Answering that question in two words: Not enough!
I wrote an article called “Continuing Efforts Toward Full Equality” (AgeWise King County, August 2022) that focused on my lack of formal education about gender issues and women’s rights during my K–12 years. In college, I made a point of taking women’s studies courses—I was already on the right track due to the way I was raised at home but the conscious and deliberate act of learning more about women in history and women who have made and are making a difference in our world helped to shape the woman I am today.
I believe that conscious and deliberate effort must also be made to learn stories about people of African descent and people of other races, ethnicities, and cultures.
African Americans have played key roles in shaping the United States we experience today—from the abolishment of slavery to the creation of the Cataract Laserphaco Probe. This is a device used to remove cataract lenses with a laser and has saved and restored the eyesight of millions. Read about Dr. Patricia Bath, a Black ophthalmologist who revolutionized cataract surgery in Medical News Today (2/26/2021).
Historian Howard Zinn once said, “If you don’t know history, it’s as if you were born yesterday. If you were born yesterday then any leader can tell you anything.” I see a lot of people in this world who listen to and absorb some outrageous beliefs that are counterintuitive to their stated values. They seem to know very little about history and often dismiss facts that they don’t like, particularly related to racial equity.
In addition to learning history, there’s enormous value in listening to people who grew up in a different place and time than you—people of different ages, races, cultures, and more.
Twenty-one years ago, I was elected to serve on the Seattle School Board. It was one of the most important roles I have had in my life (right up there with parent and spouse). I worked without compensation and received tremendous criticism for trying to do what was right for the students who were not succeeding in school. This often-thankless job was fruitful in several respects—I learned a tremendous amount about student achievement by race and ethnicity, and I listened to the stories of frustration from communities long undervalued and underserved, from parents and grandparents who only wanted what was best for their children. I learned that, in many respects, access to quality education is a life-or-death issue (among many indicators, the school-to-prison pipeline is real).
I attended Undoing Racism, a two-day training presented by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, with my school board colleagues, superintendent, and senior staff. It was a powerful experience to talk about the many sources of oppression and the insidious ways that racism is supported by the institutions of this world. I felt fortunate to have an opportunity to repeat the training about five years ago with my work colleagues.
I have learned a great deal from Mary Mitchell, director of Aging and Disability Services, a division of Seattle Human Services that serves as the Area Agency on Aging (AAA) for Seattle and King County. In July 2021, Mary said,
“My family and I bring a new meaning to holidays that don’t recognize the trauma and harm inflicted on communities of color. We intentionally research historical events, take time to have meaningful discussions, and teach the younger generation. I encourage you to do the same.”
Mary lives true to her word, often sharing the stories behind the stories rather than just wishing staff well for the holidays. I appreciate that very much. It has compelled me to research racial equity issues in ways I didn’t think to do before.
Last summer, I had the opportunity to co-present a workshop called “Race: Let’s Talk About It” at a USAging conference, alongside Mary and her executive assistant Lena Tebeau. We talked about the City of Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative, the ways in which Aging and Disability Services is building relational culture, and more, with a standing-room-only audience of AAA staff from around the country. It was a wonderful experience. I can’t overemphasize the importance of holding constructive conversations about race, racism, and racial equity.
I believe that reading, listening, and learning from others helps to build the personal connections that help us see value in every person, build trust, and appreciate true collaboration. I’m still working to let go of certain parts of my white culture—defensiveness, sense of urgency, and perfectionism—and I’m learning more all the time about the ways that Black, Indigenous, and other people of color have been negatively impacted throughout history by systems that have generally supported those of us with white skin.
Perhaps you recognize a theme. What do I know about Black history? Not enough!
Contributor Irene Stewart manages communications for the Seattle Human Services Department and serves as editor of AgeWise King County.