Undoing Racism

news-2Local coalition works to overcome racism in Santa Cruz County

For nearly two decades, community organizer Mireya Gomez-Contreras sat in meeting rooms, attempting to help alleviate problems of poverty and social inequality in Santa Cruz County, only to find herself debilitated by the racial dynamics of the spaces she worked in.

“I’d often think about how I was the only person of color in the room,” she says of her Hispanic heritage, “and would have a hard time relating to white people on any level.”

Gomez–Contreras, who is the program development director for the Community Action Board, an organization that focuses on helping low-income residents move out of poverty in Santa Cruz County, says that, at that time, she thought of racism as an interpersonal problem, one that was a product of prejudice. That all changed, however, in January 2011, after she attended a two-and-a-half-day training called “Understanding Institutional Racism,” hosted by the Santa Cruz County Community Coalition to Overcome Racism (SCCCCOR).

During the event, Gomez-Contreras was introduced to the idea of racism not solely as a matter of personal prejudice, but as a systemic-level problem—one that is ingrained in the fabric of public institutions such as education and law enforcement. Once she realized that, she says everything changed.

“Before, I used to think that white people must know what they are doing, but are acting like they don’t,” she says. Now, Gomez-Contreras says she understands how unaware white people are of their privilege or that racism even exists. She says it was a tremendously empowering realization because it transformed her from someone consumed with the idea that others had a problem with her ethnicity into a person with a strategy for tearing down the barriers to productive dialogue. “I now come to the ‘table’ fearless of speaking, and with a better understanding of how to work with others,” she says.

Such realizations are the first step in combating racism, according to members of SCCCCOR, who dedicate themselves to eradicating institutional racism in Santa Cruz County. “A huge problem, especially in a liberal area such as Santa Cruz, is that people don’t realize that racism exists,” says Hannah Garcia, a SCCCCOR staff organizer. “So a big part of our work is raising awareness, and then building coalitions to fight racism in various capacities.”

SCCCCOR began in 2007 shortly after Santa Cruz City Councilmember Tony Madrigal voiced concerns about racial profiling by law enforcement at a city council meeting. The group has spent the past four years since organizing training sessions on institutional racism and building coalitions that focus on changing public policies in the areas of education, immigration, law enforcement and social services.

In 2010, they received a $150,000 grant from the Kellogg Foundation to fund their work and in the past year-and-a-half, Madrigal, who is also on the SCCCCOR steering committee, says they have organized six training sessions like the one Gomez-Contreras attended and have expanded their coalitions significantly. Currently, SCCCCOR is working with more than 20 organizations and has numerous volunteers.

“It’s slow, hard work,” Madrigal says. “But it is necessary because it requires the involvement of a lot of people to overcome the racist impacts of public and private institutions.”

It is also work that Madrigal says is increasingly important given the stressed economic climate, stating that a principal product of institutional racism is the disparity in which people of color are affected by economics.

A recent PEW Research Center report confirms this assertion. The study, titled “Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites, Blacks and Hispanics,” found that nationally, the median wealth of white households is 18-20 times that of Hispanic and Black households (respectively), marking the largest wealth disparity in the last quarter century between whites and the two largest “minority groups” in the United States. It also found that the recession has taken a far greater toll on people of color than whites. Between 2005 and 2009, median wealth in Black and Hispanic households fell by more than half and by only 16 percent in white households.

Such economic disparities, and the host of social problems they invite that are particularly prevalent in Santa Cruz County, underscore a variety of problems between communities of color and public and private institutions that dictate how society functions. For SCCCCOR members, says steering committee member Rev. Joe Brant, success is largely measured by a change in those numbers.

But the first step, he says, is comprehension.

SCCCOR will be holding an “Understanding Institutional Racism” training on Oct. 14. For more information visit overcomeracism.org.

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