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January 25, 2023, Baltimore, Maryland – The recent Race and Power Summit held in Baltimore, Maryland, was all about reclaiming the voices of U.S. citizens, “giving folks tools to live out their values – values that are clearly related to the beloved community and to changing our society.”
Those were the words of Sister Cheryl Liske, OP, a community organizer in ministry with Gamaliel as its National Training Director. Founded in 1986, Gamaliel is a faith-based organizing network, with 44 affiliates and seven state offices, working to “empower ordinary people to effectively participate in the political, environmental, social, and economic decisions affecting their lives,” according to its mission statement.
Gamaliel’s Fourth Biennial Race and Power in America Summit, November 30 through December 3 in the Maritime Conference Center in Baltimore, drew participants from throughout the United States. Designed for leaders who “share Gamaliel’s commitment to racial equity and the building of powerful alliances,” the summit speakers and workshops focused on areas such as leadership development, integrated voter engagement, and racial equity work.
The conference also included the launch of Gamaliel’s Race and Power Institute, which aims to “create a bridge between race analysis and organizing work, providing ongoing professional development and resources for organizers and leaders,” according to the conference program book. The biennial summit is one of the Institute’s four components, along with racial equity training and resource development, race research and analysis, and a race and power resource library.
Kevin Hofmann, Director of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion for the Adrian Dominican Sisters, said the conference gave him the opportunity to make connections with people from around the country. “It was focused on the institutional aspect – the power that comes from racism and the different ways to interrupt that.”
He was impressed by the workshops he attended, particularly one that dealt with the mass incarceration, especially the disproportionately high number of people of color who are imprisoned. He was also impressed by the acceptance of Summit participants – people of color as well as white people – of the role of white supremacy in racism in the United States. “It isn’t a commonly accepted theory, but at the conference it was embraced as fact,” Kevin said.
Kevin believes he will benefit from the Race and Power Institute, which could provide speakers to help him in presentations to the Adrian Dominican Sisters, Associates, and Co-workers on issues such as unconscious bias.
Sister Janice Brown, OP, one of two members of the Adrian Dominican Sisters General Council who attended the summit said she was “struck by the energy level that was there and the variety of individuals from different backgrounds.” She was also impressed by a statement that people of color “need not only to be invited to the table but to create the agenda as well – to say what is important and work on it as an equal moving forward.” She sees this approach as “a deeper awakening of what needs to happen in order to really create justice.”
Like Kevin, Sister Janice was also moved by the workshop on incarceration. “How did we get to the point that we have so many people who are incarcerated rather than creating environments that help build a person’s potential?” she asked. “It’s an unusual way to think about rehabilitation, but reconciliation as well. People make mistakes, but where do we go from there?”
Sister Bibiana “Bless” Colasito, OP, a member of the General Council who is from the Adrian Dominican Congregation’s Our Lady of Remedies Mission Chapter in the Philippines said the event was an eye-opener “It has given flesh to my theories on diversity, inculturation, women, and the other social issues.”
Before coming to the United States, Sister Bless had never experienced first-hand the issue of people of facing discrimination because of their skin color. “In the Philippines, regionalism is very strong,” she explained. The language people use points to an attitude of regionalism,” of believing people of one region are superior to others, she said.
Sister Bless focused on workshops dealing with immigration, noting that she had heard from undocumented Filipino immigrants to the United States who are afraid to be deported” During the workshop, other undocumented immigrants spoke about their own experiences and on the “consequences of being an undocumented immigrant,” such as lack of work benefits and substandard living conditions.
The conference gave Sister Bless a sense of power. “That experience in the conference is like pushing me to be who I am as a Filipina – the power to be who you are because it will not be good if you allow other powers to shape you outside of your own cultural heritage,” she said. She also came to see other participants in the conference as “a group which is trying to serve humanity regardless of color, regardless of religion, regardless of culture.”
Sister Cheryl spoke of the focus of the Gamaliel organization. It has always worked to help people reclaim their voices in the public sphere, she said. But an emphasis on racial equity began in 2015 when leaders of Gamaliel studied its own network and found “manifestations of white privilege and racism that was in the network itself,” she said. Out of that analysis, Gamaliel decided to work toward racial equity.
Sister Cheryl said the Race and Power Institute applies Gamaliel’s community organizing training to racial equity work. “It’s one thing to do book studies on racial equity,” she said. “It’s quite another to do sacred conversations with groups of people in order to move them to action … When people organize their resources to go for racial equity, results occur.” She gave the example of Eden Seminary in St. Louis, which has a branch of the Race and Power Institute. “They’re training their seminarians in this whole racial analysis,” she said. “Everything is about equity.”
But Sister Cheryl pointed to an even deeper change in Gamaliel. “In the past and in the different organizing networks in the U.S., we were looking at transactional change – trying to find the win in an issue,” she explained. Now, she said, Gamaliel is focusing on transformational change also. “It’s not just about social issues, but it’s about the hearts and minds of people,” she said. “Social justice seems to want to change what’s happening in society. Transformational justice wants to change our society into a better place. That’s the essence of the Gospel message – changing hearts.”
January 25, 2023, Adrian, Michigan – Laws dating as far back as 1640 – well before the United States of America was established – have either strengthened the institutionalism of racism in what is now the United States or have in some sense liberated Black people who have been oppressed.
That was the theme of a piece of artwork, A Natural Language Search, now showing at INAI: A Space Apart, as part of a special exhibit, Unraveling Racism. That exhibit will remain at the art gallery of INAI, adjacent to Weber Retreat and Conference Center, through Saturday, January 28, 2023.
Michelle Graznak, the Detroit-area artist who created A Natural Language Search, visited INAI on January 15, 2023, during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, to speak about her artwork to Adrian Dominican Sisters and Associates and to members of the Lenawee County Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Michelle was part of a group of 12 Michigan artists who gathered regularly to listen to John Biewen’s podcast, Seeing White, and to share an artistic dialogue about the issues raised in the podcast. The artwork in Unraveling Racism is the result.
Michelle said she deliberated for a long time about how to approach the subject through art. She ultimately based her decision to create A Natural Language Search in part on her experience in a Catholic school when her Dominican teacher read from a history book about U.S. history and at one point closed the book and then spoke of the past from her own personal experiences. “I realized that … the putting down of the book and talking from life experience was the most impactful thing for me,” Michelle said. “That means there’s something missing in an authorized text by an authorized institution. That’s where I became curious, so I decided to educate myself.”
Michelle’s interest was piqued when, on the podcast, she heard about the 1640 John Punch case, in which John Punch – the only Black servant of three indentured servants who ran away – was sentenced to a lifetime of slavery, while the other two were only sentenced to a few more years of slavery. Michelle noted that this was the first case in which the defendant’s race was a factor in sentencing.
Michelle began to study other legal cases involving race. “I wanted to approach institutions, especially the legal institutions,” she said. “When [issues] get to court, it’s always way after it’s been an issue in society. The law is a reflection of what society has already been going through.” The John Punch case “became the basis of my further research into laws that contribute to the continuous construction of legally racialized body [of laws],” she wrote in her artist’s statement.
In Michelle’s artwork, the John Punch case is the first in a series of laws and court decisions dealing with race, covering 1640 through 2019. That year, the Michigan House Judiciary Committee began to consider automatic expungements of certain crimes from criminal records – a process that was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Numerous legal decisions and proceedings between those two dates are written on blocks of cloth – becoming more and more unraveled toward the bottom of the artwork – placed on a large white sheet. The work also includes the projection of a bald eagle – national symbol of freedom and democracy – in its natural habitat.
In her artist’s statement, Michelle explains that the white fabric is “a page in a book, a blank slate which the early colonizers believed this land to be, the color of spirituality and of terrorists’ cloaks.” She added that the process of cutting and sewing fabric “became a meditative space where my growing knowledge of this country’s legal history intersected with forgotten memories, observations and experiences of race throughout my life.”
Michelle said much of her research focused on Michigan, an abolitionist state that still had laws that discriminated based on race. “As people who were escaping from slavery came into Michigan, white people came to see that these were skilled people,” possibly competition for jobs, she explained. “There was a concerted effort on the part of white people to keep Brown and Black people out of the job market.”
The laws and decisions depicted in A Natural Language Search are only a portion of the racist laws that Michelle uncovered, she said. Information on more cases is available on her website.
Jeanette Henagan, Branch President of Lenawee County NAACP, attended the event and said the issue persists. “There were many laws that were passed intentionally to keep the Black community from realizing our full rights as U.S. citizens,” she said. “Even after the passing of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, there are people who continue to try to limit or deny our rights. My hope is that more right-minded people will serve in our legislature and on our Supreme Court that will assure that everyone is afforded equal rights under the law.”
Throughout the afternoon, Michelle spoke to various groups as they came to INAI, eliciting questions, comments, and reflections from her audiences. Sister Josephine Gaugier, OP, was struck by reflections offered by members of the Lenawee County Chapter of the NAACP.
“They said that as mothers and grandmothers, they never get to rest from being worried and concerned for their children and grandchildren because they know that when they step out the door, anything can happen,” Sister Josephine said. “That’s another white privilege that we have – that we don’t have to worry like they do about our children. We don’t get pulled over just because we’re white.” She added that the women also expressed the hope that generations in the future won’t have to worry as much about their children.
INAI (pronounced in-EYE, meaning “within” in Japanese) is a contemplative space and art gallery that resonates with the Adrian Dominican Sisters’ Vision: to seek truth, make peace, and reverence life. It houses an art gallery, a quiet space for personal reflection and meditation, and an art room.
The next exhibit, Carole Harris: Textile Artist, is open from Friday, February 3, 2023, through Sunday, May 21, 2023. The Artist’s Reception is from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. Sunday, April 23, 2023. All guests are screened for COVID-19 and are required to wear masks.
INAI: A Space Apart is open from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. daily, or by appointment. Call 517-266-4090 or 517-266-4000.
Feature photo: Artist Michelle Graznak points to one of the laws or court findings that were featured in her artwork A Natural Language Search, on exhibit at INAI: A Space Apart. Photo by Sister Suzanne Schreiber, OP