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Mindful : June 2016
as likely as whites to live in poverty, and eight times more likely to be murdered. African-Amer- ican youth are arrested in such outsized numbers that, in 2011, the US Justice Department accused the city of “discriminatory policing.” Following Katrina, city officials voted to demolish sturdy public housing even as an influx of young profes- sionals was driving up rents and mortgages. After Landrieu’s announcement, some ques- tioned whether—in the words of one newspaper columnist—“a few kum ba yah moments” could really help bridge the divide. Others asked why the Mississippi-based Winter Institute, rather than a local group, had been invited to facilitate. Still, New Orleanians showed enough ongoing interest to populate the first five Welcome Table groups. One met in St. Roch, a neighborhood struggling with gentrification. Its members came from across the city. The most revealing conversation in St. Roch came when Steven Kennedy, an African-Ameri- can real-estate agent and advisor, talked about his four-year incarceration for selling narcotics, one of the few survival options he knew. Nancy Dixon, a white college professor, admitted that, when she was younger, she too had been arrested for selling drugs—nine times, in fact—but, as the niece of a state Supreme Court judge, she never spent a night behind bars. “It was a profound moment—a realization that white privilege is a real thing,” says Troy Glover, a juvenile-justice organizer who is African-American. “I remember a couple of people crying because it was a real moment, a real intimate moment, all politics aside.” Kennedy’s presence, and his call to “drill deep and get to the core,” animated the St. Roch group. He talked about growing up surrounded by violence, and even reported at a meeting that his sister had just been murdered. Other times Kennedy focused on policy—explaining, for example, how flimsy public transportation contributes to black unemployment. “He put a whole different light on economic justice,” says Glenn Wofford, a white retired Marine. Because he had bared himself, Wofford says, “I would listen to anything Steven had to say.” City officials, working off a foundation grant, were eager for quick, tangible results. They decided to depart from the deliberately slow Mississippi model—skipping, for example, the phase in which members work together to plan a small manageable task. “We get right to the larger reconciliation project,” says Deputy Mayor Judy Reese Morse. “ While it may be a lit- tle bit more challenging to do it that way, I have found it to be very rich.” The transition was hard for the St. Roch group, which was still building trust when it was redi- rected to start crafting a large project addressing structural racism. “ You had a group of people with great intentions who were complete strangers to one another,” says Glover. “ We had spent time really getting to know each other, but the pres- sure to meet deadlines interrupted that space.” The group sunk into conflict; members couldn’t even agree on the neighborhood boundaries. The pressure to move forward remained intense. “ We just had to say OK,” says Dixon, “because the city wanted us to hurry up and move.” Carol Carter, a consultant hired by the city to work with St. Roch, insists the accelerated process wasn’t a problem. “The conflict is an important part of this work,” she says. “ What we could have done better was to manage the expectations about conflict.” → Like Steven Kennedy, college professor Nancy Dixon has been arrested for selling drugs—a total of nine times. Unlike Kennedy, though, Dixon—the niece of a state Supreme Court judge—hasn’t spent a single night behind bars. When Dixon and Kennedy shared their stories, the St. Roch group together faced “a realization that white privilege is a real thing.” community