Diving into the Groundwater: Exploring the depths of racism

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There's a statistic that Deena Hayes-Greene likes to use when she leads workshops on race and society: Our nation has spent 87% of its life either enforcing chattel slavery or its successor, the laws and practices of Jim Crow-era segregation.

It’s a sobering and telling stat -- nearly 90% of the nation’s history has been shrouded in racial division. And it gets at just how embedded in the country’s history and institutions racial inequities are.

Hayes-Greene uses that statistic, and many others, as she leads a series designed to open eyes to the depth of the racism buried in our society’s institutions and, ultimately, to spur action.

The program she leads, called Groundwater, has been offered in Cincinnati by Greater Cincinnati Foundation since 2019. About 2,000 people have attended the training, which is given free, thanks to support from bi3 and other partners.

It’s part of the Foundation’s Racial Equity Matters presented by bi3 initiative, a region wide program to create dialogue about racial equity, build connections, and create insights that lead to positive change around an issue that affects our lives here and around the country.

Groundwater challenges assumptions about race, history, and society, and presents difficult truths about the institutions that form the core of our communities: schools, courts, health care, and businesses.

“This is some of the most difficult work I’ve ever done,” Hayes-Greene says.

But the program is based on the idea that through difficult analysis, change can begin to happen through the work of individuals acting together.

“If we are really going to take advantage of this moment in time to create real change that is needed, it has to start with the hearts and minds, and it has to start with you,” says Jill Miller, president of sponsor Bethesda Inc, creator of bi3

Groundwater is a program of the Greensboro, N.C.-based Racial Equity Institute, a not-for-profit that Hayes-Greene cofounded to help create more equitable institutions and challenge traditional assumptions about race.

About 2,000 people have participated in Groundwater workshops since 2019.The Greater Cincinnati Foundation adopted the program as a key element of its equity initiative.

The program uses as its organizing metaphor the notion of groundwater that lies below the surface out of sight, but which connects and supports all the water we see on the surface.

The metaphor goes like this: If your favorite fishing lake had one fish floating belly-up dead, you might think to analyze the fish – was there something wrong with it? What happened to that single fish that caused its demise?

But if that same lake had half the fish floating belly-up dead, you might analyze the lake itself. What was it about the environment that led to such mass failure?

Applying the metaphor to, say, the education system, Groundwater asks us to imagine that the single fish is one student failing. We would typically ask: Did the student study hard enough, or get the support they need at home? But if the lake is the education system and half the students are failing, or half the fish are belly-up, we’d wonder if the system itself, the lake, could be causing such failures.

And stepping back even further – if five other nearby lakes also have half the fish floating belly-up, it’s time to go deeper and analyze the groundwater. How did the water in all those lakes get contaminated? On the surface, they don’t appear to be connected, but they probably are below the surface in their origin.

In the Groundwater sessions, we are asked to envision those fish as children failing in the lakes of the education system, in their health, in the justice system, and the other constructs of our society. By using a “groundwater analysis,” we may discover what is contaminating these lakes, or systems, and how they are connected.

“The idea is that racism is the contaminant,” says Michael Coffey. He is a senior program officer at Greater Cincinnati Foundation, and the Foundation’s point person on its Racial Equity Matters presented by bi3 program.

The contaminant, he says, is everywhere. Extending the nature metaphor, he says, “It’s in our air and our water,” and we’ve become accustomed to it. “We don’t know anything else. Our parents and grandparents didn’t know anything else. We think it’s normal.” Those beliefs, and the institutions, laws, and organizations that spring from them are the groundwater, the wellspring of our biases and the contaminants that infect the environment for African Americans, Coffey says.

The great question of our time, he says, is “How do you get to the cultural shift that’s necessary to name the problem, to unpack the problem of racism, to dismantle it, and to re-imagine a society without it?”

In well-meaning efforts to improve that environment, many social service organizations focus on the sick fish, providing services, such as food and housing, for those at the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. While that’s necessary and well-intentioned, it’s merely “fish-fixing,” Hayes-Greene says. It doesn’t get to the real problem.

“Charity is an ineffective response to racism and injustice,” she says.

Coffey agrees. “Doing that isn’t a solution,” he says. “You’re always going to have to keep doing that. How do you move upstream to system change?”

Groundwater workshops are led by the Racial Equity Institute of Greensboro, N.C.The Groundwater program is one way to examine the systems and develop an analysis and a language to allow communities to speak about the problem in a cohesive way.

Before 2020, Groundwater was a half-day, in-person session led by Hayes-Greene and other trainers from the Racial Equity Institute.

In the pandemic year of 2020, moderators pivoted to offer the session virtually, which permitted them to offer more. Instead of the two sessions originally planned by GCF pre-pandemic, seven were offered.

They also offered six follow-up sessions called Phase I, which is a two-day workshop with fewer people that involves more interaction and presents a historical, cultural, and structural analysis of racism, and includes a discussion of implicit bias.

2020 was also the year that saw an outburst of energy and activism around racial equity following the death at the hands of Minneapolis police of George Floyd and in Louisville of Breonna Taylor.

“Last year changed everything,” Coffey says. “Now the racial justice and racial equity conversation is front and center.”

The intense focus on racial justice led to more businesses seeking out Groundwater training, he says. Among the organizations attending the training were Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, United Way of Greater Cincinnati, Curiosity Advertising, and University of Cincinnati.

Deena Hayes-GreeneGreater Cincinnati’s biggest private business, Kroger Co., has signed on as a program sponsor, Coffey says. Kroger also established a $5 million racial equity fund to assist communities of color and committed to having all of its employees receive diversity, equity, and inclusion training.

“We may have influenced that,” Coffey says.

With corporations prioritizing racial equity issues and with a vigorous public dialogue about it in process, Coffey hopes that more people, especially men, will be persuaded to take part in the training. People sometimes believe they don’t need to engage in such work, that their worldviews are sufficiently open-minded and diversified enough that they don’t need to spend the time and energy in what can be challenging issues.

Hayes-Greene believed the same thing about herself. Years ago, she had been invited to attend a similar workshop called “Undoing Racism,” sponsored by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, a New Orleans-based organization whose work REI has built on. She resisted the invitation. After all, she’s a black woman, active in her community, serves on the school board, and was a member of a human relations commission. She didn’t need it.

But a community elder persuaded her to attend. “It changed my life,” she says.

After that experience, she started organizing trainings, work that morphed into the Racial Equity Institute, which she co-founded. The Institute employs more than a dozen trainers who present a shared 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 the participants with facts and data to counter the assumptions, biases, and prejudices that often take over when it comes to thinking about race.

“One of the things we say is, an organized lie is more powerful and dangerous than a disorganized truth,” she says.

The Groundwater series is a way of organizing and communicating truths. Data is presented that reveals structural inequities. For example, African Americans are seven times more likely than whites to be incarcerated as adults, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. And African Americans are 3.7 times more likely to be suspended in elementary or high school, according to the Department of Education.

Among the data presented is information on historic income disparities.And it goes beyond data to offer a window into the experiences of others. “It’s not what I know, it’s my ability to hear and see other people,” she says. Some discomfort may come with that information and insight, and the trainers ask participants to be willing to experience that and get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

The Kroger Co. Foundation’s Sunny Reelhorn Parr says she experienced some of that discomfort during the workshop. “I felt like I had a decent understanding going in, but I learned quite a bit and fully immersed myself in the content. Overall, the experience really changed me and the way I approach my professional role in leading corporate philanthropy as well as personal conversations with neighbors in my community.”

Out of that discomfort comes enlightenment and change, organizers say.

In the year ahead, GCF will continue to offer opportunities to examine the depths of the racial struggle by presenting the Groundwater workshops, and its follow-up Phase I sessions.
Groundwater and Phase 1 session dates for 2021 are coming soon. Join the Racial Equity Matters, presented by bi3, email list to be notified about future sessions. For more information, visit www.gcfdn.org/REM.

This Special Report on Racial Equity Matters presented by bi3 has been made possible with support from Greater Cincinnati Foundation.
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'We want to keep the awakening alive'
'We want to keep the awakening alive'
Ellen Katz is president and CEO of Greater Cincinnati Foundation. The Groundwater and Phase 1 workshops and training are part of the Foundation's Racial Equity Matters presented by bi3 initiative.

Soapbox: How did Racial Equity Matters become a priority for the Foundation?
Ellen Katz: About five years ago, GCF identified racial equity as the superior growth strategy for our region. We recognized that it would be valuable to level-set our knowledge and our ability to talk about the issues. We also had been working with (Oakland, Calif.-based research institute) Policy Link, which was doing a study for us. One of their first conclusions was that our region doesn’t really talk about race. So there was a collective need to build our own capacity and the capacity of the community to talk about race.

Soapbox: How does racial equity in general matter for the region?
EK: Policy Link was able to identify that the GDP just of Hamilton County would be $9.9 billion greater if we close gaps in income across races. And if we eliminated racial disparities in employment nationally, by 2050, our economy would be $8 trillion larger.

There’s a lot of data that shows how expensive racial disparities are. And the inverse of that is how much potential there is in terms of economic growth if people, regardless of race or ethnicity, can participate in our economy rather than be marginalized or left out.

Soapbox: You've participated in Groundwater and Phase 1 training, what was the impact on you personally?
EK: It completely changed my life, my focus, my mission. It deepened the work that I’m doing and now the work that GCF is doing.

Soapbox: How so?
EK: Groundwater is kind of a data walk. All of the studies show disparities in every sector of our life – health, housing, employment. No matter what sector you look at, you see the same thing: whites on the top, blacks on the bottom, and everybody else in between.

Typically people ask: Isn’t that because people of color live in poverty? The Groundwater program dispels that myth and shows that regardless of educational attainment, regardless of socioeconomic status, it’s always the same in every sector. The data itself is very eye-opening. It made me want to learn more.

Soapbox: What is the follow-up Phase 1 workshop like?
EK: Phase 1 looks at the development of policy all the way back to 1619 and the settling of Jamestown, and how we built disparities into our policies, and how many policies were built with the intention of segregating blacks and whites, and of leaving blacks out of opportunities.

It was helpful to understand why things are they way that they are. That explanation creates compassion, quite frankly, and recognizing the burdens that people of color carry generation after generation. It was completely eye-opening to recognize that the inherent racism in systems is something that needs to be addressed.

Soapbox: Is change possible?
EK: It’s very challenging, obviously. The cake is baked, and it's very hard to take the ingredients out after they’re baked. But without change, we’ll just continue to see the same appalling statistics.

Soapbox: Did the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and others affect the program?
EK: Those were defining events that were a consequence of the things that we’re learning about in these programs. The intentional disparities that have been created result in tremendous injustice, and those incidents brought that back to the surface. They were very defining and catalyzing in terms of people’s desire to learn and change. We want to keep the awakening alive. We don’t want people to go back to sleep on these issues.

Soapbox: Are there any changes planned for 2021?
EK: There will be more Phase 1 sessions than in previous years. A lot of people have been through Groundwater, and there’s demand for Phase 1. We’re also going to work with organizations that want to experience Groundwater on their own. We will facilitate that. And we want to be strategic about recruitment for these programs. A more strategic orientation to who’s coming and more depth with the Phase 1 training.

Soapbox: Longer term, what kind of impact would you like to see?
EK: I feel that we as a region could set a national example. We’re small enough, we’re connected enough, we’re resourced enough, we’re smart enough. We have powerful institutions here that do so much for our region. If we really come together, the nation could be looking at us, and asking, how did that region figure out how to address and change systems so that people of color are more successful there?


Groundwater and Phase 1 dates for 2021 are coming soon. Join the GCF Racial Equity Matters, presented by b13 email list to be notified about future sessions. For more information, visit, www.gcfdn.org/REM.