Although there have been major strides in providing equal access to the nation’s resources and institutions, there is still more to do in eliminating the artificial stigmas that exist within a nation founded on racial inequality. An important stage in the process of healing and making things right is acknowledging harm and doing things differently. Through understanding the history and impact of slavery and its legacy and aftermath, we identify current manifestations of that institution. Inequality in health-care, education, housing, and the criminal justice system are a few of the major areas that have a direct relationship to the legacies and aftermaths of slavery. Through facing history, listening to people who have been affected by it differently, and working through related hurts, taking action is the final and most important stage in the process. Without action, harmful patterns, behaviors and structures will remain the same and will continue to negatively impact future generations.
In order to take action, there are a number of important steps. As stated earlier, if doing activities to right the wrongs of the past and address current harmful systems, participation of representatives of the stakeholders is a key building block to a process that will lead to effective action. Identifying those people, building trust and identifying barriers to working together are all part of building a team that can take action. With representation from different groups and honest conversation, the group can avoid pit falls common to people who have grown up in divided societies. When issues do come up that threaten to get in the way of the groups’ ability to work together and progress, reflection about unhealed trauma is helpful and can often identify that the problem is not the other person or people in the room but on-going patterns that have been passed down for generations.
When a small group has been convened, an assessment of current legacies and aftermaths in the community needs to occur in order to determine what kind of action to take and the ultimate goal of the action. This process can be accompanied by an assessment of the other organizations in the community doing related work. There are aspects of healing action being taken in many communities, however, it’s rare that there’s coordination between the groups. Identifying potential partners can lighten the burden. It can also create new challenges in that some groups will not see their work as connected with others’ work. This also takes time and relationship building. Finding key individuals or representatives of organizations in communities can also help solidify action. If media coverage is an important aspect of the action identified, are there media people who can be invited into the work?
The aspect of on-going organization must be considered when taking action. Taking action to address historical harms can be a long, on-going process. Are there individuals in your group or organizations that can play the role of leadership in organizing meetings, finding space, identifying financial resources, and figuring out the steps it will take to move to completion? Action, especially substantial action requires organization and resource.
Taking Action Practices:
In addition to the important contextual analysis, there are a number of actions that can be taken to address legacies and aftermaths of historical injustices. Memorializing historical incidents is one way to acknowledge the harm publically. This can happen through re-enactments and/or creating and then unveiling memorials or plaques that represent the incident. Conducting historic trials that exonerate those who were unjustly accused or that bring justice to those who were responsible (if they are alive) are important ways to act against injustices that occurred due to legacies of historic discrimination. Public acknowledgement and apology can be powerful steps in helping a community revisit a historical injustice. Correcting historical records, introducing more representative curriculum in schools and historic education in communities are also ways to make structural changes as well as change attitudes and beliefs formed by lack of information or incorrect information. When a current law or policy is identified as a remnant from historic or on-going discrimination, changing the law or policy, is a significant step in making changes for the future.
Pulling It All Together
The stages of the approach, although not an ordered formula, lead from one to another. This does not mean that they cannot happen simultaneously or circle back, but they can complement each other’s momentum. Many of the practices include several “stages” of the approach. Storytelling can include all of them. Storytelling can include recounting history. It can be part of someone’s healing process to speak truth – especially if it’s been suppressed. If told to others who are listening and supportive, it can be an experience that builds connections between people and finally, if done publically with the intention of follow-up, can be a powerful form of taking action. Conversely all of these stages can happen in a way that does not lead to healing and positive change. Selectively shared history can be used to shame and amplify part of the larger story without recognizing the bigger picture; connecting can be an excuse to build a personal relationship and ignore the structural injustices that still exist; healing can make one feel better without taking responsibility for addressing on-going harm; and action can be taken that further shames, blames and alienates. The “how” of the approach is just as important as the stages. It requires courage, persistence, openness, partnership and recognition that there are no quick fixes. Demonstrating the approach also requires contextual awareness and creativity in determining which parts of the approach are needed first and which practices will be most effective. However, it is possible, and groups of people across the country have engaged in work that demonstrates all or significant parts of the approach which provide hope for many communities with similar opportunities for change.