Building trust and creating community on the journey toward racial equity

By Grace Katabaruki
Director, Investment Practice Group, Venture Philanthropy Partners

Excited as I was to attend Expanding the Table for Racial Equity – a learning series hosted by the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers and Leadership Greater Washington – I was somewhat dubious about the title of the first session: “Building a Community.” My interest was in exploring new content to reflect upon and share. Was it really necessary to build community first? More important, would it be possible to have an authentic experience with just six two-hour sessions undergirding the effort? It turns out that it is possible, with the guidance of a skilled facilitator and a roomful of people who are personally-motivated to engage.

Our facilitator, Inca Mohammed, led us through a series of increasingly personal partner-sharing exercises. We told strangers the origins of our first names, what kind of work our grandparents did and, finally, how we first became aware of race and racism. We were invited to share a few reflections with the whole group.

I shared my story of how, as a six year old in the early 1980s, my white best friend in Waldorf, Maryland told me one day that we couldn’t have the playdate we had been angling for because her father said black people weren’t allowed in their home. A few minutes later, a white colleague stood up to share the alternate side of the same coin—how family members had discouraged this individual’s childhood relationship with a black best friend. That moment illustrated that the means and magnitude of how racism affects us is varied, but it’s damaging to us all. At the break, this colleague and I embraced. We agreed to have the playdate we were never allowed as children.

Putting Racism on the Table will focus on structural racism, which was defined in our handouts as “the structure or system created through the interaction of history, culture, ideology, public policies, institutional practices, and personal behaviors and beliefs to maintain a racialized hierarchy.” This focus on structural racism is essential; it’s too easy to default to a focus on the interpersonal racism that our society, at least on the surface, readily scorns. But while the racism is structural, the work to dismantle it is deeply personal. If we are to achieve a racially equitable region, we are going to have to work together. We need each other. In that spirit, I see more clearly how the shared values and trust that we began to establish in the first session will be critical to what lies ahead. I eagerly await the journey.