May 2, 2018, Detroit – More than 100 Adrian Dominican Sisters, Associates, and special guests continued their study of racism and white privilege during a workshop April 28 that focused on the social effects of institutional racism.
The group gathered at Samaritan Center in Detroit for the Great Lakes Dominican Mission Chapter’s extraordinary Spring Assembly, “Continuing the Conversation on Institutional Racism and White Privilege.” The event was organized by the Leaven Mission Group to continue the discussion on racism begun at the Fall Assembly in November 2017.
The workshop focused largely on the social effects – especially on people of color – of institutional racism, which in many ways sets up the system to give advantages in almost every area of life to white people over people of color. The emphasis was on institutional racism rather than the prejudice of individuals against people of other races.
In her keynote address, long-time community activist Maureen Taylor noted her intention to make the connection between racism and poverty. “Poverty is the cruelest form of violence, and I don’t care what your face looks like,” she said. “I’ve seen veterans have their water cut off. [But] color always matters in America because it has been the most successful tool to allow people to be mistreated.”
Ms. Taylor, Chair of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization since 1993, stressed the need for advocates of various issues – rights for women, African Americans, Hispanics, and people with same-sex attraction, for example – to work together for economic rights for all people.
The fight for equality “cannot be from the top down,” Ms. Taylor said. “We have to be the ones [who struggle] from the bottom up. There are certain things we have to insist on. Everybody need to have something to eat, water, and homes. We have to bring these rules from the bottom up.”
A panel of activists spoke about particular issues related to institutional racism. “I grew up in a time when there were two separate educational systems,” said Sharon Mills, a member of the Escalating Economic Inequality Taskforce and a tutor at Siena Literacy Center in Detroit. “The great divide was color."
Ms. Mills, who grew up in an African American section of Dayton, noted the substandard education she received in her first three years in public school – before her parents pulled her out and sent her to a nearby white school. “There were not enough textbooks for children to take home,” she recalled. “Both the elementary school and the high school were in disrepair. The playground was always muddy and littered.” She noted that children who are educated in substandard school systems might come to believe that they, themselves, are “substandard.”
Ms. Mills noted that today – when separate education for African Americans and white people is not legally permitted – the separation continues because of the way public schools are funded – by local property taxes. “Local districts in rich areas can afford more for their public schools,” she said. “The system is rigged and it’s rigged against people in poor districts where property taxes are low. … The implications of this are grim for black and brown children in high-poverty areas.”
Ms. Mills described this system as self-perpetuating: the housing situation “disproportionally keeps families of color in poorer districts,” where they receive “inadequate and unequal education.” This leads to low-paying jobs or unemployment, which leads to poorer housing situations – and inadequate education.
“If we are truly interested in equity and social justice, the funding formulas for public school districts must be changed,” Ms. Mills asserted. “I urge you today to consider this and advocate for reform on this issue. Time is running out and the stakes couldn’t be higher.”
Kim Redigan, a teacher at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School, focused on the water shut-offs in Detroit – and her own experience of growing up in a poor area and being considered “white trash.” White people in poverty “were collateral damage,” she said. “The powers that be don’t mind throwing poor white people under the bus to keep black people off the bus.”
As a member of the Meta Peace Team, formerly the Michigan Peace Team, Ms. Redigan said she had spent time in Palestine. “When I was in Palestine, what I came to understand is water is used as a weapon – globally. Here in Detroit water is used as a weapon. People lose their water and then their homes.”
She tied the plight of the people in Detroit to institutional racism. “The issue is not that people don’t get along personally,” she said, adding the issue is institutional, with disparities in education, housing, water, and other areas. She encouraged people do to their own internal work – to get past their denial of racism – but also to become active in addressing institutional racism. “We need to lean into our Catholic social teaching at this moment,” she added. “It brings us some good guidance” in the areas of social justice.
Rev. Barry Randolph, an entrepreneur and Episcopalian priest, spoke of the various ministries in his parish, Church of the Messiah, that respond to the needs of the local community. The church manages 213 units of affordable housing; provides free Internet to low-income families and individuals; and maintains services such as an employment office, a computer lab, an urban farm, and a bicycle repair shop. In addition, Rev. Randolph and his congregation have created businesses to employ the people in the local community.
“If you have an asset that you can use to help people, use that,” he said. “Stop asking God to do what you can do. We don’t have to ask God to lift people out of poverty. We’re not waiting on God. God is waiting on us. Anybody here who’s a child of God, if you believe a virgin had a baby, you can eradicate [racism and poverty].”
In a wrap-up session after an afternoon of small group discussions, panelists continued with motivational talk. Asked how to move from complacency to action, Ms. Taylor said, “Find your niche and work it until it turns – and keep working it.”
“You’ve all done wonderful things all along,” Rev. Randolph said. “Keep going. Take courage. Keep going. …You can make a difference in whatever state you’re in.”
Feature photo: Michelle Baines, Music Director for Corpus Christi Parish in Detroit, leads her choir and the assembly in singing the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Singing along in the background, from left, are Sisters Adrienne Schaffer, OP, Susan Van Baalen, OP, Virginia (Ginny) King, OP, and Ellen Schmitz, OP.
January 26, 2018, Detroit – Sister Mary Hemmen, OP, founder of two literacy centers based in Detroit, recently received a Distinguished Service Award from the city for her contributions to the community.
After being a traditional classroom teacher, Sister Mary turned to adult education when she founded Siena Literacy Center in Detroit in 1995. Building upon that success, she was also instrumental in founding All Saints Literacy Center, which opened in 2015 in a predominantly Hispanic section of Detroit.
“Sister Mary has been a champion for adult education for many years and has inspired numerous volunteers, tutors, and staff,” said Roger Frank, Director of All Saints. “All Saints Literacy Center is forever in debt to her for her work at the Center, and we continue to grow our program as one that has high standards that she set.”
Roger worked with members of the Board of Directors to obtain the Distinguished Service Award for Sister Mary. He contacted Raquel Castañeda-López, Council woman for All Saints’ district.
In his letter to the council, Roger wrote that Sister Mary “is a person who has given so much of her time and talent assisting Detroiters and has never sought any recognition. Sister Mary has worked tirelessly for the adults in Detroit who have struggles with literacy. Her work continues through the many volunteer tutors at Siena Literacy Center and All Saints Literacy Center.”
Although the Detroit City Council announced the award in November 2017, Sister Mary only recently received the certificate, just days before she died on January 25, 2018.
“I never stopped teaching,” she said in an interview after receiving the award. “Very often I worked with the learners.” She also served as mentor to the staff and on the Board of Directors.
Siena and All Saints are among the seven literacy centers sponsored by the Adrian Dominican Sisters. The centers offer free tutoring and other services to people who seek to improve their skills in the English language – either native English speakers or people in the English as a Second Language program.
Sister Mary noted that she “loved every minute” of her work in the two literacy centers, adding that the need for these services is increasing.
Donna Nesbitt, Executive Director of Siena Literacy Center said Sister Mary was a “champion of those in need of literacy skills necessary to improve their lives and the lives of their families.. She was tireless and tenacious in her efforts to secure funding, materials and supplies necessary to do this most important work.”
Mary Francis, former member of the Siena Literacy Center Advisory Board and Board of Directors, spoke of her delight in working with Sister Mary. “Sister Mary was no fuss, no drama, kind, and compassionate, a dedicated, professional educator who did her absolute best to ensure everyone felt welcome and respected… Many people's lives were changed as a result of Siena Literacy Center. Sister Mary believed in the power of education to reduce poverty and she believed in the city of Detroit. Thank God for her efforts.”
From left, Roger Frank, Director of All Saints Literacy Center; Sister Mary Hemmen, OP; and Chris Verklan, administrative assistant at All Saints Literacy Center in Detroit.