This past October, our entire team of nearly 100 people from across the United States and Israel embarked on a journey to Alabama.
Together, we traveled to Birmingham and Montgomery, places that saw some of the worst injustices in American history and yet also gave rise to the Civil Rights Movement. Among other stops, we visited the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum, which tells the story of racial inequity and corruption in our criminal justice system, as well as the National Memorial For Peace and Justice, a powerful testament to countless African-Americans lynched and terrorized throughout our nation’s history.
I watched and listened as our team processed what we were learning: the connection between slavery and mass incarceration today; the understanding that much of this story remains unwritten in our history books; the recognition that systemic racism undergirds almost every facet of our society.
While I knew this journey would be powerful, the decision to take 100 professionals away from their offices and onto tour buses was not easy. Not only did it mean justifying the resources and staff time; it also involved taking a risk in asking team members of different backgrounds and knowledge bases to be open in experiencing this together.
So why did we do it? Because I believe that to be effective in building a more equitable and just society, we have a responsibility to learn about our country’s legacy of systemic racism and the impact it continues to have today.
Just over a year ago, our Foundation codified equity as one of our core values. For us, equity means creating a society that is more just, inclusive and respectful of all people. We have been intentional in how we center equity in our work in K12 education, the Jewish community, Israel, Tulsa and, more recently, emerging investments in criminal justice and women’s rights and reproductive health.
Our journey to Alabama focused on racial equity, in particular, an issue with which our professionals have varied degrees of connection. For some, it is an inextricable part of their personal story and family history. For others, it was a distant concept until they began learning and preparing for this journey. For me, it was not until Teach For America arrived in Tulsa 10 years ago that I truly began to comprehend how a student’s access to a quality education is determined by their race or zip code.
The more I learned, the more I understood that structural racism underpins almost every issue of importance in today’s society. For our staff and anyone working for social change, I believe that an awareness of these realities and a commitment to reversing these patterns need to inform and guide our work.
I believe we have a responsibility to learn about the deep-rooted systemic oppression of Black people in our country. We have a responsibility to understand how the problems we are working to address are inextricably linked to historic and current policies, practices and systems that marginalize communities of color. And we have a responsibility to listen to people’s stories, to learn their histories and to see their experiences and perspectives in a way that challenges our own understanding of the world.
In Jewish tradition, there is a story about a group of rabbis sitting and talking together. One asks, “Which is greater, study or action?” The rabbis conclude, “Study is greater, because it leads to action.”
Our journey was an investment in an opportunity for our staff to study, to feel better prepared for their roles and to be more authentic, informed partners in our work. Our post-journey survey indicated that staff feel more comfortable engaging in conversations related to racism and racial equity—an important starting point.
I also believe it helped them build stronger relationships with each other. To center equity in our work at the Foundation, we need to center equity in our culture. By bringing everyone together for this learning experience, our team was able to share their own histories and stories, to build trust and hold space for each other, and to develop strong bonds across diverse backgrounds, faiths, perspectives, orientations and geographic locations. I am encouraged that we created a strong starting point to continue this culture-building work.
For those of us committed to building a more equitable society, it is important to create space to explore equity as a central value. We need to examine all the ways systems in this country have been built to protect power and privilege for some at the expense of others. And we need to recognize that there is no neutral when it comes to racism. You are either actively working against it or you are actively or passively supporting it.
While our Foundation is still at the beginning of this journey, I believe that by investing in bringing our team to Alabama, we are better positioned to authentically live out our values and take action in support of the individuals and communities we serve. As we honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., this month, there is no better time to reflect on and continue to commit ourselves to the work of racial equity.
Stacy Schusterman is Chair of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.