As many of you may know, VISIONS began in 1984 with the goal of supporting organizations, communities, and individuals in the undoing of the subtle, outside of awareness “isms” that we knew racism had morphed into. Social psychology and public health research had demonstrated that racism had not ended; rather it was showing up in different forms. We realized that most people are likely not to have been taught about how bias works in our brains. All humans have them AND in the US, some of these biases are racialized.
I have been with all of you for a third of a year now…and what a four months it has been! We’ve been working remotely from the second week of my arrival on the east coast, where being physically apart has become our new normal – so, I feel lucky to have met a few from the VISIONS community in California and Boston before we had to shelter in place…
I call myself a city country California girl. When I say this, most don’t understand and when I explain that my grandmother’s house in 2020 is on a road that still doesn’t have a sidewalk, most still don’t believe me.
As a child, I was able to experience all that California had to offer. From beaches to mountains, sunshine to snow, fishing to surfing, cows and pigs walking down my grandma’s road to seeing boa constrictors and ferrets as pets in SoCal. When my parents split and my mom moved to the city of Los Angeles, my time was split between there and a very agricultural central California. My dad worked so I spent a lot of time 18 miles north of Fresno, my hometown, with my grandma in a town called Madera.
As you can expect, with me spending a lot of time with her, my grandma Bessie helped shape who I am. She was born in 1922 in Watonga, OK and moved to Madera, CA in the early 40s. She was a country girl in every sense of the word and introduced me to so many things. As a young widow, she raised 5 kids, worked as a domestic worker, managed to volunteer as a Grey Lady in the local hospital and with the local Blind Center of Madera. She also volunteered with the Garden Club, an organization that raised money for scholarships to help African American students go to college. Ms. Bessie Lee was the first African American to be honored as ‘Mother of the Year’ in Madera on May 7, 1965. She was my inspiration.
As a young girl she taught me how to fish, how to can my own fruits and vegetables, how to make jellies and jams and how to sew. She also instilled in me the want to serve others. I was right beside her volunteering at the same Blind Center, taking seniors to the store who could not make it on their own or picking up those who needed assistance getting to church on Sunday.
My grandma taught me many things and one lesson in particular that I will never forget. One day she told me we were going for a ride. We jumped in her blue VW Bug and headed down Road 28 ½ towards Avenue 13. We made a series of turns until we ended up on the side of a road next to a field full of strange plants I had never seen before. They grew as far as my eye could see. She instructed me to get out of the car.
As I made my way to her, she took my hand and we walked down rows of these dark green, almost black stems that had these puffy white flowers. But they weren’t flowers. It was cotton. She looked at me and said “Nikki, I brought you here because I want you to know where you come from. Your Great Grandma Herma and Great Great Grandma Annie were hard working, strong women and this was their job. Today you are going to experience what they did. We are going to pick cotton.”
I didn’t flinch. I simply said “Ok Grandma,” as if I didn’t have a care in the world. As we started to pick the fluffy white “flowers”, I kept pricking my fingers from the dried hulls around the cotton. My fingers started to hurt, but I kept going because she felt this was important. We continued for another 15 minutes before she turned to me and asked “have you had enough?” I told her yes as I sucked my fingers trying to stop the pain I had started to feel from doing it “wrong.”
She told me to never forget this day and understand that I had a choice but my ancestors did not.
“You must always remember that as you walk through this life.” She didn’t teach many specifics about black history but she did teach me her story.
It wasn’t until I went to Morgan State University, a Historically Black University in Baltimore (MD), that I learned about Juneteenth. June 19, 1865, Emancipation Day, or Juneteenth, as it came to be known, is the day enslaved African Americans in Texas were told about the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation (jan. 1, 1863). This law affected 4 million Americans and the news took longer than a minute to reach Texas. But slaves were now “free”.
Free is defined as “not under the control or in the power of another; able to act or be done as one wishes; not or no longer confined or imprisoned”. So, imagine how exhausting it must be that 155 years later, African Americans continue to “fight for that freedom” that was given to the last of the enslaved on June 19th (1865).
Fighting to be seen as human, as equal, as American while there are those that feel “what’s the big deal”, “there’s no issue”, “why are they so angry”? The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery were the straws that broke the camel’s back and pulled the scab off wounds that have never been healed, acknowledged or reconciled. The wounds are sore, pricked and bleeding, like my fingers that day with Bessie, and continue to go untreated as we watch another African American lose their life, almost like it is on a continuous loop. It reminds me of our ancestors whose hands were sore and numb and had to go back out to the cotton field and do it all over again.
Freedom, depending on the lens you wear, means many things. The word freedom, a noun, is defined as (1) the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint; (2) the absence of subjection to foreign domination or despotic government; (3) the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved.
After the Civil War, the African American lens attempted to give meaning to freedom by reuniting families separated under slavery, establishing their own churches and schools, seeking economic autonomy, and demanding equal civil and political rights. But this new concept of slaves being free would not be accepted overnight just because it was now law.
Slavery in the United States had been the law for hundreds of years and the undoing of this concept would, as you could imagine, take longer than expected. White opposition to these new freedoms of African Americans was oppressive, violent, and many times lethal in much of the south.
Families who tried to exercise these new freedoms were met with firebombings of homes, businesses, and churches and stealing of land, just to name a few. One of the most notable opposition to African American freedom was the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 in the Greenwood District. The unjust arrest of a young man named Dick Rowland and his alleged inappropriate interaction with a white woman named Sarah Page, in that elevator of the Drexel Building on Third and Main Street, sparked a race massacre that ended in the burning of 35 city blocks of homes, thriving businesses and banks.
The need to keep African Americans in their place, and yet again, move that starting line, has continued to be the practice of this country. Instances like this are what pushed my Grandma and her family to move from Watonga, Oklahoma out west to California to seek a new starting line.
But if history shows us anything, we have always been a resourceful people in spite of the circumstances. We, as many of us have heard, know how to make a way out of no way. With that freedom granted in 1865, it seems that every time we start to catch up as a community, there is always that opposition waiting for the opportunity to remind us that our freedom is conditional. Reminding us that true freedom - for those who have given so much and built this country right alongside other Americans with their labor, blood, sweat, tears, and lives - has never truly come to pass.
The big deal for many African Americans is that even though freedom from slavery was proclaimed, for many, this country has never put that law into action. Never fully made good on its promise, just repackaged slavery into a new improved model and slapped a free label on it. You can walk the streets free but “we” still have the right to ask you for “your [freedom] papers”, question why you are not where you belong, define how successful you can be, grant a few of you the opportunity to become prosperous and judge the others for being inferior because they didn’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps. But the reality is many African American’s boots did not come with straps. Their straps were cut off and left in a cotton field about 450 years ago.
So when I think about Juneteenth and what it means to me, it’s a look at the history and reality of being an African American in this country. This day is a reminder to celebrate our history and the people who gave us our strength and wisdom but it is also a reminder to keep moving forward. A reminder to continually analyze complex issues regarding race, class, gender and other differences at the personal, interpersonal, cultural and systematic levels - which is the work we dedicate ourselves to at VISIONS.
Although we have gained some victories, we still have the war against racism to win. It’s a reminder for me to celebrate my ancestors, Bessie, Herma, and Annie, and their strength, sacrifices and struggles, and their courage despite the circumstances. And it is also a reminder that we must keep pushing forward in their honor and those who have been taken from us needlessly and know that we will get to freedom eventually. In recent weeks, it is clear we have more walking with us on the journey towards freedom, and it’s clear we will have to pull some people along kicking and screaming, but the fight to actually see progress and action on the part of those who proclaimed these freedoms on June 19th, 1865 will continue.
Nikki Glass is the Director of Finance and Human Resources at VISIONS, Inc.,a non-profit training and consulting organization specializing in diversity and inclusion. She holds a B.S. in Psychology from Morgan State University and studied Industrial and Organizational Psychology at the graduate level at the University of Baltimore. Nikki has served in nonprofits for most of her adult career. Prior to her current role she served as Administrative Manager at a spiritual development center and Deputy Director and Operations Director for a restorative justice nonprofit. She is a certified restorative justice practitioner and has consulted with various juvenile and adult detention facilities in addition to school and juvenile court systems. Nikki is a mother of a young Haitian African American, 12-year-old son and is raising him to be a kind, caring and successful adult who doesn’t have to worry about being judged by the color of his skin.
We applaud the many past and present VISIONS clients for the messages of support for black lives that we have seen from them over the past two weeks! Now is the time to let go ANY form of by-standing (avoidance of contact; denial of the significance of difference)! All of us who believe in the right of each person to a safe and prosperous life, must make our voices heard.
From our large corporate clients, to our smallest non-profits, there is a united voice - the legacy of racism that has surfaced since the 2016 election (and the exposure of the dysfunction in our congress), has been with us. We must not let it destroy the ideals built into the fabric of our country. For yes, there is a faulty foundation of exploitation of Native people and black and brown people. This foundation is being held up currently in many ways, most significantly evidenced through an unjust state-supported criminal justice system and an unfair health system.
There is also a legacy of freedom and democracy (from the Declaration of Independence):
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (people) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men (people), deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
The protestors are exercising their constitutional rights. In September 1967, Martin King spoke to the American Psychological Association. On the topic of urban riots (the Watts riots), he wrote:
Urban riots must now be recognized as durable social phenomena. They may be deplored, but they are there and should be understood....A profound judgement of today's riots was expressed by Victor Hugo (over) a century ago. He said, 'If a soul is left in the darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.
I am continually inspired to keep up our fight for justice for all by the responses of the hundreds I have worked with since 1984, when as a young adult I dared to dream of a better world for my children and the communities in which all children of color grow up. As VISIONS re-invents ourselves for the next 25 years, I am proud to be in the number with so many of you.
This is a moment to move on our ideals and to realize that "we the people" will need to lead!
From the desk of our Founding Director, Dr. Valerie Batts:
VISIONS began because of a burning desire among our founders, children of the US civil rights movement, to do our part to help end the legacy of racism against black folk (and all oppressed people). We and our ancestors have been the targets of structural and personal violence since coming to these shores in 1619. 2020 finds this legacy, which resulted in our country being formed with a dangerous “crack in the foundation”, painfully exposed again! VISIONS now more than ever. I am delighted that, as our new leader, Elika, gets this! Her note below was started even before we were encouraged to share with the community about our response.
As the mother of a black son and as the sister of two deceased (before their time) black brothers, I feel this pain very personally. I see how it also impacts my daughter and so many of my black colleagues and friends. It must stop!
I appreciate when people who get white skinned privilege own it and own their role in fixing this country’s faulty foundation. Otherwise, the “house” WILL fall. In the words of Sweet Honey and the Rock, “Until the killing of black men, black mother’s sons, is as important as the killing of white men, white mother’s sons, we who believe in freedom, cannot (will not) rest!”
The struggle continues!
From the desk of our new Executive Director, Elika Dadsetan-Foley:
Being Black in America should not be a death sentence. We hear these words stated by every day well-intentioned folx, as well as decision- and policy-makers. Yet, every day, we hear about another death… and again, by an individual who has been hired to protect and serve - serve whom? It’s clear that it is not all people. This is part of why we say “black lives matter.” It is a stark reminder that these systems were not developed to serve all – they were developed to serve the white privileged. The officer in Minnesota not only failed to do his job, he also failed at the most basic level of being a decent humxn being. The violence of white supremacy has struck again, as it has continued to do so since our founding and the hundreds of years since.
I am not a black man, nor do I have a black son. I have not been able to sleep thinking about all the black families who are constantly traumatized and re-traumatized by such events. I imagine this could have been any of the black men in my life whom I love. It’s not about me - it can’t be. That is part of my privilege. I am not here to tell you that I am one of the good ones. I am not in shock - racism never went away, and in this current context, it is just as “in your face” as it ever was. Our institutions just openly allow for these behaviors again, and no one can pretend “racism does not exist” anymore. Mr. George Floyd was someone’s son. Someone’s family. Someone’s friend. He was a humxn being, and his life mattered: except it didn’t.
Having a corrupt system do an investigation into what happened does not matter…nothing justifies this murder…a police officer putting a knee on this man’s neck not for a moment, but for over eight minutes. Eight. Minutes. Just try sitting for eight minutes… it’s an awfully long time. This officer had been known for previous violence - yet kept his job. It’s the fact that our systems, and our entire country, continues to allow this to happen. Four murder charges is not enough…this is just one incident. As I write this, I hear about another injustice done at the hands of police officers against Sha’Teina Grady El in Detroit. When will it end?
White supremacy kills Black people both quickly, through such acts as we continue to see, as well as slowly. White supremacy kills on the personal, interpersonal, cultural, and institutional level.
When there are individuals who are upset about why Kaepernick kneeled, and yet they cannot embrace the horror of the structural causes of these killings, we have a major issue. As Bernice King stated in such cases, “you are more devoted to order than to justice, and more passionate about an anthem that supposedly symbolizes freedom than you are about a Black man’s freedom to live.” There is no true justice for our black brothers and sisters, especially if those of us with white privilege stay quiet, or merely just get mad. White folx cannot let their fragility get in the way.
We are living in a world that permits the murder of black men by white men in the name of law and order. White folx, we need to stop and take an honest look at our part in this - at the reactions we have to these stories, and how we respond to the overt and covert racism inside and around us, every day.
We experienced Mr. Floyd’s death and the attempted murder of Mr. Cooper in Central Park in full effect because these incidents were recorded…Christian Cooper was lucky to have recorded his encounter and live to recount the event…however, Mr. Floyd, even with cell phones recording the officers and witnesses pleading with the officers, still got his death sentence. This is not just another random act. Black people everywhere are dying by the hands of police and other facets of our government. I can only imagine what a gut-wrenching reminder this is to all who share his color of skin.
When I hear "I supported protest until it became violent" - this only perpetuates the problem we are trying to solve by allowing folx to ignore the crisis that has created this painful situation. If the same effort was put into arresting other officers and those who create hate and divide as we have the thousands of peaceful protesters over the past few days, we'd be taking a step in the right direction. I hope this is an opportunity to rethink our systems of policing - to develop space for social workers, restorative practitioners, and others better-equipped than police officers. I continue to stand in solidarity with the oppressed, and it is a reminder of why we show up every day to do the work we do at VISIONS.
Help us continue to do this important work - VISIONS now more than ever!
I had an awareness that May is “Asian-Pacific Heritage Month” in the U.S.
Only as the month was about to begin did I learn that it is also “Older Americans Month” (originally “Senior Citizens Month”, until renamed in 1980 by Jimmy Carter).
As a 72-year-old, this set me to wondering and thinking….
Long-time VISIONS consultant, Joe Steele, took some time to discuss his journey to and with VISIONS, how he is processing his stay at home order, and how it’s all shifting how he views DEI work.
“Taking the time to still my mind, it’s been one gift I’ve given myself. Getting used to not-doing, and loving it. It’s been one of my biggest learnings – how do I keep that schedule of not-doing,” Joe said, noting that he’s tried many types of meditation as part of that practice.
After 36 years in the captain’s chair, Dr. Valerie Batts stepped down as VISIONS’ Executive Director, announcing Elika Dadsetan-Foley her successor. Dr. Val will remain part of the organization, and will focus her time in keeping her hands and mind in The Work, while Elika will focus on the actual running of VISIONS as an organization.
Author: Valerie Batts, Ph.D.
In this newly revised article, Dr. Valerie Batts offers personal reflections on and responses to the social history of oppression and racially-motivated violence in the United States.
Drawing from their own twelve-year partnership and from interviews with 125 women business partners across the world, Betsy Polk and Maggie Chotas have learned something powerful: when women work together they discover a level of support, balance, confidence, accountability, and freedom to be themselves that is rarely found in other work relationships.