Guest speakers at the UW’s “Why Race & Place?” forum March 15 included (l-r) Dr. Lisa Brock, Dr. Townsand Price-Spratlen, Dr. Becky Martinez, Kaleem Caire, Colleen Butler, and Everett Mitchell.
The Multicultural Student Center (MSC) and Institute for Justice Education and Transformation (IJET) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison held their annual spring symposium "Race &..." at the Pyle Center on campus March 14-15.
Fifteen scholars, professors, practitioners, and experts from the Madison community and beyond in multiple disciplines and fields presented topics on the intersections between race and various places. The two-day symposium serves as a capstone to IJET's 2012-13 programming around "Race & Place: Movement, Space, Land, and Power” and is held to encourage dialogue and action around racial identity and other social justice issues.
“In our conversation about race and place, this event is our capstone event,” said Donte Hilliard, director of the Multicultural Student Center. “My idea for today was to have several of our guests who are here with us today to offer their own reflections around the relevancy of the theme from where they sit in their social location, their work, their research agenda, and their activism.”
Guests at the “Opening Plenary: Why Race & Place?” forum on March 15 in the Alumni Lounge of the Pyle Center included Dr. Lisa Brock, Dr. Townsand Price-Spratlen, Dr. Becky Martinez, Kaleem Caire, Everett Mitchell, and Colleen Butler.
Dr. Lisa Brock, the academic director of the Kalamazoo College’s Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership, said that she calls herself a “back-to-the-future” historian. “I try to look to the past to better understand the present so that we can make a better, more-just future,” she told the crowd. “I try to see the world in a global perspective. I think by having a broader lens that we can see connections that often those in power would try to deny us.”
Brock’s current research involves studying radical black dockworkers in Charleston, South Carolina, in the mid-19th century. She has connected that research to her teaching on Apartheid South Africa which she has connected to her frustration with the current United States immigration debate. “Interestingly, across these places, spaces, and times — that is, Apartheid South Africa, 19th-century Charleston, and today’s immigration discussion — I’ve found some interesting sets of parallels. In all three, the economic desire for a super-exploitable labor source, which is driven to maximize profits, requires that this sector of black and brown workers are denied their basic human and citizenship rights in places where they live, have families, and have to work.”
In all of these cases, she continued, the power structures desperately want and need the black and brown people in order to maintain their societies. “So, they desire them on the one hand, and set up structures of hate on the other hand,” she says. “It’s this interesting space between desire and exploitation that I will talk about later today in which workers must be tagged, regulated, policed, and marked.”
Dr. Townsand Price-Spratlen, a professor of sociology at Ohio State University, focuses his research on community capacity building and is interested in both historical and contemporary expressions of the ways in which individuals, collectives, and communities come together to nurture and maximize assets to enhance outcomes.
“When justice has a location…. What does it look like? When justice has a pattern …. What does it appear as? When justice is a strategy…. What do people do?” he asked. “Race is a social construction with very real consequences. They interact to shape life outcomes in profound ways.”
Nobody locks up its folks like the United States does, Price-Spratlen continued, and there is worth in exploring place-related differences in incarceration.
“African American incarceration [rates] are 7 times that of whites nationally; the Latino rate is about three times that of whites,” he said. “When you look more closely at this state that we are in, the disparities are magnified. In the state of Wisconsin, that [black incarceration rate] number is 12 to 1. So, place matters. Dane County — where we are sitting and standing right now — looking at drug arrests … that comparable percentage is 97 to 1. Ninety seven to one. Place matters a lot. Race and place matter. They inform life outcomes in profound ways.”
Colleen Butler, the racial justice director at the YWCA-Madison, has an extensive background in having conversations around race with people in the community. “What I’ve discovered is that you just can’t talk about race in Madison. Just talking about it is like creating the problem,” Butler said. “When I think about Race & Place, I think about my own experiences in Madison. I love Madison. I love the farmers’ markets, the concerts on the square, the parks, and all that. “
While Butler loves Madison, she soon began to hear stories from people whose experiences in Madison were wildly different from the Madison she knew. “It became clear to me that you could live as a white person in Madison and not know about a huge amount of what is happening here. It’s super-easy as a white person in Madison to not know a lot of stuff,” Butler said.
When she started at the YWCA, Butler was a housing counselor and her duties were to find housing for all of the homeless families in Dane County’s shelter system. She had a mostly — 80 percent — African American clientele.
“What I experienced was that I could have a family with a ton of history in Dane County — felony convictions, evictions, bad credit — and if they were white they could find some private landlord who would give them a second chance,” Butler remembered. “And I could work with a woman who was African American who relocated to Madison — young, nothing bad on her record — and people would screen her out. Nobody would even give her a first chance let alone a second chance.
“It started to become very clear to me that the two Madisons co-exist. One that knows nothing of the other and the other that knows everything about the main community,” she added. “This is what fueled my interest in racial justice. Race keeps us in our place in Madison. Everything that is here is set up for me [as a white person] and I benefit from that regularly. When I always hear that Madison is the best place to live, I always think, ‘For whom?’”
Everett Mitchell took Madison’s black churches to task in his speech and asked them to be acceptable of everybody. He said that when he thinks of race and place, he thinks of place. “Why isn’t there a place in Madison for black churches to say to members of our community that regardless of your sexual orientation — guess what — you have a place to still be able to worship God,” he said.
Mitchell is the University of Wisconsin-Madison's director of community relations and also serves as pastor at Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church on the east side of Madison.
“There’s a sense of hypocrisy in that I can go out and fight for racial freedom and I can call white reality bad and unjust, but behind the closed doors of the church I can call homosexuals derogatory names,” he said. “I started to think that if we’re going to talk about race and place, we need to talk about places not only where white people have control over, but where black people have control over, too. There are places that we have control over where we don’t always create the space in our places for people to truly be free. I realized that if we’re going to have a full discussion, we need to bring everybody to the table.”
Mitchell said that he wants his congregation to always have an open mind. “I often remind my congregation — because we are a congregation in movement — that I can’t understand how they are so comfortable with creating a space for men and women who may have been incarcerated. They are comfortable creating space for pimps …. comfortable with brothers and sisters who are actively selling cocaine to our community,” he said. “How can you create space for those individuals — but somebody who is gay, you can’t create that space? That’s insane to me…. And it’s unbalanced and it’s unjust.”
Later that day, the conference broke off into workshops and sessions, many of them led by the morning forum speakers. The previous night, Monica White, assistant professor of environmental justice at UW-Madison's Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and Department of Community and Environmental Sociology, kicked off the symposium with a public lecture titled "Reclamation, Reconnection, and Resistance: Black Farmers, Food Security and Justice." White documented the history of black farmers' collectives, cooperatives, and experiences in the Midwest, and how grassroots organizations and communities of color engage in developing sustainable community food systems in response to issues of hunger and food inaccessibility.