Allison Marker and Romae Isom appear for a May 16, 2023, recording of the Kansas Reflector podcast. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — YWCA of Northeast Kansas’ monthlong exploration of social justice anticipates some people might feel uncomfortable before talking more comfortably about the issue in terms of disability rights, housing, music and mental health.
Allison Marker, community engagement director for YWCA Northeast Kansas, said a foundational idea of the Racial Justice Challenge during June was that racism should be formally viewed as a public health crisis. There is a campaign to have Congress designate racism as such in the United States and to convince Kansans there was benefit to being part of that conversation, Marker said.
“We’re also going to be really working to make that a real groundswell in the greater Topeka community — to get racism declared a public health crisis here in Topeka,” she said.
The YWCA’s Racial Justice Challenge launches 6 p.m. June 1 with an in-person kickoff and panel discussion at Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library. It pivots to the four-week virtual program June 5 to June 30 designed to help participants become more effective social justice advocates through examination of race, power, privilege and leadership.
Weekly learning experience
Those taking part would start by registering through YWCA Northeast Kansas and downloading an app to a cellphone or other device. Ideas of social and racial injustice and ways of dismantling discrimination are to be addressed through weekly themes of disability rights, housing, music and mental health. In each week, participants are to be offered daily tasks that include reading articles, listening to podcasts, watching videos and reflecting on personal knowledge.
Romae Isom, racial justice and training coordinator at YWCA Northeast Kansas, said on Kansas Reflector’s podcast everyone involved would be part of a learning experience.
“We want to learn more,” Isom said. “We want to see what our community sees as indifference and injustice. So, I do believe that it’s very important for us to get uncomfortable around these issues so that we can expand our knowledge.”
She said the Racial Justice Challenge would look at racism through the worldview of others, identify how racism could permeate communities and develop a more unified understanding of how to move forward.
“It is definitely about bringing more awareness to the community to kind of deepen our understanding collectively on these issues so that we can come together to better serve one another,” Isom said.
Parts of a whole
In terms of the week dedicated to music, Marker said, the idea was to study creators of original musical forms and influence of implications of cultural appropriation.
“One of the big profiles that we’ll explore together is Big Mama Thornton, who is kind of known as the mother of rock ‘n’ roll, but in many ways for a long time was sort of in the shadows of all of that and overshadowed by some men, white men,” Marker said.
Thornton, an American blues singer and songwriter who died in 1984, was the first to record “Hound Dog” in 1952. The song was written for her and became her biggest hit record. Her other recordings include “Ball and Chain” which she wrote.
Isom said the mental health week would draw together threads of the Racial Justice Challenge. Discrimination stands out as a problem for people who are homeless or who have a disability, she said. An individual could find outlets for feelings and emotions about injustice through music, she said.
“Mental health for the Topeka community is sometimes misunderstood. The community as a whole may not take the time to realize all of the intersections and different things that contribute to the mental health of a person,” Isom said.
Not in a lifetime
The YWCA has been in Topeka for 135 years and operated with a mission of undercutting racism, empowering women, and promoting peace and justice, freedom and dignity.
“For us,” Marker said, “that means providing safe and affordable child care of her families. And it means providing meaningful community conversations and dialogues like this challenge. Our mission is really bold. And, I think, to pretend that we are going to achieve our mission in our lifetime is absolutely naive. But we have to start somewhere.”
She said it wasn’t easy to unpack personal bias or privilege and grow into a person capable of speaking truth to power and holding others accountable.
“Together, we’re going to learn. We’re going to unlearn. We’re going to hear from a wide variety of perspectives in order to feel more comfortable taking action,” Marker said.
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