In this episode, Risha discusses systemic racism in government with DeVon Douglass, former Chief Resilience Officer for the City of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Douglass currently runs a consulting firm called Aurora Advising, and they do community engagement, racial equity, strategic planning, and policy development consulting.
All of this and more in this episode of Risha Talks.
[MUSIC PLAYING] Welcome to Risha Talks. Today we continue our conversation on systemic racism. This time we’re talking about government. And people, that’s where we make real change. Tulsa, I think this guest is going to be familiar to a lot of you. We have with us DeVon Douglass, who is the former chief resilience officer for the city of Tulsa. DeVon, thank you so much for being here.
Thank you for having me, Risha. I’m excited to be here.
[LAUGHS] I’m glad. So tell us a little bit about what it is that you really do.
Yeah. So I currently run a consulting firm called Aurora Advising, and we do community engagement, racial equity, strategic planning, and policy development consulting. I work with governments, nonprofits, and corporations who really want to move away from just saying that they care about community and who are serious about creating relationships with their community, whether those people in the community are internal, like employees and board members, or external, like residents and citizens or people who use their product.
Why do you think people are so interested in moving forward all of a sudden?
Well, I think that one of the biggest things is, actually, because we’re mostly on lockdown for COVID-19. People normally, in their day to day (push through), pay more attention to things like rush hour traffic or getting kids from ballet to football practice. But now, when you are stuck and you are constantly on the internet and social media and it’s coming at you, people who normally could check out and not pay attention are now having to see the world through the eyes of our most marginalized people.
Very true. So let’s get to what we’re talking about– systemic racism and government. And you have a lot of experience with that.
Can you tell us how you see that manifesting itself in government?
Yeah. So racism, of course, shows up everywhere. It’s pervasive because it’s systemic, and furthermore, it’s systematic. So I feel confident speaking about this topic because I worked at city, county, state, and federal government, and you see it everywhere. There are a few ways that racism shows up in government.
One of them is in a very physical way. For example, the disenfranchisement of voters by shutting down polling locations in predominantly Black, brown, and Indigenous communities. We saw this play out in Georgia, most recently in the 2020 primary but also the disenfranchisement of voters during the 2018 gubernatorial election. We saw it in Kentucky. And while there may not be on the surface a racist animus, what ends up happening is when these things are applied, when these policies are applied, we know that it disproportionately impacts those who are Black and brown. And so that’s one way that racism shows up.
Another way it shows up is by silencing people, creating extra red tape when Black and brown folks want to show up and participate in the political process, maybe during city council meetings, giving people time limits on certain issues. And another way that’s, to me, more insidious but less obvious is this idea that’s been created recently in the media that we have to hear both sides. And I get our desire to hear both sides. Well, when one side says that I just want to live, and the other side says, you don’t deserve humanity, you don’t deserve to live, do we need to hear both sides of that? And we see that time and time again.
Furthermore, another way that racism shows up in government is representation, not just by our elected officials but by the people they choose to appoint. If you run a city or a county that has, let’s say, I don’t know, 20% African-American, 20% Latinx, and your government officials that are in leadership don’t reflect that– let’s say, for example, that, including your sworn departments, you only have something like 5% of Black folks in leadership in your city government, then that says something. That says something about your leadership, whoever the elected official is, and it says something about the respect you have and the care and concern you have for the people who live in your city or county.
So you mentioned two things there early on. You said it’s systematic and systemic. What’s the difference? Let’s school the people.
Yes. So systemic means it is pervasive throughout the system. It’s also how it was built, right? So that differs from systematic in that that is something that you do day in and day out. So my favorite example of the word systematic is from my all-time favorite movie, The Color Purple.
When the two sisters are hanging up their laundry, and the younger sister, who understands the definition, explains that systematic is a way of doing things. You do it the same way over and over again. You hang up the sheets first, and you put the socks in the cracks.
Similarly, a systematic way of doing something with a racist animus in government looks like not having any leadership in place and then saying, oh, well you need to get a mentor, and that mentor needs to choose you. But folks are less likely to choose people who don’t look like them, right? They’re less likely to choose people whose names are more difficult to pronounce because that’s just hard for them, right? And so these things become built into the system. They’re systemic.
And then systematic choices, policies that are made, policies that we choose to push. For example, truancy rules in the city of Tulsa. Choosing to say that the fault is that of lazy parents and parents that just don’t love their kids and then making policies based on that that, again, affect Black and brown people. This is systematic. It’s something that happens the same way over and over and over again. We’re putting those socks in the cracks. We’re doing it. We have a system, but the system doesn’t benefit those who are not white and male and cisgender.
I love Color Purple examples, just so you know.
Yes. It’s my favorite movie.
We could go all day with that.
Yes. Yes. “Until you do right by me.” Yes. Absolutely.
OK. So do you think it is– because, to me, this stuff is so simple to a lot of us. Do you think people don’t get it because they don’t want to, they truly don’t care, or that they honestly need to be to be educated on what needs– what we need to be doing to make– create equity for everybody?
The way I think about it is like learning a language. If somebody walks up to me and starts speaking in Russian and then folks around me question why is she not communicating with the person who’s talking to her, it’s not because– I may not want to talk to that person for whatever the reason may be, but we can’t know that if I don’t speak the language, right?
I think that there are some of us who are fluent in racial equity conversation. Risha, you are absolutely fluent in these conversation. I am fluent in these conversations, but there are other people who maybe only know a few of the catch phrases. Like, for example I don’t speak fluent Spanish, but I know hola. I know cómo estás. I know cómo se dice, right? Those are the very few phrases that I know. Some people know equity versus equality. They know that racism is prejudice plus power. People have got that down, right?
But it seems like a lot. It’s overwhelming. I don’t know how many of your viewers or you have tried to learn another language, but it’s difficult to learn another language, especially if you are not immersed in it. And so people who have the ability to tap out of conversations about racism in government or racism in education or racism in the church, they’re able to do that because they have the privilege to tap out of it.
And then there are people who really want to know, but they don’t know where to start. I really want to learn how to speak Spanish, but where do I begin? Is Duolingo enough? Should I just move to Mexico to learn how to speak Spanish? There’s all these different options, and it can be confusing. So I think that there is a desire for many people who don’t know where to begin.
And then, obviously, there are people at the complete other end of the spectrum that are willfully ignorant. They choose to be willfully ignorant. The resources are there. There are people who are trying to help them along. They have friends, family coworkers who are trying to bring them along, and they’re deciding over and over and over again to ignore the plight of their friends and neighbors, their colleagues, and their kids’ teachers, so on and so forth. They’re choosing to take a blind eye to what is going on in our country.
So what do you say to people that say, OK, but everything is a thing? I can’t keep up. I’m tired. I’m not going to get it right. No matter what I say, I’m going to be wrong. What do we say to those people? Because they’re exasperated as well. Because, generally, I think they have a good heart. They’re just like, no matter what I do, it’s going to be wrong.
Yeah. I think there are spaces for that. I’m one of those people who believe that we should give people space to change. I want people to change, and so we can’t fault them when years later, they’ve changed, and we say, oh, but 10 years ago, you used to do this thing. So I think that there is a larger conversation that needs to happen around how we respond to people evolving, right?
But I also believe that there are spaces for that. Say, for example, we’re talking about white people who want to know more, and they feel exasperated, and they feel exhausted by conversations about racism and race. There are rooms for that.
For example, there is a bookstore in Tulsa, Oklahoma, called Fulton Street Books, and they’ve created a limited subscription box called The Ally Box where you get these books. And then people will speak– I’m one of the people who will be speaking at the end of this month– to help people better understand. It’s a safe space. There’s not going to be any rude responses. It’s a place where there’s no stupid question, all of that.
And I also say to people, look, it is really hard to enter into a new space and to be– you’re trying something new, and people keep calling you you’re doing it wrong. But just imagine how it feels to be the marginalized group who’s been fighting for this since they came out the womb. Before my parents knew I was going to be a girl, before they knew I was going to be a lawyer, before they knew I was going to be a member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Incorporated, they knew that I was going to be Black. And I have had to deal with my Blackness living in the United States of America for 31 and 1/2 years, and I will continue to do so. That’s not going to change about me.
Again, people have the ability to tap out. They absolutely do, but all of us don’t have that privilege. All of us don’t get the option to say, I’m really tired of hearing about Black Lives Matter. I don’t want to talk about it anymore. When I exit my front door, I have to deal with it. You exit your front door. You have to deal with it. There there’s no turning off this black skin. I wouldn’t want to because being a Black girl is dope, and Black girls are magic. But it is something that we don’t turn off. And so to those people that get tired, I say take a break if you need to. I see your humanity. I see that you get tired. But tap back in because we need people to fully engage. We need people to fully understand you’re not going to get it all at once.
One of the things my mother says to me when you’re trying to teach people new things and when you’re trying to learn new things is we plant seeds, not trees. I can’t expect someone who is just now learning and understanding and really developing and wrapping their mind around police brutality and systemic racism– I can’t expect them to get all of the things in one day. So you plant seeds, and you water it, and you let it grow and give it space to grow. And eventually, it’s going to be a tall oak tree. We’re going to be able to sit underneath that shade on a hot day, but for now, it’s just a little baby seed, and we have to give it time to grow. We have to give it time.
I love that. I love that. And I think we’re going to have to show people a lot of grace–
Yes. –as we move through this. So, as you know, everybody’s having the conversation, which is great. And for some people, as you just said, that’s a new conversation. But for Black folks and people of color, we’ve had this conversation since we were born. We want action. So what is it that can be done in government to overcome systemic racism?
Whew. That’s a short question with a long answer.
Give me a few– give me a couple of examples of what that looks like because I want to provide people with things to think about or recommendations. We can talk about it, but what do they need to do so we can be able to move through this?
Yes. So the first thing is– I have to get this out of the way because I know that this is what everybody says. So vote, right? Vote but not just vote for anybody. Make sure that the person who you’re voting for has a platform that speaks to the needs and desires of Black, Indigenous, brown, all people of color in your community. And talk to the people in your community that hold those identities, and ask them, is this just lip service, or is this the real deal? I would not recommend just walking up to a random Black person and doing that. I would make sure that you ask these questions of people that you’re living in community with. And so voting, that’s baseline stuff.
The next thing is, once an elected official or an appointed official is in office, follow up with them. They hear a lot around election season, but once things kind of die down, they don’t hear a lot. And so we need to have people saying, hey, on the campaign trail, you mentioned something about eliminating food deserts, you said something about the life expectancy gap being important to you. What have you done, and what do you intend to do in the next three months, nine months, year, two years? Give them the ability to set out an actual plan, and don’t wiggle room on it. Make sure that you’re holding them accountable to those metrics.
The other thing I would say people who are actually in positions of power, people who can change these systems– one of the things that I talk to my clients about doing is going through and doing a– what’s the best word for it?– doing a scan of your policies and procedures and practices because some of the things that we have in our policies, procedures, our statutes, we may think that they’re being helpful, but in fact, they’re harmful disproportionately to Black folks and other people of color.
An example of this that’s not based on race but based on gender is in the book Evicted. It talks about a city in Wisconsin that created a new rule so that if you call the police too many times, your landlords have more of a justification to evict you, right? And so what these women started doing was they were having to choose, if they were in an abusive relationship, do I choose to call the police and handle this abusive relationship situation, or do I just kind of let it slide because I don’t want to be evicted? And I got my babies with me.
And what they saw was that the rate of interrelationship and intimate partner violence went through the roof, and the deaths of these women went through the roof. The policy was not written to create more death, right? But because of the decisions that people have to make in real time, it had the impact of women in their city dying, leaving children without mothers or any parents in some cases.
And so, likewise, some of our policies may on the surface look like they’re doing the right thing, but after you do a scan of how they impact people in your community, you’ll find that those types of things impact Black people, brown people, or people in poverty disproportionately, like the truancy rules that the city of Tulsa was looking at previously. So I think that that’s a big thing that governments can do. Look at what you’re doing, and see where you could possibly be creating harm.
The whole purpose of this country– we’re supposed to be creating a more perfect union. We’re not going to get it right every time, but we go back to the drawing board and we look to see how can we fix this? Would I love to tear down the entire thing and just rebuild it the way– in my image and the way I would like for it to be done? Absolutely. I think we all would, right? We all want it to look best for us, but that’s not how this works. We don’t live in a dictatorship yet. We live in a democracy. [? She said, ?] whoo. We live in a democracy mostly.
And so what we need to make sure is that we’re holding those elected officials and those appointed officials accountable, that we aren’t letting them equivocate and move around and wiggle around on the things that they promised us. And then we make sure that our policies are actually doing what we intend them to do, and they don’t have these unintended consequences that disproportionately affects Black and brown folks. So those would be a few of the things that I would suggest to eliminate racism, to eliminate the impacts of racism. And I’m always going to say, hey, give us reparations period. That’s always something you could do. Pay me.
And in that order, yes.
In that order, yes.
Girl, thank you so much for your time, for your knowledge. I think that was really helpful, and be interesting to see what feedback we get on this. I appreciate it.
Thanks for watching another episode of Risha Talks. Remember, go vote. Research your elected officials, and don’t be afraid to learn the new language of anti-racism. This is Risha Grant with Channel 2 Works For You.