Asheville, N.C. – The W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) opened its four-day 2013 America Healing conference with a rousing appearance by civil rights lawyer and advocate Michelle Alexander, who decried the mass incarceration of people of color as intolerable.
Alexander, an associate professor of law at The Ohio State University, is the author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” a book that WKKF president and CEO Sterling Speirn called “a bold and searing argument” about incarceration in the U.S.
Alexander began by laying out the argument that systemic failures in the justice system have resulted in mass incarceration that disproportionately affects poor people of color. She warned participants not to see the election of our nation’s first African American president as proof of a post-racial society. Rather, she encouraged attendees to “awaken from our collective slumber,” and create not only a civil rights movement, but a human rights movement, dedicated to abolishing the system of mass incarceration.
“We’ve got to admit out loud that we as a nation have managed to recreate a caste system, and we have to be willing to tell this truth in our schools… in our churches… in our neighborhoods… in prison and outside of prison. We have to be willing to tell these truths so that a great awakening can occur,” Alexander said.
In the rousing conclusion to her talk, she added, “I hope that we will keep in mind that all of these rules, policies, laws and practices rest upon one core belief, and it is the same core belief that sustained Jim Crow. It is the belief that some of us are not worthy of genuine care and concern, and if we effectively challenge that belief, this whole system begins to fall.” This belief is racism.
Alexander’s words spurred conversation throughout the crowd, building enthusiasm going into the conference, which reconvenes today for a day focused on remembrance and healing. Speirn, as well as Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy and Joe Stewart, a member of the WKKF board of trustees, had welcomed attendees to the conference. The speakers emphasized that while disparities still exist in American society, racial healing is helping diverse neighbors bridge their differences and work together to strengthen their community.
More than 500 national and community-level leaders, community-based organization and civil rights groups gathered at the conference for a collaborative process aimed at healing the wounds of racism and addressing conscious and unconscious bias. Entitled “Reclaiming the Narrative,” the convening will engage participants in conversations on eliminating barriers to opportunities, especially for vulnerable children. Stewart energized the audience with his welcome address.
“We believe, as all of you believe…We dream, as all of you dream…that America can heal, and America will heal, and that America must heal and we together share a commitment to the healing process,” Stewart said.
“Our message this evening is as it was with our founder, that we are deeply committed to the health, happiness and well-being of children, and even more, we are particularly committed to the plight of our most vulnerable children,” said Stewart, adding that the conference participants are united in seeking a society “in which all children thrive, a society where equal opportunity is no longer a hollow promise but a living reality.”
Earlier in the evening, Mayor Bellamy and Patty Grant, of the Cherokee Preservation Council, talked about the healing process and what can be achieved by working together.
Mayor Bellamy said her city had experienced a high dropout rate among high school students, especially African American youths. Working with the community, she established an internship program for youths leading to a more than 30 percent reduction in the city’s dropout rate.
Grant, of the Cherokee Preservation Council, recited the long history of racism that the Cherokee nation has suffered through the centuries. "These difficult experiences have made each one of us stronger" said Grant, “to achieve our goal of helping America heal, to gain strength and prosperity through racial equality we must have a unified vision and effort and maintain this commitment to sticking with this vision until it is achieved."
Gail Christopher, WKKF vice president-program strategy, said that there is an urgency to presenting the complete narrative on race, particularly in telling the positive stories of people working together.
"As we continue to hear stories about inequity, especially among people of color and the myth that we are a post-racial society, there's an urgency to address the overarching narratives that misinform our collective understanding," she said. "This convening brings together hundreds of individuals dedicated to making life better for vulnerable children. Together, we hope to ensure that future generations of Americans can grow up in a thriving and inclusive democracy we must put these issues of inequity in front of us now so that we can move beyond them together."
This conference is part of the foundation’s America Healing initiative, which provides grants for organizations to address structural bias and facilitate racial healing in communities.
The conference is taking place at the Grove Park Inn, 290 Macon Avenue, Asheville, NC 28804. For more information about America Healing, visit www.AmericaHealing.org.