Community Development Field

We Must Find the Legacies of Racism Within Our Own Organizations, Too

We can’t begin to disentangle the racial dynamics of the institutions we want to fix if we are unwilling to get to the root of the same dynamics in our own organizations.

February 2015 PIIN meeting. Photo courtesy of Gamaliel.

Pittsburgh has many of the same problems with criminal justice facing our whole country. In talking with the leaders of our affiliate there, Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN), I was moved by the fact that leaders there had decided to not only take a structural approach to changing law enforcement policies, they went to the heart of the problem by focusing on race dynamics.

Maybe most inspiring is how leaders of the group’s Public Safety Task Force looked inward at the ways race was playing out at their own table and inside PIIN right alongside their campaign to address the disparate impact of policing on people of color in the Pittsburgh region.

Pittsburgh Policing Problems

At the end of 2014, distrust between the Pittsburgh police and the community was at an all-time high, I was told by Rev. DeNeice Welch, chair of PIIN’s spiritual leaders caucus and current chair of Gamaliel’s Ntosake national women’s leadership table, and Darlene Figgs, chair of the PIIN Public Safety Task Force.

The ACLU was suing Pittsburgh’s police department because since 2001, only 23 out of about 530 police officers hired, about 4 percent, were African American, although the city is 26 percent African American. Their chief had recently gone to jail, and the official overseeing the police department had resigned. News from St. Louis, New York, and Cleveland was even worse.

November 2015 meeting with the Pittsburgh chief of police. Photo courtesy of Gamaliel.

“Our caucus was rocked,” Welch said. “We got a new public safety director, new chief of police, and the events in Ferguson all happened at the same time.” In February 2015, they held a public meeting with the new police chief that they called “From Marches to Measurables.” They issued demands to the new police chief that they’d formulated with input from the ACLU and a researcher at Pitt Law School. The chief, Cameron McLay, who had previously run the Madison, Wisconsin police department, agreed to work with them, but they knew implementation would be the hard part.

Making Race Part of the Solution

Later that year, after a group of leaders and staff from PIIN attended Gamaliel’s Race and Power summit in June, they realized they needed to look at the deeper structures and systems that had in many ways pitted the police department and the community against each other.

“Before the summit, we would have demanded that the police force recruit African-American candidates [for the force] and walked away,” Welch said. “Now we know [it is difficult for] candidates of color [to] survive the culture that exists within the police force”—and it’s going to take training and constant monitoring to shift the culture.

In June, PIIN leaders and staff learned more about implicit bias and saw how some affiliates’ leaders looked at themselves and their own organizations and backgrounds for internalized oppression and white privilege, and the impact of these influences.

After returning from Detroit, the Public Safety Task Force leaders organized a series of fishbowl conversations  to process their own experiences of privilege and oppression as whites and people of color. Each meeting, white task force members discussed a question amongst themselves while African-American members listened, then African-American members discussed the same topic while whites listened. This was followed by general debriefings and a facilitated discussion.

With about 30 faith and community leaders from across the city and suburbs, the task force was evenly divided ethnically and racially. This made them an ideal group to address issues like who had power in the room and clashing worldviews and formative experiences. For much of the spring and summer the group spent as much time looking at their own issues of white privilege and black oppression as pushing forward their work holding police accountable.

Among other lessons learned, the work helped PIIN leaders see from their own experience that just hiring more African-American officers would not be enough.

“The culture doesn’t support them,” Welch said. “Over 50 percent of the African-American officers are retiring and we have nobody in the pipeline to replace them.
In doing their research they learned one reason recruiting a critical mass of officers of color has been hard is a 1907 civil service law that prohibits targeted recruitment. “Now we know to go after that, rather than just pushing for more recruits of color,” she says.


The relationships they built with the police, meanwhile, have helped the city’s racial and religious relations. When a Muslim cab driver was shot on Thanksgiving, PIIN leaders were able to connect the head of the local Islamic Center to the commander.
Another development came last year when the Department of Justice announced it would invest $1 million in the training the group had requested through its National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, one of six places in the country selected. Pittsburgh was chosen in part because the creators of the Justice program saw an emerging culture of community-police trust, they told PIIN leaders with whom they met.

Pittsburgh has far to go. For example, while the police chief committed to change police policy on using body-cameras, PIIN and the police later learned this required changes at the state level. Now they are seeking to apply pressure to the state legislature. Other issues will take time as well—which PIIN leaders said they understand.  “We want this to be lasting, not a quick fix,” Figgs said.

When it comes to social change, we can rarely isolate a specific cause for a major shift in policy. So it’s hard to say PIIN leaders’ focus on their own racial dynamics directly led to the policy changes by Pittsburgh police. But it’s clear to me that, as complex as the problems we must face up to are, we can’t begin to disentangle the racial dynamics of the institutions we want to fix if we are unwilling to get to the root of the same dynamics in our own organizations.

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