Monday, June 2, 2008

New Focus for New Challenges: revisiting the strategies of the movement

I've had the opportunity to serve my community as the President of the Wichita Branch NAACP for nearly 6 years now. In that capacity, I have participated in countless discussions around the country on the movement and what direction it should take. Many believe the Civil Rights movement has lost its relevance, others suggest it has lost its nerve, while others believe it has simply outlived its usefulness. I don't ascribe to any of those positions, however I do believe that the time has come for those of us in the movement; activists, parents, and concerned citizens, to re-evaluate and re-assess our mission in light of the state of our community.

A primary focus of the Civil Rights movement for the last 40 years has been to level the societal playing field. This involves eliminating discriminatory hiring practices, addressing health disparities, eliminating disparities in the criminal justice system, demanding educational equity in our public schools, and encouraging involvement in the political process. This work is still extremely important and I don't believe we have reached a point where this focus is no longer warranted.

However, in the course of doing this work, it has become clear to me that leveling the playing field, while absolutely necessary, is inadequate to ameliorate the negative conditions facing our communities. The work of eliminating racial disparities, fighting for meaningful legislative reform, and ensuring that decisions be based upon principles of fundamental fairness and the recognition of the inherent equality of all people, requires our constant vigilance. Yet it is apparent that our community has not benefited nor advanced at a rate concomitant to the battles that have been fought and won.


The plain truth is, many of the barriers to equal opportunity have long since fallen; yet too often, we continue to constrict our ambitions and expectations to the illusory limitations of a defeated paradigm. We believe we are limited by a hostile power structure and so we are... But to a degree greater than we'd like to acknowledge, the power structure that currently oppresses us is constructed largely of our own beliefs and the residual memories of battles fought and won. The historic role of the Civil Rights Organization has been to ensure that the doors of opportunity are open for all, but once that is done, the responsibility then shifts to the individuals within the community to 'walk' through them.

It is for these reasons that I believe that we as a concerned community, as parents, and as Civil Rights and/or Grass-Roots type organizations must organize to meet some new challenges... The success of civil rights and grass-roots organizations in opening doors has uncovered some additional issues, among these are:
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Equal Opportunity is not synonymous with Equal Access
The Civil Rights community waged a noble effort to achieve equal opportunities in employment, housing, health care, education, politics, and the like. Yet despite the efforts and victories, the outcomes have been far less encouraging. We still see numerous disparities in each of the aforementioned systems and yet on the surface, many have adopted policies and practices which 'should' provide equal opportunity for all. One possible explanation for this is our strategies and efforts have failed to address the nuance between equal opportunity and equal access. Equal Opportunity dictates that I would hire the most qualified applicant, Equal Access dictates that I would ensure that all segments of the community had access to the job posting and relative information. Golf Courses, clubs, networks, associations, trade magazines, conventions and conferences are all Access Points for information, training, and networking that have largely eluded our radar. We have insisted upon equal opportunity, but our results have been stifled by our lack of attention on the issue of access. Equal Opportunity without Equal Access produces glaring disparities despite the implementation of seemingly fair practices and EEO policies.
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A great example of this can be found within the Wichita Fire Department. The Wichita FD IS an Equal Opportunity employer. However, several years ago, a decision was made to move the training and testing facilities out of the City of Wichita and out into a small suburb some distance away. While Wichita is the largest city in the State of Kansas with the most diverse population, the training and testing is now conducted in Hutchison Kansas, nearly an hour away, in a small town, with far less diversity. And while the Wichita FD hires the best qualified applicants without regard to race, the pool of applicants now mirrors the population of the small town where the facilities are located. As a consequence the Wichita Fire Department has not hired a single African American Fire Fighter in the 9 years since they moved their training and testing facilities. In that same interim they've only hired 1 Hispanic Fire Fighter. Clearly, Equal Opportunity is important, but it is only half of the picture. As activists we've got to broaden our focus to include equal access in addition to equal opportunity.

Accessing and taking advantage of opportunities requires a degree of preparedness that many in our community have not attained
This one is self explanatory but it warrants discussion. Simply put, there are a number of opportunities out there that many of us can't access because we first need to develop some requisite skills. If we want to become entrepreneurs and open our own businesses, then we need to learn how to write a proper business plan. If we want to run a self-sustaining organization that deals with youth or mentoring or any other issues within our community, then we need to learn how to research and submit a proper grant application. These types of 'background' or 'requisite' skills, which include resume writing, interviewing techniques, maintaining credit worthiness, and developing financial literacy, are sorely needed if we are to assist our community in becoming a greater part of the economic mainstream.

Too many of us are oppressed by our belief in an all-powerful 'system' that conspires to hold us down...
As doors of opportunity have opened, we as a community have not taken the initiative and seized upon these opportunities, believing instead that that we would somehow be excluded and our efforts would prove futile. Too many of us have internalized the idea that the "system"/"the man"/"the white power structure" is organized and mobilized to keep us poor and disenfranchised. Too many of us believe that success is limited but to the few who are connected to or found pleasing by the "system". This phenomena is in many ways analogous to the Wiz/Wizard of Oz. In the Wizard of Oz, you had Dorothy who believed herself to be stuck in the strange and ofttimes depressing land of Oz. She and her companions traveled through a land inhabited by witches and fraught with danger, that she was unable to escape unless she were granted permission by the all-powerful Wizard. Upon reaching the Emerald City, Dorothy and her companions learned that there really was no Wizard; that he was just a man. And they realized that they had possessed all the necessary intelligence, bravery, and concern, they'd needed to escape from Oz all along; all they were missing was the belief.

Many of us remain trapped in the "Oz" of the hood. We inhabit communities infested with crime and fraught with danger that we believe we can only escape with the blessings and consent of the all powerful wizard/System. This belief justifies and make palatable conditions and circumstances that we know we should not accept and that we actually have the necessary power and ability to overcome; all we're missing is the belief....

Access, Preparedness, & Belief, are three under-addressed areas of concern that greatly impact our community and our efforts. I believe that if we as activists, community leaders, organization members, and just concerned citizens, would broaden our message to include a greater focus on the areas of access, preparedness and belief then we would increase our relevancy to the community we serve and our renewed efforts would serve as a catalyst for real change within the community. Tomorrow, I will be taking this message to our Wichita Branch Executive Committee, and asking that we modify our focus to incorporate these three areas of concern. I believe that with a concerted effort from ours and like-minded organizations, we can and will be a transformative force within our community.
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What do YOU think? Leave us a comment and share your opinions...

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Torrance Stephens bka All-Mi-T June 3, 2008 at 12:34 PM  

yes indeed
well said
we need to encourage more economic empowerment

mschumey07 June 3, 2008 at 8:16 PM  

It is also imperative that the African American open themselves up to the opportunities. Many a times, you remain the same because you choose to. It's time that you break out of the mold you perceive to be in. This slows you down. We Filipinos should do the same. We should not think that the whites are better than us. In fact, we too are in the same dilemma you are in. Because we have been stereotyped, we choose to remain at that instead of empowering ourselves.

We have both been fighting for recognition for so long. It's time we make the most of democracy. I hope that Barrack will finally help us all get out of perception we are in.

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