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