A day after the nation celebrated the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr., the W.K. Kellogg Foundation held its annual National Day of Racial Healing in New Orleans.
While many are inspired by King’s words, the National Day of Racial Healing is a day of action, said LaJune Montgomery Tabron, president and CEO of the Kellogg Foundation.
“It is about really supporting people to engage in the practice of creating a racially equitable society that Dr. King dreamed about,” Tabron said. “It’s a collective action, but in order to do that you have to build relationships. You have to build trust. You have to create a shared understanding, and you have to do it in a way that is not about blaming or shaming, but it’s about affirmation.”
One of the first steps in the racial healing process, Tabron said, is to connect people through conversations in which they share their stories, journeys and aspirations. The next step is collectively looking at the systems, practices and policies in communities that advantage and disadvantage others. The goal is to understand our common humanity, she said.
“The empathy that gets built through these conversations also helps us understand that the same people that created the policies and systems that don’t work can create new systems that work,” Tabron said. “At the end of the day, racism is perpetuated by practices of people and policies that people put in place. So, the healing has to be about those same people coming to a different level of shared understanding and knowing that creating policies that work for all, they’re not in any way hurting themselves.”
Two years after Dylann Roof murdered nine Black people while they were praying during a Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the Kellogg Foundation created the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation program with community partners in 2017.
The goal of the program is to “promote racial healing as a critical path for ending racial bias and creating a society in which all children can thrive.” It is a community-based process “designed to bring transformational and sustainable change to communities while addressing the historic and contemporary effects of racism.”
The National Day of Racial Healing builds on the work of the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation initiative. It is occuring during a time when states are passing laws against what they believe is “critical race theory” being taught in classrooms, when lawmakers are making it more difficult to vote and when health disparities persist in communities of color throughout the nation.
It also comes at a time when white nationalist theories, such as the “great replacement” have gained ground on the political right and are seeping into the mainstream.
For example, in May 2022, 18-year-old Payton Gendron killed 10 Black people during a racially motivated mass shooting at a Tops grocery store in Buffalo, New York. Gendron had driven three hours from his home to the store located in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo.
A report by the New York Attorney General Letitia James found that Gendron was radicalized by unmoderated websites and dark web online platforms such as 4Chan. Gendron livestreamed the deadly shooting on the online platform Twitch.
Federal prosecutors said that the shooter’s motive was to “prevent Black people from replacing white people and eliminating the white race, and to inspire others to commit similar attacks.”
The Buffalo mass shooting came two years after the nation’s “racial reckoning” sparked by the 2020 deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. There were worldwide marches for justice. There was a lot of talk about racial justice. There were also lots of press releases with flowery language about social justice from Fortune 500 companies who pledged big changes.
The Washington Post found that the nation’s 50 biggest companies had collectively pledged nearly $50 billion after the death of George Floyd to address racial inequality. However, the report noted, more than 90% of that amount was “allocated as loans or investments” that the companies could profit from and only a fraction of the billions pledged went to organizations focused on criminal justice reform.
Some companies were serious about making internal changes including diversifying their boards, hiring people of color in management positions and recruiting for top leadership. Tabron said more than a hundred companies looked to Kellogg to help them do that work through its Expanding Equity program.
“We have over 550 executives from these companies committed to creating a more equitable place,” Tabron said of the Expanding Equity initiative. “They start with their own company. What are you doing? What does equity mean to you? Where are the people of color in your organization, and why are they there? What are you doing to promote them? We have that credibility because we did it ourselves.”
She points to Kellogg’s staff which is 50% people of color and the foundation’s board is made up of 60% people of color. It didn’t look like that when Tabron first came on board, but they did the work for a more diverse workplace, she said. The Expanding Equity program helps others achieve their diversity goals.
“What we learned is people want to do this. They know they’re just as much part of the problem and they’re willing to do something about it. They just don’t know how. We’re showing up with ‘here’s the how’,” Tabron said. “Here’s how to have a productive healing conversation. Here’s how to work in your own organization.”
But how do these racial healing conversations lead to change on the local level?
Deirdre Johnson Burel, a senior program officer with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in New Orleans, pointed to the racial healing conversations convened by former mayor Mitch Landrieu about a decade ago. Burel said those conversations led to the revitalization of the Claiborne Corridor and also the removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans.
“Charrettes have been held. There is now an organized, mobilized effort for increased business investments. We’re infusing resources to restore communities,” Burel said. “So the importance of doing work in local communities really helps to humanize what the impact is. It also creates a clear pathway that it’s not this big amorphous, unmanageable problem.”
Burel said the changes in New Orleans began with conversations that turned into real practice around policy change.
“We can’t begin to create change without being in conversation where we tell the truth and then understand the harm that was done,” Burel said. “The story we hear every day is a divided nation, but there are people every day putting their heads down to do the good work to build toward a future we believe possible, and that we’ll get there.”
Want to learn more about W.K. Kellogg’s racial healing work? Check out the resources below:
- Expanding Equity
- One Journey
- Business Case for Racial Equity
- Business Case for Racial Equity New Orleans Changing the Narrative, a 14-part digital series that includes New Orleans.
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