Roger Fisher, Associate Director of The Program on Intergroup Relations at the University of Michigan, shared advice for people who are beginning work in classroom or community antiracism, along with his post-election fears, hopes, and the challenges he sees ahead. Click here to view Roger's complete interview.
Working against racism can be exhausting, discouraging, downright depressing. Disillusionment and burnout tear down the spirit of community leaders and others who try to repair the racist effect of The Proud Boys, segregated neighborhoods, abusive police and courts, entrenched poverty, under-resourced schools, low-wage jobs with no benefits, hungry families, healthcare gaps that discriminate and kill, and more. The enormity of the suffering and the complexity of racism are sometimes overwhelming. How does anyone keep going?
Roger Fisher has a strategy. As the Associate Director of The Program on Intergroup Relations (IGR) at the University of Michigan, he teaches teachers, students and the community to understand their own racial identities, and grow their ability to listen, empathize, value difference and resist racism. If he were in the tech industry, they would call him a “disrupter,” one who upends systems to create change. The system we are talking about is racism.
But what is his strategy that helps him personally face the enormity of racism day after day? In a December, 2020 interview, he told me that he starts every day with a personal challenge: How many more antiracist allies, “more co-conspirators, more advocates, more co-resisters” can he gain today? That intention is his way of dealing with the huge task of being an antiracist educator in the face of a culture that is, at best, colorblind, but often much worse.
Roger encourages all people—he naturally talks in terms of teachers, but not exclusively-- to identify their “sphere of influence.” He asks, “What are you able to do, what impact can you make in the sphere that you are a significant contributor towards?” For teachers, it is their classroom. For me and many others, it might be in our families, friends, neighborhoods, churches, city hall, even the voting booth.
Roger advises people to start small and specific, to “think about ways they don’t perpetuate or support oppressive language, oppressive behavior, limited or narrow thinking about the constructs we typically accept as true and don’t challenge. They can certainly start to push back against those things if they are racist either in their origin or impact.” For example, I find even mildly objecting to people’s race or class jokes starts to disrupt the stereotypes.
“For me,” says Roger, “it is easier and it produces more hope to feel like I’m interrupting oppression by getting others to recognize and then make a decision to also participate in interrupting that oppression.”
Roger shows people how to make their daily lives an antiracist tool in our society. He admits the challenges but also the critical importance of taking an empathetic antiracist approach. He says, “If we can’t begin the conversation with an affirmation of the dignity of all parties involved and the right of all parties involved to participate, it’s hard to find some place of healthy resolution.”
That healthy resolution is his life’s goal and the mission of IGR. Roger will consult with community groups, including teachers at all levels. You can reach him at email@example.com. Watch the complete interview with Roger (above) and then see the follow-up article (below) about his take on the challenges we face in this time of heightened polarization, yet how he still manages to be a disrupter every morning, every day.
There is no time like the present, they say, and it seems to be Kirsten Suer’s mantra. A devoted parent, she treasures her time with her children (ages 4 and 8) while they are young. But she also believes that now is the time for her own contributions to social change. Kirsten has an uncommon gift: the ability to reframe her two potential young interruptions as discipline, motivation, and numerous little opportunities for an antiracist day, every day, right there in Ferndale, Michigan, just over the Eight Mile Road border with Detroit.
“How? When?” ask other harried adults. Kirsten notes that the hard work needs to happen well before that challenging racial moment—a child’s loud question about skin color, a neighbor’s derogatory comment about a person of color, a horrific encounter between police and civilians.
Kirsten believes that to be ready to rise to the difficult conversation, White people particularly need to do their homework and practice dismantling the racism now: “Emotions are coming up fast. We have to have had some time to think about what [empathy, community] looks like. It is often about developing a script about the hard things.” She believes that homework begins in “small things everyday.” From this kind of practice, we can “find moments of joy, a little progress, a small conversation that went well.”
Busy with kids, Kirsten disciplines herself to find the small corners in the day to learn and grow personally or, basically, social change will never happen. Drawing on her background in early childhood education, she finds children’s books that give her, she confesses, practice in talking to the kids on their level. Another example: she explores other kinds of cooking because, as she said, her cookbook shelf was very White. (“This has got to change!”).
Kirsten believes, “It’s not enough to just tell my children that racism is wrong. I also need to show them.” So, she finds the playground moments with other parents to say in her open, inviting way, “You know, I was reading about … I say, ‘I’m struggling with this. What do you do?’ The small things…”
Being the editor of the newsletter for Conversations on Race (ConR) is also a right-sized strategy for her. ConR is a two-year-old, unaffiliated, antiracist group in the Detroit area that works for racial equity by building interracial relationships through monthly conversations and story-sharing. Having been alert to opportunities to continue some wonderful antiracist college experiences, Kirsten says that editing the ConR newsletter fits well into her life right now.
To her, the editing is “a way to feel productive, use her skills as an English major, and help build a place for people “to learn about each other outside the meetings.” She sees the newsletter as way to answer the question, “How do we give space for people’s voices? The newsletter can become a place where we can hear others’ voices with more clarity. It is building a stronger sense of community.”
She wants readers to ask, “What does it look like to do small things every day? We need to support each other in doing the small things every day. Community builds accountability to keep the momentum going. I don’t want to lose the momentum” for racial change that our society has gained in the last year. “I worry about forgetting to lead with empathy. If you don’t lead with empathy, the conversation is much shorter” and incomplete.
Kirsten argues, it’s always about looking for where you can personally have an impact. She recommends asking, “What is your niche? Small things prepare you for the big things.” But where should people start? She looks at “my background, where my passion is. I need to know who the other people are. I’m going to start with what my life contains.”
Right now. Beginning now with the little things.
To receive the Conversations on Race newsletter, email Kirsten at firstname.lastname@example.org.