Racism is buried deep in America, touching us all, whether we acknowledge it or not. In 2013, the Cook Family Foundation moved to new offices in a historic downtown Owosso building. We appreciated the unique architectural appearance, high ceilings, and tall windows. Little did we know that the building that housed our offices had, in the 1920s, also been the location of the state headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan.
The KKK, an anti-catholic, anti-immigrant group, openly promoted white supremacy and more covertly sought to harass and oppress black people. Sadly, it was only one of several racist chapters in Owosso’s history that included the forceful eviction of black residents in 1871, the development of the reputation as a “sundown town”, and the daytime visit by a young Malcom X to what his father called “white city.”
Of course the Cook Family Foundation is not directly part of this legacy, and the Ku Klux Klan no longer has a presence in Shiawassee County. Recently, several hundred residents joined in a peaceful protest in Owosso against racially motivated police brutality. But now a question persists: what can we do as a community to overcome the racial biases that are part of our country? How can we create organizations and a community that celebrates diversity, practices inclusion, and promotes equity?
As a starting point, the Cook Family Foundation held a workshop on July 14 to help community organizations begin to examine their structure, purposes, and organization to achieve goals of racial and social equity. The session, presented by Nonprofit Network, helped attendees understand the goals of diversity (the who), inclusion (the how) and equity (the what) as they apply to their organization. Diversity is more than race, and equity is more than equal treatment; inclusion is “the process of valuing all individuals and leveraging their diverse talent, not in spite of their differences, but because of them.”
This is a start, but no single workshop, protest, or new policy statement will alone overcome the systems of racism, inequity, and bias that underly our community and country. We believe that our local nonprofit organizations, which have a strong history of service in many areas of community life, can help lead the changes necessary to a more open community that creates opportunity for all. The Cook Family Foundation has a long-standing commitment to collaboration and helping nonprofits, agencies, and organizations come together to create positive change in our community.
Because income disparities can be as much a barrier as prejudice, we will continue to work with the United Way and other organizations that seek to help those most in economic need. In September, we will be offering a training on “Bridges Out of Poverty” to provide the awareness and tools to comprehensively address the systems which place too many of our neighbors at an economic disadvantage. We always welcome requests from local nonprofits for help as they take steps to address both racial and economic injustice in Shiawassee County.