ronn Johnson reiterated his belief — and his hope — that real change is possible and perhaps even imminent, and that he feels privileged to be part of all that’s happening.

“I’m proud to be alive at this particular point in time,” he told BusinessWest. “I just feel that we’re at a place where we’ve really turned a corner; we’ve hit that tipping point where we’ll be able to look back two or three years from now and say, ‘that moment was worth it.’”

He’s certainly not alone in that sentiment — or the knowledge that much has to happen for people to be able to utter those words.

A seminal moment has arrived, and an opportunity has presented itself. It’s now incumbent on the businesses, institutions, and residents of this region to seize this moment.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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