News: One Step at a Time

Program aims to help people 'unlearn' racism

 
Jymi Bolden


To end racism, people must first understand it, according to Jonathan Williams.



When Jonathan Williams crossed into the white side of the segregated housing complex where he grew up, he did more than aggravate his Caucasian neighbors. He also sparked a need within himself to stand up against oppression.

Today he is president of Best Foot Forward Enterprises, a company he hopes will help people "unlearn racism."

Typical diversity training, according to Williams, deals with the symptoms rather than the disease of racism.

"I use the analogy of dismantling a car," he says. "You cannot dismantle a car by talking about whether the painting is enamel or acrylic."

Racism, Williams says, is a phenomenon of power and control.

"It's basically the exercise of power and privilege over someone based on race," he says. "People were given privilege who looked European. Even if you're black and you look European, you get a little more privilege."

Typical diversity training, according to Williams, tries to explore all issues of diversity rather than focusing on what he believes is the core: race.

"(Race is) the cake. Diversity is the icing," he says. "(Race is) the stem cell upon which human and civil rights issues are measured."

Refusing to run anymore
When Williams was growing up in Charleston,

 
Jymi Bolden


To end racism, people must first understand it, according to Jonathan Williams.



When Jonathan Williams crossed into the white side of the segregated housing complex where he grew up, he did more than aggravate his Caucasian neighbors. He also sparked a need within himself to stand up against oppression.

Today he is president of Best Foot Forward Enterprises, a company he hopes will help people "unlearn racism."

Typical diversity training, according to Williams, deals with the symptoms rather than the disease of racism.

"I use the analogy of dismantling a car," he says. "You cannot dismantle a car by talking about whether the painting is enamel or acrylic."

Racism, Williams says, is a phenomenon of power and control.

"It's basically the exercise of power and privilege over someone based on race," he says. "People were given privilege who looked European. Even if you're black and you look European, you get a little more privilege."

Typical diversity training, according to Williams, tries to explore all issues of diversity rather than focusing on what he believes is the core: race.

"(Race is) the cake. Diversity is the icing," he says. "(Race is) the stem cell upon which human and civil rights issues are measured."

Refusing to run anymore
When Williams was growing up in Charleston, W.Va. in the early 1960s, he lived with his grandparents in a government housing complex where segregation was still legal.

"There was a white side and there was a colored side," he says.

He remembers being told in the first grade at school not to go to the white side.

"The quickest way to get to our school was through the white side," he says.

Black students often gathered their books and ran across the white side.

"There would be some older white males than me either lurking to chase us or from a distance they were scowling at us," Williams says.

One day Williams was walking with students who decided not to run through the white side. They took their time and walked.

"That was really the genesis of my advocacy, understanding that I had a right to be in comfort — and a state of flight was not comfortable to me, especially not where I live," he says.

Williams says his grandparents had a lasting influence on him.

"They talked to me back in the '50s and '60s about what they went through back in the '20s and '30s and '40s," he says. "They ushered me as a young child through this notion of being black — what it would mean to be black and what I could expect."

When his grandmother was graduated from high school with high grades in 1934, she could not go to nearby Marshall College, an all-white school. Rather than leave her mother, sick with cancer, to attend a black college, she skipped college altogether. When Williams was graduated from high school in 1972, Marshall, then integrated, recruited him to play football.

"The proudest moment of my life was handing her my diploma in 1976," Williams says. "One of the things that my grandmother used to say every day before I went to school was to 'Put your best foot forward.' "

Williams says he experienced employment and housing discrimination as a young adult.

"I was going into the neighborhoods where there were no black folks in Huntington," he says.

Landlords told him they were reluctant to rent to him because of his age, but Williams believed race was what kept him out.

"I put together what was called The Afro-Appalachian Journal in my frustration," he says.

The journal collected, organized and disseminated information about people of color in Appalachia.

Williams worked for community action agencies and eventually ended up in Cincinnati. After the reorganization of one agency, he lost his job and ended up living in his car for seven months, surviving by selling newspapers.

During that time he had contact with a lot of police officers, who would ask him to move when they found him asleep in his car.

In 1990, the Hate Crimes Statistics Act passed, and Williams did some research for a man who asked him for information. Williams apparently handled the job well.

"I'll never forget that this guy told me that I would be doing work in this area," Williams says.

He went on to investigate housing related hate crimes as a fair housing advocate.

Teaching police officers
In 1991 Williams helped organize a conference on hate crimes and ethnic intimidation, inviting several police chiefs. In 1996 he started the Community/Police Relations Round Table, which held meetings with police chiefs and neighborhood organizations, with committees on housing, youth, data gathering, mental health, communications and training.

The response to the round table prompted Williams to start Best Foot Forward.

"I was encouraged by chiefs of police to rejuvenate the energy and activities we had done in the '90s and kind of upgrade it," he says. "This is not your father's diversity training."

In the past, race has been mixed into one huge pot of diversity, according to Williams.

"It's the meat of the stew, but people aren't treating it that way," he says. "Race is the basis on which diversity training should be built."

Williams believes education about ethnicity, religion, culture and race are important, as they are subsets of the human race.

Best Foot Forward will present "Reaching to Achieve Community Excellence in Public Safety" June 6 and 7 at the Forest Park Activity Center.

The goal is to "benefit all safety service executives and supervisors whose employees are responsible for split-second, life or death decisions on a daily basis."

Williams says the training is for police chiefs, command staff, safety directors, captains, lieutenants and sergeants.

A diverse group of speakers will present information on how to respond to people of different races and cultures. Williams says he wants to train safety personnel on cultural nuances involved in approaching people. He hopes to build a network of people from varied backgrounds who can assist safety service personnel in emergencies.

Best Foot Forward hopes to help people "unlearn racism" by educating them on the construct of race, including how it got started.

People who complete the training will have an opportunity to receive certification through the National Association of Human Rights Workers.

Forest Park Police Chief Ken Hughes met Williams through the Police/Community Relations Round Table.

"He was instrumental in creating the Community/Police Round Table and it had some value," Hughes says.

Hughes believes such programs expose officers to cultural and ethnic issues they might not necessarily be familiar with, making them better able to serve the needs of all community members.

"I hope that civic officials, municipal leadership, will take away from (the training) that race matters in how people relate to one another and how we treat each other," Williams says. ©

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