In the wake of national anti-Black moves like this year’s Jan. 6 insurrection, voter suppression bills introduced in 47 states and attacks on Critical Race Theory, which some scholars deem to be attacks on Black history, perspectives and issues, enter the Race Equity Leadership and Research Collective, or RE-Collective for short.
This Black women-led, local organization seeks to develop young leaders able to take organizations beyond mere symbolic, anti-racist acts and towards substantive, liberating change for Blacks and other people of color.
Founded by Drs. Kenya Minott and Kim Baker, sisters originally from St. Louis, with public health research, social work, civic engagement and electoral work experience, the RE-Collective seeks to accomplish its goals by focusing on three areas (research, advocacy and leadership) and via their leadership development initiative, the Ukombozi Fellowship.
The RE-Collective is an opportunity to build a movement that is robust and not just on the stage of what it means to be an activist, but what it means to have research and leadership opportunities that are centered and led by Black, indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC). Over the last eight years there has been a surge of Black-led organizations, Black-led women organizations in the name of getting people more involved in civic participation and voter engagement. The RE-Collective adds to that movement because there has been a huge void in how research has been conducted and how it is talked about when it comes to our experiences. There are very few opportunities or few pipelines where people of color can be trained to lead in movement building. We want to expand those opportunities into organizations and other traditional spaces where they have not been able to bring their whole selves. (Dr. Kenya Minott, co-founder, board member)
So, the RE Collective is a collaboration of people from different areas. Our steering committee is very diverse. We have folks working on environmental justice, folks working on criminal justice reform and juvenile justice, folks working in maternal health and civic engagement and education. We’re really trying to think about all the different ways in which systemic racism has manifested itself and all the different ways in which we need to take charge and we need to center who we are and our experiences, if we’re really trying to be about creating an opportunity to not just be anti-racist, but to really liberate ourselves and liberate each other in this work. (Minott)
Most of the research that has been done in our communities has been done on us and not with us. Research in a sense is not only a way to retell our stories and to be the knowledge generator, the expert in our lived experiences, but we also know that research is the currency for investment. So, what does the data say? What’s the evidence? What are the facts? We wanted to make sure that as we embark upon this training of emerging leaders, they understood that the road to liberating our communities would be truth-telling, in a way that we can gain further investment in the strategies and the solutions that we know will get us to liberation. (Dr. Kim Baker, co-founder, board member)
In the professional world, being a Black woman and having an opinion in predominantly white spaces, often deems you as aggressive, as rude, and you don’t fit the culture because you don’t just sit down, shut up and let them run the show. I was tired of that. The RE-Collective really helps us to recreate what professionalism looks like. It helps us to have full agency over how we want to show up in spaces and gives us the strength to walk away from spaces. I’ve had to walk away from a job because my mental health wasn’t for sale. So, I feel like the RE-Collective gave me a space to be able to be passionate. It gave me a space to be able to be free and liberate myself by getting to know myself and how I wanted to show up as a Black woman that is passionate about this work. (Donisha Shepherd, steering committee liaison, board member)
There are still aspects of this work that we need to really unpack and think about and talk about. Because what we continue to see, and Donisha shared a little bit of her story, is these white-led organizations are still spaces where folks get harmed, whether they’re there to teach children in a classroom or help deliver babies or help write policy. Whatever it is that they’re there to do, in addition to being there doing what they feel like is their life’s work, they’re oftentimes the object of racial microaggressions. The purpose of the leadership component is to help teach skills that then will help people use what we call an anti-racist lens to be able to start to critically assess that and figure out “How do I talk about this? How do I talk about this with my colleagues? How do I talk about this with the communities where I work? What does service look like?” Service starts with really understanding what those skills are tools that allow me to become a leader. (Minott)
So many of our communities of colors and leaders of color have been tokenized in a way when they participate in efforts of change, dollars come into the community and they leave without any sustained effort and thought about investing in resources that are there, including the human resources. A major part of the RE-Collective is investment in the people that consider themselves emerging leaders in this work. (Baker)
LESSONS LEARNED THUS FAR
What has really been an eye opener as we have built out the RE-Collective and, and been having conversations with different people, certainly having conversations with this first cohort of fellows is there still remains this fear and doubt that BIPOC people can lead in these spaces. There still is this hesitation like “I can do this? This can be my idea? This can be something that we think of and that we create?” So, that’s one aspect. It’s esteem that’s built around and through this that is required of one who is going to lead in this work. We talk often about the impact of internalized racial oppression. And to be quite honest, even with those of us who have gone to college and have degrees, have done well for ourselves, there is still this hint of “I can do this, though? I can make this move? It can be totally my idea?” So, this leadership development piece is twofold. It’s really starting the liberation journey within and helping people to tell their story. And that is what true leadership really is about. It is modeling your vulnerability in showing others how to lean into this work so that they feel comfortable leaning into this work. (Minott)
I think that sometimes we take for granted, or we have these unrealistic expectations that just because we’re folks of color who have been the object of racial oppression, we then know how to navigate those systems to undo racial oppression. And those two things are not one in the same. We still need to be trained on how to do this. Even though we can speak from our personal experience, it doesn’t make us race equity (REI) experts. (Minott)
THE UKOMBOZI FELLOWSHIP PROGRAM
It’s a one-year program, beginning in late July with our first 18-member cohort that gives members the foundation of that race equity lens, that anti-racism lens to then lead in advocacy with research as a foundation. A space where we’re learning together and growing together, and being able to create this cycle so as participants graduate, they’ll circle back and help train and mentor the next group. The fellowship is really about being able to create space. A lot of times we are not really necessarily alone in this process, but it’s not many of us gravitating toward this anti-racism work. We meet a network of people that come together and are able to work together to not only communicate with each other and be able to share our stories and share our experiences in doing this work, but also to hold each other accountable in how we’re showing up in these spaces. But then also to provide mentorship for individuals who are wanting to seek more and how to do this work. And so being able to have those different age groups and that diversity in age and that diversity in culture and ethnicity, to be able to create a cultural humility aspect of how we all show up for each other, but how we also go out into the community and lead and show up there as well. (Shepherd)
The program will kick off the last week of July with what we’re referring to as their orientation week. It’ll be five days of intensive training that’s centered around how they start their personal journey. We won’t even get into white supremacy and that sort of thing until the next month. We want to really make this be about, “Who are you? How are you showing up? What is your story? Who hasn’t heard this right? Why haven’t you had an opportunity to really shape and contribute to the telling of your story in ways that are liberating for you?” So, that is the first week. It’s a hybrid week. Three days out the week, we will be face-to-face in a Third Ward venue. And then, other two days, Tuesday and Thursdays, they’ll be online via Zoom. Then, starting in August and thereafter, leading up to May 2022, they will convene twice a month. It’ll be a combination of training and also dialogue sessions and coaching. Support that they receive from folks that we have brought along with us on this journey to help make this come to fruition. (Minott)
We were trying to limit it. I think folks are wanting us to expand faster than we were ready to expand. But we definitely see the possibility for expansion and specifically to places that we already have strong networks. Our hometown St. Louis, Missouri, could definitely benefit. Las Vegas as well, and then wherever our cohort grows. So yes, we do have our eyes on a model of replication that we think would makes sense, but still keep the integrity of the program and training. (Baker)
ATTACKS ON CRITICAL RACE THEORY
Since the summer when we started seeing some early indications that this would spread to statewide strategy for a platform for GOP re-election cycle, even then we were saying, “There’s some legs here.” It’s all wrong and it’s all misinterpreted; so badly misinterpreted. And I think what we have the opportunity to do now, since it’s a topic of conversation, to talk about exactly what Critical Race Theory is and how folks are using it as a tool of misinformation, out of fear and control. And it’s the very reason why CRT exists. It is the irony of this whole conversation. I think the Ukombozi Fellowship and the work that we’re doing in general, even in our other work with Full Circle Strategies and helping organizations become anti-racist, I think it’s just a really good time to focus in on just exactly how we have to have a framework to analyze the social injustice around race and hierarchy and what that means for our systems. And then what that means and how that influences us as individuals, and that dynamic interaction and vice versa. I also think the more we can give people tools to combat the myths and misinformation, it will be helpful for the conversation to continue and to not pause. Right now, we don’t have policies all over the country where people can’t talk about things that we need to be analyzing and critiquing and learning history. I really think it’s opportunity for us to talk more about history. (Baker)