Freedom Center president found inspiration in GCF racial equity training

As part of our Special Report on Greater Cincinnati Foundation’s Groundwater and Phase 1 racial equity workshops, we are presenting stories of people who experienced the trainings and their responses to it. This is the fourth in that series.

READ THE FULL SPECIAL REPORT: Diving into the Groundwater: Exploring the depths of racism

Woody Keown, Jr. has worked for diversity, inclusion, equity, and civil rights for much of his life. But even he had his eyes opened when he participated in two workshops now being offered in Greater Cincinnati.

After a long career at Procter & Gamble, Keown was appointed president of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in 2019. He is one of about 2,000 people in Greater Cincinnati who, since 2019, have participated in one of Greater Cincinnati Foundation’s Racial Equity Matters, presented by bi3, Groundwater and Phase 1 trainings.

The programs are led by the Greensboro, N.C.-based Racial Equity Institute, a not-for-profit founded to help create more equitable institutions and challenge traditional assumptions about race.

Greater Cincinnati Foundation adopted the programs as key elements of its Racial Equity Matters initiative. Groundwater training is typically a half-day, large group session in which trainers present an analysis of the structural and historic underpinnings of racism in the U.S. and its present-day impact on people’s lives. It’s designed to arm participants with facts and data to counter the assumptions, biases, and prejudices that often take over when it comes to thinking about race.

Groundwater training can be followed up with sessions called Phase I, two-day workshops with fewer people and more interaction.

Keown has participated in both, and he says he came away feeling both disappointed and inspired.

“On one hand, I was very disappointed that a lot of the work that I had been doing to resolve some of these issues of racial discrimination and institutionalized discrimination had not made the systemic progress we needed to make,” he says. “But it also inspired me, because I felt like I had a better understanding of the underlying causes and reasons on a much deeper level.”

The sessions motivated him. “I felt recharged, and it encouraged me to get more actively involved,” he says.

Before, he had been ready to slow down and take a well-deserved rest. The workshops energized him to keep working for what he believed in.

“I had been ready to pass the torch to the next generation, but this particular training woke me up and encouraged me that there was more fight to be done,” he says.

He’s become more involved in the political process as a means to enact change. “I’ve been involved in more political races; my wife and I have paid more money to campaigns than before,” he says. “I pay more attention to platforms than I have before.”

The heightened awareness he gained through the training played a role in his accepting the leadership position at the Freedom Center.

“The training played a heavy part in my decision-making process,” he says. “This whole concept of ‘power’ taught me that if you are not at a seat of power, you’ve got to find more difficult ways to get certain changes made.”

At the Freedom Center, he can make use of what he learned.

“The role at the Freedom Center gave me a bigger opportunity to reach out and make contacts with people across political parties, people across public and private organizations,” he says.

“I’m able to have different kinds of conversations with more people and raise these issues of racial injustice in a more public way than I ever could before. It was very transformational for me.”

This Special Report on Racial Equity Matters presented by bi3 has been made possible with support from Greater Cincinnati Foundation.
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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.