Thoughts about being a white guy and doing this work

I was asked to tell the story of my experience with Faith in Action East Bay at their annual breakfast, and this led me to some reflections on white privilege, gentrification and collective action.

The photo is with Saran Russell, a parent at Oakland Tech who is on the SSC and is one of many great community leaders in Faith in Action, and Rev. Damita Davis-Howard, a pastor at First Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church, and a long-time activist for reducing gun violence and mass incarceration who currently works with the City of Oakland's Ceasefire program.

Here is what I said:

I am honored by being asked to speak. Though when I was asked, as often happens for me with Faith in Action, I had to question my role as a middle class white man speaking today, in an organization whose mission is leadership development in working class communities of color.

When I think about my story in this organization, this question has come up over and over. I first got involved with Faith in Action when I was working at the Manzanita campus, teaching English to immigrant parents. I saw the amazing leadership development work that Emma Paulino was doing with moms at the school who were so disempowered, with the intersection of their immigration status, their economic status, their being Latina and female all limiting their freedom and their voice. I saw how patiently Emma encouraged them to stand up for their children's needs, for their right to a safe community, for their right not to have their car towed by OPD just for the crime of being undocumented - that was so inspiring to me. It reminded me of the progressive ideals my parents had taught me from an early age. 

So I started volunteering with Faith in Action, encouraging the parents in my class to go to the trainings and to speak up in the meetings we had with Oakland police about neighborhood safety. I remember a big shift for me when my wife and I decided to enroll my son at the school - all of a sudden, I had skin in the game - it wasn't just an ideal to me anymore, it was whether my son’s school would be a good place for him.

And it was a good place - my family benefited tremendously from the changes that Faith in Action helped bring about at Manzanita. Even the way the schools were structured on that campus was thanks to the small schools movement that Faith in Action had led a few years previously. My son got a great education at Manzanita SEED, he had friends from different backgrounds and cultures, he learned Spanish and he felt the love and support of so many great teachers and school staff.

What happened for my family is happening at schools across Oakland as gentrification sets in - white families are showing up in spaces that used to be only people of color, and we are benefiting from the struggles that other people fought to improve their community. Often with the best of intentions, even the most progressive white people take up a lot of space, we demand a lot of attention, and sometimes we don't do the best job of listening. (So tell me if my time is up for talking today!) But we can also sometimes be good allies, using our privilege to back the leadership of people of color who are demanding more resources for their school or community, and educating other white progressives about how certain issues affect us all.

So how do we deal with the effects of gentrification? Because it’s a lot like climate change: we can and we should fight as hard as we can to keep it from getting worse, but we also need to recognize that it's happening and it's here, and our environment is changing.

The year after my son enrolled at Manzanita SEED, a much bigger wave of middle-class families enrolled at the school for kindergarten. I felt like that guy who was into a really cool band before it became popular, and sometimes I made the mistake of acting like I was the white guy who did belong at the school, while these other folks were the colonizers and the gentrifiers. But I'll never forget what my friend Simone who also worked at the school told me: we have to bring those new folks in and smother them with love. Build those relationships, because when I am in community I redefine my self-interest.  I understand that by helping my brother and my sister, I am also helping myself.

Once we build those relationships, they can be the basis for collective action. And collective action is the best way to put people with different backgrounds and resources on the same level, working together for programs that support fairness and justice, and against policies that promote displacement and discrimination.

So that year at Manzanita SEED, our Faith in Action committee organized to support Prop 30. The new parents said, there's not enough money for the things we need at our school - shouldn't we have some PTA fundraisers? And we said, if we pass Prop 30 our school will get 10 times as much as we could raise at any fundraiser, and we will get it every year. That's the power of collective action. Parents and teachers from the school knocked on doors throughout the neighborhood, and together with other Faith in Action committees across California we got tens of thousands of votes to pass Prop 30 when nobody thought it could win. 

We have the same opportunity and challenge today with Schools and Communities First. Once again we have the opportunity to bring together people from every walk of life to transform our state, and once again people say the odds are stacked against it. This ballot measure would bring $11 billion annually from large commercial landowners and put it to use in our schools and local governments, including over $550 million a year for Alameda County alone. So I’ve already been hitting the streets again, gathering over a hundred petition signatures in just the past two weeks, and of course, using it as an opportunity to build new relationships and to encourage other people to join us.

Those are the things I have learned to do in my journey with Faith in Action, and I am so grateful to the organization for all the relationships I have made and all the leadership skills I have learned, and as long as I can keep supporting and contributing, you know that I will. Thank you.


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