Tag Archives: Racism

The Difference Between Unconstitutional & Unjust by Kufere Laing

Plaintiff Esther Kiobel joins protest against Royal Dutch Shell Petroleum in front of U.S. Supreme Court in WashingtonI wrote this piece in response to a NYTimes article which examines a current Supreme Court case which argues Detroit Public Schools are unconstitutional. If you have not read
the article, the link is here: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/21/opinion/are-detroits-most-terrible-schools-unconstitutional.html?_r=0. This article highlights a current Michigan Supreme Court case in which the plaintiff asserts that Michigan is not providing Detroit (Black) students enrolled in public education with an adequate education. The article argues the basis of this case revolves around the question “is it constitutional to provide the majority of the students with adequate education and a minority of students with an inadequate education?” In short, there is nothing in American history to suggest that this is unconstitutional – and that is the problem.

Of course, the catch 22 for Black people and justice in the U.S. is that the document that we must rely on for the highest order of justice, i.e the Constitution, was also the document that enshrined our oppression with the description of us as 3/5s of human beings. The document has never been overhauled to include ideas of restorative justice and so it is not equipped to  then really deal with justice when questions such as those raised by the Detroit school system are brought to it. Of course its not just for huge swaths of students to not get an education, but even the premise of the case, that students should get a modicum of education is not just. Actually, Black students should get a wholly different and more deeply invested in education to make up for the intentional under investment, but the Constitution shows no awareness of this idea and so of course that can’t be argued.

The challenge of proving that this is unconstitutional is two-fold. First, the lawyers of the plaintiffs must force a document that has been used to promote and defend the disenfranchisement of Black people to protect Black people. Secondly, in the process of forcing an inherently racist document to for once, not be racist, the lawyers of the plaintiffs must show that the state is intentionally disenfranchising Black children. White supremacy’s most powerful weapon is its disguise and forcing people to prove its existence using tools that were created to disguise it. Regardless of the outcome of this case, the Constitution has repeatedly protected the state and its refusal to educate Black children. So, NYT, let’s not confuse the arguments and “complex” debates of constitutionality with something much more simple, justice.

Planning, Art & Identity in the Hill District

Jorge Myers, Born and Raised Hill District Artist

Jorge Meyers,  Hill District Artist

Very productive Arts Plan meeting sponsored by the Hill District Consensus Group last week, March 17th. I am on the steering committee along with Tanika Harris of the Hill CDC, Karen Abrams, resident, Suzie Sparks of the Hill House Association and my wife, Dr. Bonnie Young Laing, Hill District resident and Co-Director of the HDCG. The purpose of the meeting was to get us back on track after a slowing of momentum over the end of the 2014/beginning of 2015 and share the plan the steering committee had come up with to get us going again. The meeting had nice attendance with 15-20 ppl and a good representation of Hill District artists with that being the majority of folks there.  To see the meeting agenda, click here.

Bonnie got us started by sharing slides of the data from more than 250 surveys and for those slides that are a work in progress click here. A few highlights of the data:

Kim El-Born and Raised, Hill District Artist

Kim El-Hill District Playwright and Actor

  • 65% of the respondents identified as Hill District residents;
  • 85% identified as African American
  • Most commonly used word to define art?–“Expression”
  • When asked about preferred art words most commonly used were “Children” “African/Black” “Music” & “Dance”;
  • There’s a broad set of tastes in the neighborhood with lots of arts mentioned when asked about preferences;
  • An influence from international travel;
  • A desire for opportunities for youth;
  • “Festivals” was the most frequently mentioned method by which people got art and the Three Rivers Arts Festival, specifically;

There was a good conversation that followed about how the data showed there was an interest inarts & experiences in the neighborhood and a willingness to spend $, but a lack of venues. Folks also talked about how more options need to be given to the community because we don’t know what we don’t know when it comes to art choices. An idea that stood out to me came from visual artist, Kaceem Barnett, about the Hill having an “Art all Night” experience like Bloomfield. What would that look like??

Conversation then moved to the definition of what a Hill District artist might be (see previous post) and folks were good with the definition we were using with the amendment that there should be space for artists who have lived here a “significant” period of time, but no longer live here in addition to the space for artists who were born here and no longer live here. The main issue here is that if we are going to advocate for Hill District artists to support their work and enliven the neighborhood and build on its cultural legacy, then the definition of

Mark Southers, Hill District Artist, Born, Raised and Current Resident. Executive Producer of Pgh Playwrights Theater

Mark Southers, Hill District Executive Producer of Pgh Playwrights Theater

who is a Hill District artist is needed. This then brought up a spicy question and a missing part of the definition: the geographic boundaries of the Hill District we would use. This hole was revealed in the question someone posed–“Is Uptown in the Hill?” This got some murmurs and multiple comments from the room that could be summed up in “It depends. Sometimes Uptown wants to be in. Sometimes they don’t.”

The question of Uptown brings up that little issue of race and community identity. When the Hill District was working  on the Hill District Master Plan and my wife, Bonnie, was writing up the history section talking about the Hill as a neighborhood predominantly shaped by African Americans, there were white residents of Uptown who talked to her and were insistent that this legacy be reshaped in the Master Plan to speak in multi-racial terms. Terms that she thought (and I agreed) gave disproportionate voice to the multi-racial history in comparison to what we had lived and heard  (Bonnie living here her almost entire life and a mom born and raised here and my working and living here about 25 years). Ironically, when you enter Uptown from Oakland, you see it marketing itself as it’s own neighborhood and selling its real estate in the same manner with no reference to the Hill District.

A meeting participant shared a history of the Hill District that included a certain section of Uptown as African American called Soho and we discussed including that section in the definition of a Hill District artist. The thinking being that if white representatives of Uptown are not going to be consistent in their identification as being a part of the Hill District, and when they do identify they

Hill District artist, Kaceem Barnett

Hill District visual artist, Kaceem Barnett

want their participation to be recognized as white contributors to the history of the neighborhood,  then we should not include them in this definition of the Hill, while not penalizing African Americans

in Uptown who have long identified as members of the Hill. It may be that Soho no longer exists in this same way, but it was a way of defining a Hill District Artist using the first principle of the Master Plan and that is “Build Upon The African American Cultural Legacy.” If we took a vote today, mine would be to not include Uptown because I think it would lead to disparate benefit to artists who I have not seen as general participants in Hill District and because Uptown arts activities like the Gist St. Reading Series never seemed to me to see folks on the other side of fifth ave as part of their audience, but this will be a subject taken up a later point. Maybe some kind of positive, NAFTA-like, cross 5th Ave Trade Agreement?

The next step will be a convening of artists in mid April to share the data and conduct focus groups that seek to find out how the neighborhood can better support the creation of art by Hill District artists in general and how we can support more of it being made and made visible in the neighborhood. Can’t wait to see what folks come up with.

Accountability, Transparency Always Matter, But Now They Really Do

In my last post I talked about the part of The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s analysis that says structural racism is maintained in ALANA (African, Latino, Asian and Native American) communities in part because gatekeepers are not accountable to the community whose poverty makes their work possible and necessary. While below I explain more about what I mean by “accountability”, I support the general point that gatekeepers are not structurally responsible to the neighborhood, because this is what I have seen having worked in, governed and consumed services in the Hill District for nearly twenty years. Increasing the transparency element of accountability (see below) is something I worked on as part of the formation of One Hill, by using an online community, posting of minutes, membership based voting on critical issues, such as staff salary (the staff member was my wife) and org leadership. However, even One Hill’s transparency lessened once it had a formal leadership structure and negotiations for the CBA began, and most of my other work in the Hill, whether managing the African Brazilian arts organization, Nego Gato, Inc. or working as a case manager or board member for the Hill House Association, was not a part of a process that was accountable to the neighborhood in a substantive way.

To be clear, the issue of accountability is not simply about personal choices and values. It’s how most neighborhoods like the Hill District are structured and its nature of the non-profit industry generally. So, as one would expect, this lack of accountability is still the case in the Hill today. However, greater implications, because the Hill is in such a state of flux as the Hill House builds a new Grocery Store, the Urban Redevelopment, in partnership with the Hill District Community Development Corp, redevelops Centre Ave, and the Master Plan is implemented (although the process by which this will happen is not clear to me). When this is coupled with either our local politicians weakening what accountability mechanisms now exist in the community (see Laing letter to Lavelle-Support the Planning Forum) or missing opportunities to develop these mechanisms (see exchange with Rep. Wheatley in my first post about the lack of public information on the Hill District Growth/Casino Fund), it makes for a situation ripe to come out in a way a residents do not like or understand.

I need to be more specific as to this idea of “accountability”. What does it really mean and what would it look like if Hill District institutions were more accountable to community members? Andreas Schedler in Conceptualizing Accountability breaks accountability into two sections: answerability and enforcement. In the context of gatekeepers, answerability is having to say what the organization is doing and/or why it has done it and enforcement is the capacity for constituencies to impose standards or sanctions on gatekeepers who have not kept their end of the bargain. For the purposes of this post, I want to focus on answerability. In order for gatekeepers to meet a standard of answerability, information about the organization and its work should be visible and high quality. Visible is pretty self-explanatory, but it includes the idea of the organization making its best effort of offering a full picture of what is going on so we can really “see”. By high quality, I mean interested community members should be able to make meaning for themselves as to what is going on because the data is in as raw form as possible (minutes, financial reporting, periodic updates) and is prepared for a variety of consuming styles (public meetings, internet postings, newsletters). While Schedler is talking about accountability for political actors or public agencies, I have applied his ideas to the challenge of making gatekeepers accountable as non-profit agencies are public charities. For me, the idea of answerability is best understood as transparency and my explanation of answerability is taken from Greg Michener’s and Katherine Bersch’s Conceptualizing_the_Quality_of_Transparency–.

So, how could these ideas around accountability be made real for gatekeepers and gatekeeping organizations in the Hill District? Staying with the part of accountability that is answerability and the part of answerability that is transparency, I’ll give some examples of transparency standards for the community’s gatekeepers that we all might better legitimize the notion of speaking in the name of the neighborhood. Here are five standards or practices that could be implemented fairly easily and one that would take a little more doing (membership):

  • Publicly posting synopsis of funded projects, the dollar amount awarded and the success indicators associated with the project;
  • Posting of 990s on websites with a standard they will be up within 9 months of the FY ending.
  • Posting of bylaws on website;
  • .A membership structure that allows community residents to have a voting stake in the organization;
  • A publicly available written policy for the amount of board members that will live in the community for organizations housed in the community;
  • Annual meetings at which all the above materials would be available and the organizations success against goals would be discussed and open for conversation.

These standards are only examples and in many ways they represent less accountability than is required by the various funders who support the work, yet its the community’s financial poverty, social challenges and collective history that underwrites much of it. My point is that residents and gatekeepers would benefit from asking for and designing more powerful accountability processes than the ones in place today. According to Michener and Bersch, the amount of transparency in a sector is directly related to the demand for it. If we fear losing the neighborhood, one of the ways to prevent this from happening is to become more active in asking what is happening now and not simply waiting for the “inevitable”. One of my intentions with this blog is that it will increase demand for accountability in the Hill. If you agree it’s an issue worth more attention, please share this entry with someone who lives or works in the neighborhood, comment and then follow the blog for further discussion.