Q&A: What is the Work of Racial Healing?

January 17, 2018

Editor’s Note: In observance of this year's National Day of Racial Healing, our team had the honor and privilege to sit in conversation with Liz Medicine Crow, President and CEO of the First Alaskans Institute and a longtime member of Philanthropy Northwest’s Board of Directors. The following is an excerpt of our dialogue on racial healing, and the ongoing work required for achieving it.





Q: What does the term and theme of racial healing mean to you?

LMC: What I really value most — in the phrasing racial healing — is that it is not passive.  It is a direct active verb. It is about healing. Not just talking about it, or acknowledging that it’s there.  It is about putting into action methods by which we as society — we as systems, we as institutions and we as peoples — can actually do the hard work necessary to find what ails us. And then do the work necessary to be the medicine that we need to heal from all of the devastating impacts of race and racism in this country.

Q: What aspects or impacts in your lifein your lived experience, community and regionhave helped deepen the context of National Day of Racial Healing for you and your perspective on the movement?

LMC: About eleven years ago or so, the state of Alaska celebrated its 50th anniversary as a state.  As a Native organization serving our Native peoples, in all of our diversity and all of our incredible cultural strengths, it didn’t feel like celebrate was the right word for us. We held a dialogue around the state to ask what the Alaska Native perspective was on 50 years of statehood. So we could listen and learn from our peoples, and so we could find a way to really understand what and where our peoples were around these kinds of issues and find out what we might do — or be inspired by or catalyzed by in terms of our community’s expertise and knowledge — to move forward.

What we heard consistently around the state was that racism and discrimination continued to play a huge part in the divisions that were evident and experienced by all of us here in Alaska. And after listening and thinking about what we heard as an organization, we asked ourselves: what are the strengths that our people have, and what is the knowledge that our peoples have, that could be helpful to us, but also to all Alaskans in confronting these huge issues?

Q: What did you do next?

LMC: While we were chewing on what we’d heard from our dialogues, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation put out a call for proposals around their America Healing Initiative, which was about having an active healing role in addressing race issues and building a policy forum of change. It was a stars-aligning moment, so we packaged a proposal that had crystalized out of our communities’ thoughtfulness, passion and answers to our call to hear their perspectives. 

The Kellogg Foundation gave us an award, and we began our Alaska Native Dialogues on Racial Equity (ANDORE) project, which was about co-creating — with our host committee and visionary group — a process that honored our indigenous values and found a way to operationalize those values through a dialogue structure that was focused on racial healing and making space for everyone. 

Regarding the name ANDORE, we had a lot of questions in the beginning about it, for example, is it just for Alaska Natives? Our response was that it’s for everyone who cares about these issues, but including Alaska Native was to indicate that we used our indigenous values – our shared collective values – to create a process and a framework that honors the whole person when bringing people together to have the hard, difficult and emotional conversations about racism and how it affects us. It also aligned with our goal of amplifying the inherent power of peoples to put forward solutions that they could carry into their lives, their communities, their work — and into policy. 

The project has been going on over these past ten years, and we’ve continued to work in partnership with the Kellogg Foundation. They funded our second phase of the project, now called Advancing Native Dialogues on Racial Equity, but still with ANDORE as the acronym, as well as our Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation (TRHT) effort we are also engaged in here in Alaska.

Q: How would you describe the dialogue process of the ANDORE project?

LMC: It is about creating a place of connection because, as one of our indigenous brothers — who helped teach us social technologies — would say: the closest distance between two people is a story. So, we lead with the indigenous value of really listening to other people’s experiences. 

One of our agreements is that everybody’s experience is their truth. So there is a lifting up. There’s a bringing people closer and a building of relationships. That’s where we start. And while we’re helping people to feel safe in that space and we ask them to share experiences that they've had, we also say that not having an experience with race and racism is an experience, you know? 

That has led us to where we are today with both continuing to have those healing dialogues — that bridge both the heart and mind — so that people can actually engage in a different way with one another, but then also effectuate policy change that will reflect those values in action.

Q: What kind of policy change is needed; in other words, how can policies be helpful to healing?

LMC:  The end goal is racial equity, so what does policy change look like? It’s moving from a place of stagnation or status quo — such as just renaming things and trying to repackage the same old approach to addressing race issues — to a transformation

One of the ways that we think about it: you can change a tire on your vehicle, but you still have the same vehicle. Transformation is more like when a caterpillar turns into a butterfly.  It can never go back to what it was. So, when we think about what transformation looks like — when we think about policymaking — we think about it from a personal level, a community level, institutional and systemic level. Let me give you an example: not our work, but the work of other people who have been part of the ANDORE project, because they are the ones that have done this.

It started very small in terms of beginning a conversation about racism in a small community in Alaska where you know there could be direct and dire consequences to yourself, to your employment, to your family members and to your children.

You’re putting a lot on the line, especially in your interpersonal relationships. In small communities across our state we all depend on each other, sometimes regardless of these huge issues that would otherwise divide us. So, trying to think about what is a respectful way to approach these conversations can be difficult. The community and the people who care about this conversation — they’re the leaders. They are the ones that really have a vision for what might be possible in their community, but they need to be able to feel safe moving forward. 

A co-creation process really allowed that to happen – because they know best what their community needs and where it’s at.  So then instead of trying to say, “Hey, these are the policy changes we want you folks to make,” we asked, “How do we help.” You know, I don't like the word—it’s not empower. It’s “How do we help amplify your voice in your community the way that you would like?”

They started small. It only takes two people to have a dialogue, and those two people then brought in a couple more people. And then those people brought in a couple more people. Before you know it, those conversations that had been so closely held because they had to be careful — and thoughtful and intentional and loving — started to grow and expand into “What did they want to see happen in their community?” and “What does effective policy change look like for them?”

Coming out of that process grew Social Justice Committees or Task Forces. There also has been active engagement with policymaking bodies. People have started to run for local office. People have created forums and venues that celebrate Native peoples, and other cultures, in places where there have never been celebrations before. Our Native peoples are lifting each other up, as they have for thousands of years, but now they’re doing it in a way that also feels, well, like they have support from other folks. 

There is a fixation on action – just doing something. But when it comes to the ANDORE approach, the medicine is the dialogue. That is the active part of healing, because it begins to build strength, awareness, confidence and relationships. Those things are good for everyone, so really, the work is “What does a community want?” and “How does a community see putting equity into action?”  And then it’s helping them lift that up as their way of transforming their community. And then, overall statewide, doing the same thing. 

Q: Any closing thoughts on racial equity and pathways for achieving it?

LMC: We won’t solve any of our greatest challenges as humans, in terms of our collective humanity, if we’re unwilling to talk about what’s really happening. So, we first need to be willing to have the hard conversations — even if they make us uncomfortable, and even if our natural reaction would be to get defensive or feel attacked or maligned. It takes leadership to step in and say that we’re going to have the conversation. That is why we also try to say what we mean when it comes to having conversations about racism. We don’t use the term diversity and inclusion when it comes to our racial equity dialogues. We don’t say cultural sensitivity training. Instead, we say we’re going to be talking about racism.

That is not something that a lot of people like because they fear that people will not respond, or back out in an angry way. The anger is real, but we’re not trying to subterfuge what’s really happening. We’re trying to create a space where people feel welcome and safe to talk about race and racism, and the painful legacy of race and racism that this country is built on. Until we can collectively come to terms with that, and focus together, then we’re just going to have the same old, same old. No one’s great-grandchildren will thrive in that scenario. 

Second, we often hear “we’re never going to resolve the issues of race or racism. It’s too big. It’s too huge.” I understand there’s a lot of hurt and harm that’s been done, in terms of people of color, especially indigenous people. That’s a lot to have to carry, you know?  I understand where it comes from. Too often the people with the ability to make the greatest change can sometimes be the most immovable force – because they don’t think that any change is possible. 

Initially, we explored how we should get the extremists to have the conversation -- people who are the outliers, who are radically different from one another in one direction or the other. Why? Because it’s clear we can’t just preach to the choir. But then we realized it’s not about having to convince the extremists. It’s about growing the heart of the work. Allowing the heart to exponentially reach out in a ripple effect, and not shying away from any of the hard and tense conversation opportunities that come up along the way.

That said, while there may be a lot of people in the choir, they’re not all coming to choir practice. People think they’re on the right path and doing the right thing — and they’re fighting the good fight — but they’re not coming to choir practice, and we need those people to come to choir practice. We need them to show up in this fight in ways that actually effectuate real, lasting systemic and societal change. That is why we are also engaged in TRHT, the effort this National Day of Racial Healing is anchored in. People may know what’s right and wrong in this conversation, but because of life or because of opinions and judgments, they may not really be being and doing the hard work and rolling their sleeves up in today’s civil rights movement.

I hope we can change that – because we need to be and do the medicine of healing, together.


For more information on the First Alaskans Institute and their Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation: Alaska project, please contact them at info@firstalaskans.org.