As an organization dedicated to turning race relations on its head through unarmed truth and unconditional love, we invite you to join us on the journey. To help us along the way, Vonnetta West joins the podcast again (see the transcript below). As the former Director of Education and Training for The King Center, Vonnetta brings a wealth of experience, insight and wisdom to the table.
We invite you to put race relations on your table and pursue racial reconciliation in your own life as we talk about ensuring equity. As an organization, we believe that equity does not equal lack for anyone and that it is key for reconciliation. When we commit to helping eradicate racially motivated inequity, we are demonstrating love in action. Love in action is essential for reconciliation. Let’s dive in.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- Where the lack of equity is most prevalent and how it contributes to the problem.
- Why literacy is a crisis.
- What the “school-to-prison” pipeline is.
- The steps individuals can take to ensure equity.
Karin: Welcome to the R4R Podcast. We are here to provide conversations that educate and elevate. My name is Karin Conlee. Welcome to our conversation; I have back with me my good friend and expert of all things: I feel like Vonnetta has walked in so many different amazing spaces. Vonnetta West welcome back to the video and to our podcast Glad to have you.
Vonnetta: Thank you Karin.
Karin: For those of you, if you haven’t checked out our previous 2, this is part 3 in a series and we are talking about the five majors of Race for Reconciliation. Really, these are kind of the pillars of who we are as an organization, what we want to accomplish and how we want to have this conversation. We want to provide the most positive unifying voice on racial reconciliation.
This podcast is part of the education process, you can also go to our website raceforreconciliation.org and find other resources that we recommend there as well as information about the events. We actually will have literal races – our first one in Memphis on Dr. Martin Luther King Day in January 2021 and we are excited to launch that. These conversations Vonnetta are very important as we really try to begin a conversation that you have been a part of for a long time.
As I said in our first podcast, you know, there’s a part of me that I walk in this space with. I’ve done pot a lot of podcasts, I don’t usually get nervous but I get nervous when we talk about racial reconciliation because I’m so afraid I’m going to say something wrong, I’m so afraid that I have a white bias that I don’t even realize and so as we come to these podcasts, we want to create a safe place that we can have conversations and people can learn. I’m on the journey with everybody and I appreciate the way that our friendship over the last years as we’ve been working towards launching our website and our first event, you’ve you have allowed me to ask you a lot of questions and us to have a lot of conversations. This one in particular part 3 that we’re going to focus on is called “Ensuring Equity”. We talked about our first pillar being “Redefining Reconciliation” our second one “Tackling Tokenism” and this one we’re looking at Ensuring Equity.
Let me just read the statement. If you’re able to watch my video, you can see it on the screen. It says this – we believe that equity does not equal lack for anyone and that it is Is key for reconciliation. When we commit to helping eradicate racially motivated inequity, we are demonstrating love in action. Love in action is essential for reconciliation. Vonnetta, as we talked about this ensuring equity, one of the things that I learned early in my journey is that there’s a difference between equality and equity. Can you define those terms for us and help us understand the difference between the two in this space. Why does that matter? In this world, you can say one of those and sometimes be corrected, if you’re new in the journey, you might not know so help us to understand.
Vonnetta: Sure. Well, you know this all men are created equal notion [Inaudible: 04:02], the documents, the “founding” documents for this nation. I put founding in quotations because you know, that’s very strange language to me concerning this country in particular but all men are created equal. If you even listen to the language on that it says all men and I don’t think it was meaning men including women necessarily not given the history of the context and I certainly know that it wasn’t including black men or black women or black people and so even in that you can understand why equality is not just what we’re seeking but if we’ve gotten to the place and we think all people are created equal as what we have even that’s not equity.
If you believe we are created equal then what that means is we’re created on the same level in terms of value and worth and the standard of being treated with dignity and with respect. We could even see based on that definition for equality that we don’t necessarily believe that; that’s something in the documents, but that’s not something even in the system right now that we see embracing black people.
So equality means that you’re created on the same playing field and with the same value and worth but this country intrinsically doesn’t even believe that. Equality and Equity are something different. Equality has to do with how I came here, equity is about my existence now. Equity means that there’s a distribution of wealth, of resources, of opportunities that allows us to be here.
I’m holding up my hands like this because this is the best and I apologize if anybody is vision impaired, but I have my hands where they’re on the same level which means there’s equity. So if I move one hand up and it’s representing the education system that means there’s inequity. So the hand up would generally be like, maybe predominantly white schools and some affluent areas or with some resources that the lower hand doesn’t have. Some people would say we need to give them equal resources where if I give a lower hand and a higher hand equal resources, they both move up but they’re still a higher hand and a lower hand. But if I want Equity then I have to give the lower hand more than I give the higher hand so that they’re on the same level – that’s equity. That’s equity and resources. You didn’t give us equal, you gave us enough so that there’s equity. That’s a hard work not just in this country but in the world because we talked about handouts and people needing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
Where we talked a lot in the last podcast about constructs and systemic issues, Jim Crow the actual placement of black people, things that weren’t provided, what does it take to come out of 400 years of slavery and get to equity and what do we owe the next generation instead of saying we’re going to start you at the low hand? How do we actually get something that’s given, something that’s done, some support that’s provided that actually gets us to equity which means we don’t have some children who have new pet textbooks and then some children who do not. You can’t tell me those children you think they’re equal because there’s no equity.
You can actually believe I have the same dignity, the same value if you’re not willing to allow me or provide for or supply the things as a nation that allows for equity so that I can have the same education that a white child can have or that a child who has more money can have because again that’s a part of classism as well. So equity and equality – they’re different animals, they’re not the same thing.
Karin: I really appreciate you explaining that because I think it’s easy in some instances to not really understand that and even your visual. You even provided not only for the visually impaired but for our podcast listeners a description so I really appreciate that; that definitely helps what you were describing not to be so basic that you roll your eyes because in some ways this question probably is an eye-rolling question, but for us to be a place where we’re educating I want to just not make any assumptions.
You referenced textbooks as being different and talking about education in the impoverished areas versus wealthier areas. I think about in Memphis that the city schools graduate a child four grade levels below what the suburban school would be. So a 12th grader from a city school really has the equivalent of like an 8th-grade education compared to it. Those are the types of things that I think when we think about this systemically, it can be overwhelming and daunting but I think it helps maybe if you might if there are other examples within education that you might give but when we think about equity, I think anybody can see there are deficiencies.
We talked about living in the hood – you referred to the ghetto. We talk about, you know, you hear the phrase the other side of the tracks or distressed neighborhoods; all of these things are referring to the fact that there are these huge inequities. Describe for us where lack is most prevalent and how it contributes. I know that seems like people should get this by now, but I think as you give specifics it helps people to kind of understand oh wow, I didn’t realize how housing is impacted or wow, I didn’t realize okay, I see that in my own city – that is actually true. Could you give us a couple of examples whether it be education or other areas of what that looks like – inequity?
Vonnetta: Inequity there’s a conversation no matter what time frame you’re in. If you listen to this podcast two years from now, just know right now we’re in the midst of a global pandemic that we discovered, we found out, we see by the deaths it’s impacting black people in the United States more than any other group of people and people ask why – it’s because of inequity. Inequity in health care that’s the primary example I can give you. Inequity in housing, inequity in even laws and contracts where you actually see if you ever read any works by Jonathan Caswell, he’s an educator who talks a lot about inequity in education.
He talks about inequity housing. He mentions the South Bronx where the majority of the children are at the time he wrote his book “Savage Inequalities”, the majority of the children there had asthma because in South Bronx they had been allowed to build these plants that emitted these gases and these different things that cause asthma – that’s inequity in environmental justice, inequity in air quality. This racism shows up in so many ways that you see these inequities where you never would say, let’s get a group of affluent white children and build a plant by their school or build a playground that has metals in it that will cause them to be sick. You just wouldn’t see that not unless they’re for white people.
Generally, you know, in terms of racism, classism, you see these inequities and so South Bronx that happened and so now you have these health disparities and you have these deaths as a result of COVID and these illnesses that are impacting black communities in urban areas more than other communities and you ask why? Because there’s inequity; there’s something there that’s like this that people are saying if you give this, give them stuff, that’s a handout.
You think about the power of that language or the power that’s implied in that language that even when I’m talking about inequity, I’m thinking why is it that these folks over here still have the power to determine what’s inequity and what becomes you know level anyway? It is because of the power constructs that have been set up. Inequity is everywhere.
Karin: Vonnetta as you speak about that particular topic, I know one of the primary 3 causes that Race for Reconciliation has identified as a systemic issue that we want to help address is the literacy crisis and so how do we partner in each community with organizations that provide in a proactive way literacy tutoring that goes into help, you know 1st, 2nd and 3rd graders to be able to learn to read on grade level where they don’t have some of the advantages that are in other schools.
You made reference to the school-to-prison system in one of our last podcast; help explain that. When you say that there’s this pipeline, it’s something unfamiliar like to somebody that has not walked in your space who has not been oppressed and not been impoverished, I think we overlook that and don’t really necessarily understand the depth of what you’re really saying. We’re talking about equity and wanting to ensure equity: talk about that from the perspective of a parent with a young child in a distressed neighborhood why you use that term and what that actually looks like.
Vonnetta: Sure. There are three resources I want to recommend first to help understand the school-to-prison pipeline. One is “The New Jim Crow” – it’s a book by Michelle Alexander. The second resource is a film called 13th is a documentary by Ava DuVernay and the third is a visit to the Legacy Museum from slavery to mass incarceration in Montgomery; a museum that opened a few years ago built by Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative. Those three resources I believe would really help people understand the school-to-prison pipeline.
Karin: What would you say, as you’ve given different examples and you talk about the inequities in the systems to the person out there that goes, I mean really? Is it really like there might be a few power players behind the scenes that make those decisions but in 2020, is that really what our culture believes? How do we, you know what I’m saying like in that context, what can we do if there are people behind the scenes that really are that nefarious?
We talked about the heart and the love of all know that you know, the root of all evil is the love of money and all of those things, how do we as individuals who want to see change, who want to see children succeed, who want to break those patterns and those, what would you say as we talked about ensuring equity? What are those steps that we can take? What do we do with that sense of oh my gosh, like that’s not my heart, that’s not the people I know hearts but that still seems to be what’s happening in impoverished neighborhoods? What would you say?
Vonnetta: Yeah, I want to mention this phrase from Dr. King and I think you know you call me an expert, I’m probably an expert in studying Dr. King that’s probably an expert in trying to understand what he taught and to apply it today. He had this phrase called “create a maladjustment” that he talked about often. It wasn’t his phrase but he took it and he really expounded upon it and he talked about how I refuse to adjust to injustice so I just encourage listeners to start there.
We talked about in the last podcast just saying a simple phrase of you know, there are things that I have to learn, I’m not going to stay here, I want to shift – the simple things and I think for this podcast if we could just get people as we talked about this major of ensuring equity to say I refuse to adjust, I’m going to be creatively maladjusted. Once you start there and you say I’m not going to adjust to poverty, I’m not going to adjust to racism, I’m going to educate myself and yield to being educated on these issues, then the doors start to open because you first have to say I want to be a conduit, I want to learn, I want to help eradicate these evils that have persisted for hundreds of years, thousands of years and I want to be a part of that.
That creative maladjustment is key. If you say I want to see it then you start to see it. For me, it’s been saying even as a black person there were things I didn’t know what was going on in the world, I didn’t know about these systems the school-to-prison pipeline and I started to say I want to learn more, I want to see it. So over the course of the last 20/22 years I’ve started to say, okay, I see that, what can we do to eradicate that? So I think the first step is saying I want to be creatively maladjusted, I am not going to adjust to injustice, I refuse to adjust to injustice and then you start to say, okay. What can I read about this? Now let me go look up.
If you’re listening and you just heard us talking about the school-to-prison pipeline, go get those books, it’s not a fallacy, it’s not somebody making something up, it’s actually what’s happening. If you find it hard to believe then me too. I find it hard to believe that somebody would be looking at 3rd graders and saying they’re going to be in jail in 15 years, I mean, it’s disgusting. We shouldn’t find these things normal; they should be things that we say this is not normal and I’m not going to adjust to this inhumanity.
Karin: I think about as you talked about literacy and we’re talking about how we ensure equity. I have a 21-year-old son and he decided when he went to college to start a non-profit and he has taken groups of students from his university into local schools and helps teach 3rd graders their sight words so that they can be on grade level for reading. If a 21-year-old can do that, again, we keep talking about the heart level – there’s something that all of us can do if we decide that it’s something that we care about. Again, I think – go ahead.
Vonnetta: I want to add because that just made me think about how there are different ways people can help. When we talk about helping with these issues, I don’t want people to feel boxed into something they’re not gifted to do but they might not have the resources to do. What I’m saying is if we know this is an issue in the school-to-prison pipeline, somebody’s called to do what your son is doing and then there are other people who are called to look at these laws and say let’s change these laws. What happens with us is we don’t have the coalition’s where we say young Conlee is doing this and then we’re doing this and once we get it all done then the issue changes; we just have somebody over here doing the tutorials but we’re not getting the lost.
When we merge them though that’s when we start to see these systems change because then we’re working on the root of the problem plus we’re working on the critical need that’s a result of the root of the problem and that’s important. That ensures [Inaudible: 21:14] when you have people in a coalition saying let’s get this problem worked on from all facets.
Karin: Well, as we end this particular podcast, I really want to encourage people with what you just said to highlight that. If we are willing to walk in a space and look at a problem and understand, we might not understand all of it. I don’t understand all of it but if I wait until I understand all of it to do something I’ll never do something. I may make mistakes along the way but I’d rather make mistakes trying and so if you or someone out there and you’re like, you know what I see the struggles in the school system in my community, I see that there are distressed schools in distressed neighborhoods that don’t have what the schools that are in my neighborhood look like, you can be a part of the solution and you can take a step.
You might not be a lawyer, you might not be an activist, but you can make a difference because you care and open yourself up to the education process. I just appreciate you saying that because If I do feel like there’s parts of us in our humanity that we just feel like well, if I can’t I just give up because it just feels too big to say no like as we talk about these inequities, identify some of the inequities that you have a passion about solving and take your gifts and find a way to do that.
There are people out there that need your resources, they need your time, they need your connections, they need your expertise, they need your humility, and they need your service. And so I appreciate Vonnetta the way that you have chosen to walk in the space and use your gifts and serve and that’s what really all of us can do. It might look different for each of us but thank you again for joining us, for your willingness to help educate us and look forward to more conversations with you.
If you want to look at any of the resources Race for Reconciliation go to www.raceforreconciliation.org we’ve got R4R resources there, follow us on social media and we would love to just continue this conversation to help educate and elevate, that we can address some of these systemic problems in every community where this is heard and make a difference.