How can Fort Wayne advance unity and racial reconciliation? Here’s a good place to start

The unlawful murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many more are only the latest—and perhaps most viral—manifestations of a long history of often-excused violence against people of color in the U.S.

So in the wake of the so-called George Floyd protests that have rocked cities around the world, Janell and Aaron Lane of Fort Wayne find themselves doing some of the most important work of their careers.

Although they may be best known for serving Southeast Fort Wayne in their full-time jobs, fewer may know that the couple has also operated their own companies, Courageous Healing, Inc., and Courageous Living, LLC, for the past 6 years. The Lanes didn’t plan on being serial entrepreneurs, but after working in many community-focused settings (and Janell being the only Black therapist at several previous places of employment), they wanted to offer mental health counseling and support for the city’s minority population (primarily). And they wanted to do it in a way that it hadn’t been done before.

Courageous Living, LLC, provides practical and applicable diversity training services for business, organization, and nonprofit leaders.

Growing up in Southeast—the only predominately non-white quadrant of Fort Wayne—the Lanes saw firsthand the layers of trauma experienced by people of color, residing in the city’s most densely populated, yet marginalized community. So rather resorting to traditional approaches to programming and therapy, they developed a more culturally competent and sensitive approach to mental health services for their neighbors, and it clicked.

As they got further into their business, they turned it into a nonprofit so they could serve more people who were either uninsured or under-insured. They also separated out the consulting portion of their business, so they could form a second company, the for-profit Courageous Living, LLC. This is a consulting firm that provides practical and applicable training services to address systemic issues from a different angle: Helping Fort Wayne’s businesses and organizations open up the dialogue on uncomfortable racial tensions and disparities, so communities can advance together.

“As we started seeing more of the systemic issues in our community, we began to see that you have to address multiple sides of the issue in tandem for a community to evolve,” Janell explains.

Courageous Living, LLC, provides practical and applicable diversity training services for business, organization, and nonprofit leaders.

Today, as the Lanes help local residents and leaders process the George Floyd protests in Fort Wayne, they are taking a similar multi-prong approach: Ramping up their mental health services for people of color (and anyone) needing to process the situation, and urging local leaders to acknowledge the oppression and discomforting realities revealing themselves in this situation. Janell and Aaron Lane volunteer with the Human Agriculture Cooperative's Free Food Giveaway.

After all, what’s happening with the protests isn’t happening in a vacuum, Aaron notes. Actually, it’s the result of “complex” or “compounded” trauma in communities all over the U.S., just like Fort Wayne, reeling from three overlapping crises at once: the novel coronavirus pandemic, the ongoing mental health crisis, and the shape-shifting pandemic of racism.

“We’re dealing with individuals from communities who were already suffering from a lack of access to resources, from high rates of infant mortality to lack of access to healthy food and were already dealing with that toxic stress on the daily,” Aaron says. “Couple that with the coronavirus pandemic, causing unemployment and people being furloughed, with the stress of having to manage their families. And then put mental health and racism on top of that.”

While many protesters are calling for actionable change to systemic issues in cities, such as policy and police reform, the Lanes are first and foremost advocating for a change in the way leaders process the trauma of their people.

While looting and rioting during the protests are often criticized as acts of violence, warranting the use of force by law enforcement, these actions are more like long-suppressed cries for help from the community as the result of complex trauma, Aaron explains.

That’s why he and Janell are urging local leaders to focus on the “why” of the protests, rather than the “what.”

“Right now, it’s easy to focus on the ‘what,’ which is the looting and the rioting,” Aaron says. “But how do we shift the focus to the ‘why?’ People are doing this because of trauma and unresolved oppression.”

The Lanes participate in multiple speaking engagements through their businesses.

Janell reminds leaders to remain focused on “the problem” (centuries of overt and covert racism), versus the “response to the problem."

Aaron relates it to when counselors work with parents or schools to help children acting out in class.

“It’s easy to look at the student’s behavior and criticize that, but typically, there’s something going on at home that these students don’t have the words to say,” he explains. “You have to get to the root of the issue.”

It’s only when leadership addresses the underlying, root causes behind actions that people—and communities—are able to resolve situations and heal, Janell says.

That’s why she and Aaron are advocating for a different response to the protests: One that starts with an acknowledgment and a recognition of wrongdoing—not on behalf of the protesters, but on behalf of the systems of injustice that have led to this trauma in the first place.

The U.S. was built on explicit racial injustice, with no city being the exception, and many of the institutions, companies, and systems in U.S. cities are still operating within the confines of the same undergirded beliefs and values that justified and spiritualized slavery. Over the years, explicit racism has evolved and manifested itself in other ways, like making it unpopular or risky to speak out about, or challenge these beliefs and values, which perpetuates the cycle of injustice.

“The resilience of populations of color has enabled many to navigate around these systems, redefining what it means to achieve the American dream—a dream that had it not been for an ancestor, who had a dream, might still be a dream deferred,” Janell says.

While events like Thursday’s Unity March can be powerful displays of reconciliation, they require local leaders to challenge themselves to do the hard work of building "transparent relationships" in Fort Wayne, acknowledging what the real issues are in communities, and making a commitment to specific, sustainable changes that will ensure a more equitable environment for people of color in the future.

“If not, it minimizes how we’ve gotten to where we are today,” Janell says. “We love to say that Fort Wayne is the City of Churches and that we have unity here, but in church, repentance requires the acknowledgment of sin. So asking for unity and for people to ‘act justly,’ in the face of injustice, is like wanting to heal sins that are not repented for, and that robs the community of color from being affirmed in the experience and reality of the pain, the struggle, and the oppression. That says, ‘Let’s hurry up and jump to solutions, without acknowledging that we have been complicit in these problems.’”

The Lanes participate in Zoom chats during COVID-19 with Fort Wayne UNITED and Youth for Christ.

With local city, business, nonprofit, and church leaders making public statements in support of the Black community and standing against injustice, the Lanes are hopeful. The untimely death of George Floyd and the unfortunate circumstances surrounding it have ignited and accelerated local racial reconciliation efforts.

With this momentum, the Lanes are seeing signs of movement in their ventures. They haven’t made efforts to market restorative trainings or services provided for companies through Courageous Living, LLC, yet they have seen an influx of individuals and groups clicking on their website and sending them emails since the protests began.

In the meantime, it’s a matter of evolving with the times, and helping people realize the longstanding issues in Fort Wayne and beyond that are finally coming to light.

“We still see a lot of people who feel that racial injustice hasn’t been an issue in Fort Wayne, and feel that people are making it an issue now, but we’ve got to come to a place where we all have the awareness to say: Racial injustice is real, and it is happening here,” Janell says. “We have to identify the root causes of these issues for true healing to take place.”

Building more restorative businesses and organizations in Fort Wayne

In their work with Courageous Living, LLC, the Lanes host trainings with various businesses and organizations wanting to advance racial reconciliation in Fort Wayne.

In the wake of the recent protests, here are a few actionable changes they recommend.

-Acknowledging past errors, failures, and blind spots. Admit that things have not been handled well in the past, as a whole, in our city, country, and business community. History proves that racism is real, and it does happen in Fort Wayne. We must commit to not repeating these mistakes in the future.

-State your support and intentions. Publish a statement of support for the Black staff, customers/clients, and leaders, and outline specific changes you are committing to over the next several months and years to advance racial equity in Fort Wayne. This should include financial investments and commitments to more equitable hiring practices.

-Ensure equitable representation. Make sure that anytime you’re providing services to a community or population that those voices are at the table to help you develop the plan. Also, take inventory of your c-suite level employees, and make sure that they accurately represent the makeup of your community. Be mindful of representation on teams other than those focusing on equity issues. Company staffing and salary audits may be a good first step to accurately assess where your company is.

-Establish implied trust and value for leaders of color. Make sure the leaders of color that we do have in Fort Wayne know that they have a baseline level of trust and support, so they feel like they can speak their minds and effectively represent the people they serve.

-Commit to regular, quality, equity training for all staff, including leaders. Interactive and experiential trainings generate the best results.

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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