KC group aims to help dismantle racism by building a network of white activists

Jeana Van Sickle (middle), SURJ KC organizer, led a discussion about what can be done in neighborhoods to curb racism during a SURJ KC meeting at St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran church, 3800 Troost Ave.
Jeana Van Sickle (middle), SURJ KC organizer, led a discussion about what can be done in neighborhoods to curb racism during a SURJ KC meeting at St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran church, 3800 Troost Ave. skeyser@kcstar.com

The meeting was for those who craved action and a place to start.

So on a steamy Monday evening in late July, Topher Baumann, 32, and Tommy Sevart, 22, packed into a midtown church alongside hundreds of people who wanted to talk about racism in Kansas City and across the nation.

The summer has felt like a long stream of tragedies that claimed the lives of black and brown people, Baumann said, from controversial officer-involved shootings of black men to the Pulse nightclub massacre that left 49 people, the majority of whom were Latino, dead.

The outrage was there, Baumann said. But he felt like he needed a place that could help him understand how, as a white person, he could best help minority-led groups work for change.

Sevart wanted guidance in a more personal arena. He sought tips on how to call out family and friends when they do or say something racist.

“I have trouble personally fighting it and standing up and telling them that’s not right,” Sevart said.

Baumann and Sevart are two of several hundred people who recently attended the third meeting for Showing Up for Racial Justice, a racial justice group that formed in May.

The Kansas City affiliate of a national coalition created in 2009, Showing Up for Racial Justice aims to be a networking place where white people can discuss how best to support and participate in causes that groups such as the Movement for Black Lives have already championed. The group also hopes to build new initiatives based on racial issues they see in their community. Affiliates are based in more than two dozen states, as well as Canada.

Many of the group’s new members are millennials, they hail from all over the Kansas City area and they represent various professions.

They are also, like Baumann and Sevart, white.

“Our goal is to end white silence,” a facilitator explained at the July meeting. “White people benefit from racism; it’s also our duty to dismantle it.”

The group is geared toward white people who are dismayed by discrimination and violence against black people and other marginalized groups but are uncertain where to start in ending it.

Group leaders also say they intend to be a space where white people can work through their own feelings about race and place the burden of learning about racial issues facing African-Americans on themselves instead of black-led groups. The group in part acts as a forum where white people can learn answers to basic questions about racial inequality and what kind of activism is helpful — and what is not.

“It’s not the job of folks of color to educate us about racism,” organizer Justin Stein said. “It’s not the job of folks of color to convince us that racism is real. It’s not the role of folks of color to listen to white people process their stuff and say, ‘No, everything is going to be OK,’ ” Stein said. “That really is our job.”

SURJ also wants to be a networking space for white people to brainstorm ways to curb discrimination they may have the power to change. How does the media improve coverage of issues affecting people of color when its employees are often overwhelmingly white? As the gentrification of Kansas City continues, why are people of color getting pushed out of certain neighborhoods and what factors play into why some can’t afford to return? How do you ensure racial profiling by law enforcement isn’t an issue in Kansas City when the police department lacks oversight by external groups?

Ending white power in white spaces

Leaders from Kansas City’s Showing Up for Racial Justice say they want to be clear that their organization is not about trying to “save” black or brown people or determining a right or wrong way to feel about race relations in Kansas City.

They are not trying to steal the spotlight from minority-led groups who have led the charge on fighting racial injustices plaguing the country — including racial profiling from law enforcement officers and achievement gaps for people of color in public school systems.

What they believe is that certain realities about who holds power in America indicate a necessary role that white people can play as groups work for racial equality.

If white people tend to listen better to people who are white, and white people dominate government, schools and law enforcement and other community groups that have power, then white people are obvious candidates to target problems within those institutions.

“White people are plugged into white spaces and plugged into spaces where decisions are being made and resources are being allocated and power is held,” Stein said. “If we’re not serious about working with white people to shift the way power operates, then we’re really not that serious about ending any racism.”

SURJ’s formation here is also partly the result of a request from the black-led group One Struggle KC, which formed in the wake of the events in Ferguson, Mo., to fight oppression against black people.

One Struggle KC co-founder Diane Burkholder said the group has long had white allies, but over time as race-related national events seemed to attract more consistent attention from white people, members found themselves spending a lot of time educating white people.

“We had this conversation,” Burkholder said. “ ‘We really appreciate the work you do but we need to focus on the black folk. ‘Can you help do some of the ongoing work that needs to be done … so that we can support the work of black and brown people in the community?’ 

Building a network of activists

On a recent Saturday, a crowd of more than 100 SURJ members rallied near the J.C. Nichols Fountain, named for the celebrated Kansas City developer who restricted blacks from owning homes in the Country Club District, members pointed out. The group marched through the Plaza holding signs that said “Black Lives Matter so Whites Must Change” and “KC Still Has Race Lines.”

The rally was meant in part to send a message of solidarity to Black Lives Matter protesters who have been calling attention to officer-involved shootings of black men.

While such events will be part of SURJ’s repertoire, organizers are looking at its membership to determine its initiatives. Monthly meetings are meant to be a networking opportunity for members to share, discuss and analyze racial disparities in Kansas City and then form teams to accomplish specific initiatives.

The set-up gives members free range to involve themselves in various issues that affect minorities, as well as people of various socio-economic classes, in Kansas City. Interested in reforming payday loans, changing sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, expanding bike lanes to diverse neighborhoods? Build a team and a plan, organizers say.

Organizers hope to guide members at larger SURJ meetings to recognize racial discrimination problems in areas where they live and work and find solutions in smaller groups.

“Ideally we’ll have people who met each other here who are interested in demilitarizing the police in Kansas City,” said organizing committee member Alison Baldree, 27. “They get together after this meeting and figure out, ‘How could we do that? What would that look like? What are the pressure points?’ 

The group also incorporates a second and perhaps more uncomfortable mission. In striving to stop a pervasive problem, members say they must acknowledge and work to understand the deeply-rooted role they play in it. Effectively fighting institutional racism that the majority of its members will never directly experience is something SURJ members expect to be continuously perfecting, among its members and group leaders themselves.

Burkholder is currently forming an accountability council made up of people of color that would advise and support SURJ leaders. People of color are also welcome to attend SURJ meetings; Burkholder often facilitates people-of-color breakout sessions.

The council will support SURJ, Burkholder said, but it will also serve as a check to make sure that SURJ’s initiatives aren’t clashing with other groups or that the white SURJ members aren’t misunderstanding what changes in the community would be helpful to people of color. In the past few months, SURJ membership, likely fueled by current events, has swelled before the accountability council could form.

“That heightened everything,” Burkholder said, referring to several shootings this summer. “The accountability council is more important than ever. As SURJ continues to move on, there will be missteps.”

Identifying the problem

The leaders of SURJ say they have thought a lot about what has drawn them to this work and how they can help others join the conversation. Organizer Amy Hansen-Malek recalls being taught as a child growing up in rural Illinois to be color-blind, even while hearing those in her community stereotype black neighbors.

“I definitely grew up thinking about racism being more about how you view an individual, not in a structural sense at all,” Hansen-Malek said. “As long as I didn’t think something bad about someone of color then I wasn’t racist and racism didn’t exist.”

Those assumptions were splintered when she became a young adult and developed relationships with people of color who told stories of being profiled by police or being treated differently within a school system. Today, she has a white son and black son.

“I definitely have concerns for the safety of my older son that I don’t have for my younger son when it comes to bodily harm,” Hansen-Malek said. “But I think that it definitely harms us all when we are taught through our systems or our culture to think that we are superior in some way — I don’t want that for either of my children.”

Organizer Alice Chamberlain said SURJ doesn’t tell people how to feel about race, but it does try to help people understand that there are social, economic and political advantages to being white.

Helping someone work through their own experiences with white privilege or racism could be as simple as pointing out that white people generally don’t walk down the street and worry about others fearing their presence, as some black Americans say they experience. Sometimes, Chamberlain says, it means sharing a personal story — such as when she realized that her father, a Vietnam War veteran, had received military benefits that often were denied to black veterans.

“(We’re) trying to create a space for white folks that want to explore their role in the racial justice movement,” said Chamberlain, 30. “Part of what we understand is that if we ever move forward we need to engage people around that.”

People like Sevart appreciate the space to explore. At the last SURJ meeting, Sevart, the man looking to address racism with people close to him, brought a male family member along. By the time the discussion was over, his family member seemed to have absorbed some of the perspectives of the crowd.

“I think I was more worried that (the family member) wouldn’t learn anything from this experience,” Sevart said.

For his friend Baumann, as he sat in the church meeting looking up at a stained-glass depiction of a blond, white baby Jesus, he felt profoundly overwhelmed by how “there is no institution that we are a part of that is not in some way, shape or form perpetuating racism.”

But he also said he felt optimistic that SURJ initiatives would be the right place to start.

“Our voices as white people get heard all the time,” Baumann said. “It is good for us to talk to each other. But ultimately we need to be creating space for people of color to speak for themselves.”

Katy Bergen: 816-234-4120, @KatyBergen

Showing Up For Racial Justice meeting

The next monthly SURJ KC meeting is planned for Monday, Aug. 15, at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, 4501 Walnut St. The discussion will focus on helpful activism. Those new to SURJ KC should arrive at 6:30 p.m. for an orientation session. A larger discussion begins at 7 p.m.