Reclaiming Our Way promoting the well-being of African American children & families


Ground Rules – Part 4: Accept and expect non-closure!

The fourth and final principle, or guideline, offered by the team that developed Knowing Who You Are is to “accept and expect non-closure”.  This is also one that I think can guide our discussions in this space.

For me, one part of this principle speaks to the idea that this work of understanding the fundamental role of race and culture in shaping who we are, how we think and how we live is continuous and developmental.  There’s also a part of this principle that speaks to the fact that we don’t always have to be and think the same way, or agree on every point, in order to move forward in a productive way.  This is true of us as individuals, groups we belong to and the institutions and systems many of us work within.

I remember my freshman year at Howard University.  There was a group of us that loved to discuss (and often times debate) issues relating to African American history and culture, and the continuing reality of racism in this country.  Sometimes these debates started in the dorm and continued in our classes, and sometimes they started in our classes and spilled over into the dorm.  Many of us – perhaps most at some time or another - used to stay up at all hours of the night trying to prove whatever point we were trying to make.  Some of the arguments got heated, some not as much.  But that’s what we did.  Those were some interesting discussions, too.

Contrary to many people’s impressions or assumptions, Howard was not the kind of place where everybody shared the same ideas and perspectives about history, race and culture.  For sure, Howard attracted (and continues to attract) some of the smartest and talented brothers and sisters in the world (literally – from throughout the African diaspora).  And it was that diversity of backgrounds that created the range of analyses and perspectives about the role and impact of race and racism in shaping the contemporary realities of Black folks in this country and throughout the world.  The discussion and debates were the opportunities for us to explore each of our assumptions and ideas about the world – based on each of our experiences and the information we were exposed to that helped us make sense of them.

By the end of freshman year, it became clear that those were not arguments you would always necessarily “win”.  Even with all of the “facts” and “evidence” you would try to stack on your side, you still couldn’t necessarily “win” a lot of the arguments.  What was really great, though, is that we got to learn how other people viewed the world, and the kinds of experiences and information that went into shaping each of us.  Everyone’s worldview is shaped in a fundamental way by the information and experiences we have been exposed to over time.  It doesn’t change completely as a result of one conversation.  Each conversation, if we’re open, however, can help us challenge our own prior assumptions and ideas.

Another one of the big ideas we appreciated by the end of those undergraduate years was that this work of understanding the world we live in, including our own individual and collective places in it, never ends.  Every single day we get exposed to new information, we have new experiences, we develop new relationships, and all of these contribute to our continuous learning, growth and development.  All of this helps us to rethink our assumptions, our prior conclusions, and our attitudes about people, about history, and about life.  That’s what human growth and development is about.  That’s what being human is about.

A big challenge for all of us is to appreciate that this same developmental process must also apply to our professional lives.  We have to remain open to new ideas about child development, about family dynamics, even about our roles, and recognize that people and groups think, speak and live in ways that are informed by our history and culture.  This is true for all of us.

So much of this world’s, including this country’s, history has been shaped by the pathology, violence and oppression resulting from the construction and imposition of race as a social construct, and racism as a primary organizing principle for understanding and thus controlling people and (access to) resources.  The lived experience of individuals and groups of people continue to be shaped by the legacy of this historical tragedy.  Each of us has a responsibility to think critically about how we have likewise been affected – shaped even – by these dynamics, both in the personal and professional aspects of our lives.

Institutions have likewise been affected by this history – especially human service institutions and other organizations that touch the lives of children, youth and families (education, juvenile justice, criminal justice, etc.).  Institutions are made up of people, and have been developed as a result of the conscious decisions people have made about their mission, their role and function, their policies and their operational practices.  We have to continuously investigate these, and challenge them so that they are relevant and responsive to (so they do justice to) present day needs and realities.

The point I’m trying to highlight here is that we share a collective challenge of acknowledging and genuinely appreciating that we each have our own experiences, which shape how and what we think about issues, about people, about circumstances, etc.  As a result, we naturally enter the work of child welfare, human services, education, mental health, etc. with our own perspectives, our own analyses, our own sense of what makes sense, our own sense of what is normal and healthy – i.e. our own biases.

We have a responsibility to remind ourselves of this, and to remain open to continued learning and growth.  We also have the responsibility of not imposing our own ideas and perspectives, shaped by our own experiences, on others in the name of “science” or “objectivity” or claims of “universalism”.

Most importantly, we have a responsibility to learn and grow through our shared experiences and relationships with one another.  We must continue to share ideas, perspectives, different and sometimes new ways of thinking about things, and experiences with one another.  In that sense, there is no end-point to this work.  We have to accept and expect non-closure!

Our continuous test and marker of whether we’re moving in the right direction, however, is whether our children, families and communities are getting healthier and stronger.  The unfortunate reality, however, is that in recent years the quality of life experiences and the life outcomes for too many of our children and families have been trending in the wrong direction.

We’ve got a lot of work to do!  And it’s all of ours to do!


Ground Rules – Part 3: Experience discomfort!

The third guideline or ground rule from the Knowing Who You Are work, and another that I think is useful for our work and discussions in this space, is “experience discomfort”.  This is actually the dynamic that accounts for many people checking out, or disengaging from race and culture-related work in child welfare (or in so many other settings).

I’m frequently asked about approaches to talking about race in these professional settings that won’t turn people off, or scare people away.  Indeed, there are some strategies and approaches that are more effective than others in terms of: a) keeping more people involved in the discussion (as opposed to leaving and refusing to participate – often out of fear and discomfort), and b) getting more people to more genuinely appreciate the history and reality of race in this country.  It’s not a one-time discussion.  It’s a process of sharing information, reflecting, making sense of it, eventually personalizing it, and then continuing with that process.  And it’s a real process.

The point, though, is that this is not easy work.  It’s very personal, and it evokes all of the emotions created by the long and tragic history of racism and cultural oppression in this country.  It challenges the myth of white supremacy, and many of the principles this nation upholds as central to its founding.

One of the workshops designed to familiarize people with the concept of racism in this country is the Undoing Racism Workshop, developed by the Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB).  I’ve participated in the workshop several times.  At several strategically timed points in the workshop, the facilitators pose a question to the group, and then go around the room to get people’s thoughts and ideas.  Everyone is expected to participate.  Without fail, there are people – typically white – in the room who want to pass, preferring not to comment and wanting the facilitator to move on to the next person.  The facilitators typically “encourage” them to participate, and point out the corresponding reality that non-white folks in this country don’t have the choice of opting out of the injustice of racism – i.e. the real life "discomfort" that comes from the material consequences (borrowing john a. powell's term) and limited opportunities that are the hallmark of American racism.

That’s a point I want to highlight here – in this case with respect to the child welfare and juvenile justice systems in this country.  Many child welfare professionals I’ve encountered – again typically white (although not exclusively) – initially want to avoid conversations about race, ethnicity and culture, and the impact it has on child welfare policy and practice.  No surprise there.  Most times we can get past this initial reaction, but it’s a common initial reaction nonetheless.  After we’ve gotten into the discussion, and people start to open up and relax more, I try to remind them of what I just mentioned above.

As uncomfortable as this discussion might be for some, it pales in comparison to the discomfort and sheer horror of having your child or children removed from your home and from your custody – frequently by social workers and/or law enforcement officers that don’t look like you and can’t relate to your experience.  The horror is frequently even more profound for the child or children.  Parents and children don’t have a choice in the matter.  They can’t opt out of the experience because they’re not comfortable with the approach social workers use when they show up at the door.  They can’t ask the police officer to come back another time and make the removal or arrest more comfortable.

I always intend to be respectful on here, and will encourage others to do the same.  That’s a non-negotiable.  I’m willing to hear you challenge me or someone else if you think that’s not happening.  But I can’t promise that everything I say or that other people say will always make you feel comfortable.  Discomfort is a natural part of our human learning and growth process, especially in a society with such a history and continuing reality of racial and cultural injustice.  I’m less concerned about yours or my comfort than I am making sure all of our children and families experience more justice and the opportunity to develop to their fullest potential.

So please, allow yourself to experience whatever you naturally feel, and continue to push through it.  The reality is that we’re all in this society together.  And for those of us working with children and families, we’ve got to continue to work through these fundamental challenges together.

It’s hard work indeed, but it’s all of ours to do!


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Ground Rules – Part 1: Speak your truth!

As we start down this road, it seems appropriate that we begin with some initial rules of the road, if you will... or in this case, rules of the page.  These are rules or guidelines or principles that I expect to follow, and that I'm asking you to follow as well if you'll be joining us - especially if you'll be making comments and/or submitting an essay for posting.

For starters, I'd like to offer up a preliminary set of "ground rules" that were suggested by the team at Casey Family Programs that developed Knowing Who You Are.  For those not familiar, Knowing Who You Are is a set of tools developed to support professionals and family members in exploring and appreciating the meaning and significance of racial and ethnic identity in their work with youth and families involved with the foster care system.  The tools include a 24-minute video, an online learning curriculum and an in-person training.  Of the tools, the Knowing Who You Are Video has long been the centerpiece of the set of tools (it sets the stage for the two subsequent components), and can either be viewed online, or can be ordered free of charge through Casey Family Programs.

The ground rules offered by the KWYA team are pretty straight forward.  The work involved, however, is more complex.  This week, I'll spend a little more time saying a little bit more about each of the ground rules, as I think about them in the context of this work.  Surely, in addition to my commentary about these as a set of guidelines for this blog, I also think there are parallels for how we think about the work of supporting families - both at the individual and organizational level.  For sure, we'll build on these in the weeks to come.

Today, we'll start with the first ground rule (again... the ground rules or guidelines come from KWYA, and the commentary is mine).

1.  Speak your truth.

The reason I created this blog, and the reason I wrote the essays that are featured in my first book, is that there isn't enough truth-telling about the experiences of African American families in this country.  For that matter, there isn't enough truth-telling about other families who are not white nor white families themselves.  I'm clear that people can reasonably develop different perspectives about the same set of experiences and the same set of dynamics they see play out within child welfare and other systems.  Many factors influence our perspectives.  The issue for me is that only "certain" perspectives get recognized or get air time, if you will, in many professional settings - be they child welfare settings, educational settings, juvenile justice settings, etc.  Unfortunately, the perspectives that get left out most often are those of family members whose experiences with the system are less than favorable, and those professionals and community advocates who share their sensibilities.

Making the truth-telling endeavor more complicated is the reality that most organizations involved in this work have an interest in "staying relevant" (i.e. having something to contribute that speaks to and even advances the current state of the field) and "staying viable" (i.e. keeping the doors open and bills paid).  Sometimes this means they also have to balance the desire to do what they believe is right for children and families - including speaking the truth about their lived experiences and the systems they wind up entangled with - with the need to get funding or financial resources to continue their work.  The exceptions to some extent are the national foundations that have their own independent operating budgets.  But even they have to balance the tensions in other ways.  Also important to note is reality that their funding and investment decisions can significantly shape the nature of the discourse in the environment in which this work occurs.

It's not an indictment on the organizations, not totally at least.  It's just the reality of the field.  Our responsibility and challenge is to be clear about that, and to speak our truth about that as we experience it.  Organizations are made up of people, with sensibilities and perspectives just like you and me.  When they are mindful of the experiences of the many children and families who are struggling to make it (families, by the way, whose reflections on their own experiences and stories could be of value to the field) then their organizations' investments are more likely to support those kinds of responsive efforts.  That's why your role in this work is so important.  You can (and many of you are already) making the difference we need.

The operational word for me is "integrity".  How do we advance the field and do our individual part in a way that has integrity, in a way that speaks truth and does justice to the children and families that are on the receiving end of the system's efforts.  We can disagree about where the appropriate balance is when it comes to resolving this tension.  The point is that there should be space for these different perspectives - and most importantly perspectives of the families whose voice and perspective is most often excluded.  There's so much more I can say about these organizational tensions given the environments within which I have spent much of my professional life, but we'll leave it there for the purpose of this post.  More to come later...

Students, professionals and community members alike - that's why we need you involved in this work of developing and challenging and advancing ideas.  You have to apply the skills you have and those you continue to develop with your growing understanding of children and families, and the systems that can and should be supporting them.  You have a lot to contribute, and it begins by developing your ideas, taking your ideas seriously, applying them, reconsidering those ideas, and continuing to grow and develop.  Challenge the prevailing ideas and practices and approaches when they don't make sense.

Speak your truth!  You are the emerging present - and the future  - of this critically important work!