On the surface, it was just business as usual. A patient has knee surgery and goes home with instructions and follow-up. But for J. David Heller, CEO of NRP Group, a multi-family housing developer in Cleveland, the routine dump raised questions. He noted how the patient’s experience differed from her mother’s – after her knee surgery, she was sent back to inpatient rehab.
Heller’s mother is white and well-to-do. The family friend is African American. Heller wondered: Was racism a factor behind the differential treatment?
“For me, it was institutional racism,” he says. “You have someone who comes from a lower class in our society, and they immediately treat them differently.”
Evelyn Burnett and Mordecai CargillHeller says he wouldn’t have noticed the contrast, let alone asked the questions, until he participated in the formation of the Racial Equity Institute, LLC or REI.
According to its website, REI is an alliance of trainers, organizers, and leaders dedicated to building racially equitable organizations and systems. The group has been conducting racial equity training for three years, first under the auspices of Cleveland Neighborhood Progress and now through the Third Space Action Lab, a consulting firm rooted in racial equity. More than 3,000 people from 700 organizations attended the trainings, which are now offered monthly.
Third Space co-founder Evelyn Burnett says the purpose of the workshops is simple: to raise awareness of racial equity and inequity. “I think people don’t understand, they don’t respect racism,” she said. “I think it’s an uncomfortable conversation for everyone, especially white people. I think we don’t have a common lexicon for talking about race and racism, which makes it impossible to do anything about it.
REI is based in Greensboro, North Carolina, where four African-American college students sat at Woolworth’s separate lunch counter in 1960. Their protest helped start the civil rights movement that ultimately overthrew Jim Crow.
REI workshops bear little, if any, resemblance to a typical diversity workshop. There are no instructions on creating a non-hostile workplace or defining harassment. Like sit-ins, REI trainings are intense. The information presented challenges intimate beliefs about the nature of racism and the progress being made against it.
Heller attended “Phase 1,” a two-day workshop that delves into the depths of institutional racism. The Institute also presents “Groundwater”, a half-day workshop on the same subject. None of the trainings emphasizes or deconstructs bigotry and individual prejudice. The focus is squarely on “a historical, cultural and structural analysis of racism,” the website says.
Simply put, the analysis argues that “racial disparity persists in every system in this country, without exception.” What differs, trainers say, are the terms used to describe the disparities. In education, for example, this is called the “achievement gap”. In health care, this is called “health disparity”. In juvenile justice, this is called “disproportionate contact with minorities”. Whatever the term, the reality is that whites and blacks are the bookends, with whites on top and blacks on the bottom.
The training also shows that socioeconomic status neither explains nor eliminates racial disparities. For example, he cites two studies: One shows that a white ex-felon with a high school diploma was more likely to land a job interview than an African-American college-educated male with no record. judicial. The second shows how resumes with so-called black-sounding names were more likely to be rejected than identical resumes with so-called white-sounding names.
The latest study was a revelation for Larry Oscar, a partner at Hahn Loeser & Parks. He learned this by attending the half-day “Phase 1” presentation. “In a society where we value merit-based judgments…it doesn’t seem merit-based when you don’t have close or similar results,” he says.
Oscar heard about the training from his daughter. He is a board member of the Greater Cleveland Partnership and believes diversity and inclusion are core business values. Nevertheless, the depth and breadth of the inequity shocked him. “The half-day was indicative of the level of inequality in outcomes between employers and institutions.”
Heller has become an advocate for the formations since taking them. His company sends employees to the trainings, which are now offered monthly. “It made me more aware of the racism that exists, and it’s in our hands to change the world one person at a time,” he says.
Unlike other workshops, the trainings do not offer “action steps” or “next steps”. Participants are responsible for building on the ideas they have received. It’s a tough undertaking, says Jill Paulsen, interim CEO and executive director of Cuyahoga Arts and Culture. The agency distributes cigarette tax revenues to local arts organizations. All CCC staff have completed one of the REI trainings – although the arts were not mentioned in the examples of institutional racism.
But Paulsen says the omission doesn’t reflect reality, especially when it comes to funding. Nationally, about 6% of arts funding goes to minority organizations, according to an article in Inside Philanthropy. Paulsen says that sometimes arts organizations can get into a “bubble and not realize how connected they are to this community.”
“Funding for the arts goes — unsurprisingly — to mainstream arts institutions and white artists,” Paulsen says, citing a 2017 report titled “Not Just Money.” “Some data show that the situation has worsened in recent years. We have institutions that, we just operate with an implicit bias.
Cuyahoga Arts and Culture challenges this bias by paying for its grantees to attend REI workshops. Since the fellowships began in 2018, 282 people have participated, Paulsen says.
Paulsen says she has seen the effect among member organizations. She cites the Contemporary Youth Orchestra, which is in residence at Cuyahoga Community College’s Metro campus. “(CYO) made a presentation to our board that talked about how they’re changing their partners. They’re much more intentionally focused on who’s in the program, how they’re attracting young people of color.”
Paulsen says CAC assessments now ask whether grantees have participated in REI or another racial equity program, and how organizations are using what they learn.
“I’m not saying it’s easy to make change, but I think we do a better job of differentiating between feeling good about understanding the structures of racism and saying ‘how can we dismantle them in our own agencies? “”
CLE stands for We: Calls to Action
Three things you can do to advance equity and inclusion after reading this article:
1. Attend a Racial Equity Institute (REI) training.
2. Learn more about racial equity issues using these free resources.
3. Encourage your organization’s management, colleagues and people you know to take training.
This article is part of our dedicated series “CLE Means We: Advancing Equity & Inclusion in Cleveland,” presented in partnership with Jumpstart, Inc., Greater Cleveland Partnership/The Commission on Economic Inclusion, YWCA of Greater Cleveland, and the Fund for Our Economic future.