Details on a community-wide initiative underway to address racism in Fort Wayne

2020 has been the kind of year that will be hard to comprehend for anyone who didn’t live through it. What began as an annum that would be dominated by a contentious federal election cycle, 2020 would be quickly reshaped by unforeseen epidemiological trials and sociological issues that would come to dominate not this year, but frame the proceeding decades.

These events have also shaken the core of Fort Wayne’s political and cultural establishments. Politicians, civil servants, business people, and influencers were faced with what has been obvious for decades: This is not an inclusive city when it comes to economic opportunity.

Early into the new year, the United States was starting to hear more about a mysterious virus making its way through China. By February, it was clear that the COVID-19 had become a global disease that would directly impact the United States. As of November 24, more than 263,000 Americans had died from the pandemic, including 5,332 Hoosiers. African Americans bear a disproportionate brunt of COVID deaths.

At the same time, a second pandemic surged across America.

According to the Washington Post “Fatal Force” investigative report, 976 people were shot and killed by police as of November 25. African Americans bear a disproportionate brunt of those shootings. (Last year, the Post reported that 999 people were shot by police.)

Due to a climate of anxiety about the pandemic and politics, a series of police-related shootings changed the trajectory of race in this country.

On February 23, Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man, was jogging when he was pursued and murdered by three White men, one of whom was a former police officer. The men were not immediately arrested, and the murder was not widely known outside of Brunswick, Georgia, until video emerged on May 5.

On March 13, Breonna Taylor, an unarmed Black woman, was killed by Louisville Metro Police after they entered her home with a no-knock warrant while she was sleeping. Taylor was not a suspect listed on the warrant, and it wasn’t until May that her story received national attention.

And then there was the murder of George Floyd. The unarmed Black man killed by Minneapolis police officers while handcuffed and under arrest for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill.

On May 25, officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. It was captured on video. Soon, people across the country and around the world who were quarantining in their homes watched Floyd die right before their eyes. People across the divides of race, class, religion, and geography finally saw the reality that Black people have always known and have been fighting to change.

By the end of May, protests erupted across the country and the world, and Fort Wayne was no exception.

In the wake of 2020’s racial unrest, there has been a renewed interest in diversity and inclusion efforts. With tangible evidence of deeply embedded structural racism, more people seem to be finally open to acknowledging the problems and looking for solutions.

In September, the City of Fort Wayne announced a new coalition-based initiative through Fort Wayne UNITED called United Front.

Led by Fort Wayne UNITED Director Iric Headley and Boys & Girls Clubs of Fort Wayne President Joe Jordan, the United Front Initiative aims to bring the city together “to attain racial healing, equity, education, and organizational transformation by developing shared knowledge and understanding around various topics related to diversity and inclusion.”

This includes implicit bias and microaggressions, common stressors that marginalized populations disproportionately face, what it means to be a true ally and an active bystander, and how to have difficult conversations.

Sparked by George Floyd’s death and the protests that took place on the courthouse lawn, Headley and Jordan wondered how they could leverage the uniqueness of the diversity of the community to find solutions and ensure that such things don’t happen in Fort Wayne.

“We were getting pulled by a lot of different people,” recalls Jordan. “We had protestors we were talking to; we had corporate Fort Wayne and CEOs calling us and asking what they can do and how they can be engaged; we had the police department, the mayor, everyone was pulling at us to figure out some answers to these issues.”

According to Headley, because of the nature of the community-focused work he and Jordan do in the city, it was important to both of them that everyone be part of the solution. The search for that solution brought them to Dr. Pascal Losambe, the Dean of Students at the Columbus Academy in Ohio who holds a Ph.D. in education and policy studies from Purdue University.

After being invited by Fort Wayne Fire Chief Eric Lahey to join a meeting with Losambe, Headley was impressed by what he heard.

“Dr. Losambe talked about this concept of a shared humanity that was not about pointing the finger, not beating anybody up, but more about how to deal with the humanity of us all in order to address these issues.”

Losambe has conducted multiple workshops on cultural competence at national and international conferences.

After that initial meeting, Headley told Jordan, “We have an opportunity to do something major for our entire city—potentially our region and our country, if we do it right.”

By having a community-wide focus on local businesses and organizations, especially in corporate Fort Wayne, and targeting the leadership and how they operate within those organizations, Headley and Jordan hope to make a demonstrable impact.

“When you’re dealing with corporations, you have to find ways to be strategic and think through what their systems, ecosystems, and work charts look like so that change can be introduced to them and be sustainable,” says Headley. “It’s not that we’re going after some elite group; it’s where we want to make impact to really push for change within organizations. Imagine if we have HR directors looking at applications differently; if we can have diversity and inclusion directors and committees at each of the companies that are not there now.”

For Headley and Jordan, the main beneficiaries of the United Front Initiative will be people of color.

“If we change the way corporations look at minority hiring and treatment of minorities, it’s benefitting minorities,” Jordan says. “Sometimes African Americans see these commissions and think it’s not about them, but it’s ALL about them. Everything Iric and I do benefits minorities. It may not be the traditional grassroots way of doing things, but the beneficiaries are always People of Color.”

Currently, the United Front Initiative is committed to one year of programming, fundraising, and partnership with local organizations and companies including Greater Fort Wayne, Sweetwater Sound, the Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne, United Way of Allen County, Boys and Girls Clubs of Fort Wayne, Fort Wayne Community Schools, Fort Wayne Police Department, Fort Wayne Fire Department, Parkview Health, the Black Chamber of Commerce, Greater Fort Wayne Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and the NewAllen Alliance.

Within that first year are two phases: Phase one is focused on getting the initiative off the ground and getting leaders involved and committed. Phase two, which will take place during the first quarter of 2021, is more action-oriented with virtual meetings taking a deeper dive into how implicit bias impacts specific business sectors of the community.

“We’re hoping that we’ll be doing this for a minimum of three years, maybe five,” says Headley.

In the fight for racial equity and justice, there is no singular approach to moving the needle. To truly dismantle structural racism, the structures themselves have to change. That type of change has to happen at every level and requires different approaches. When done with careful consideration and in good faith, grassroots efforts are as valid as targeting corporations or attempting to make a change at the political policy level or focusing on more intimate interpersonal relationships.

Tabitha Ervin, Executive Director of the Jackson R. Lehman Family YMCA and United Front Initiative participant, sees the potential of the initiative and the work Headley and Jordan are doing.

“What other city has a year-long initiative that brings the conversation of race, diversity, bias, and inclusion to various leaders of influence in the community?” Ervin asks. “I’m centered at a growth mindset, so anytime I can go and learn something, I’m down for that.” (Note: Ervin is an Ink Spot writer.)

The YMCA of Greater Fort Wayne is a partner in the initiative, and Ervin is confident that her organization will take what they learn and integrate it into the work they do.

“I do think this initiative has merit, and I do think it can have impact, but the level of impact it will have on a historically majority white community is something that’s still unknown,” says Ervin.

Ervin hopes that people can be open enough to give the initiative a chance.

“I hope people hear the message,” she says. “I hope some people change. I hope some people course correct. I hope minds are challenged and hearts are checked because racism is a heart problem, too. The initiative will be a good opportunity for knowledge and growth in our community. We’ll have to see change and outcomes later, but the information is a good start. And it’s a full community impact model, so that’s awesome. People need to give it a chance.”

Ultimately, Headley wants to create a new culture around what racial equity looks like and empower people to make real change in every aspect of their lives.

“We have to start somewhere, and we’ve made a major start,” he says. “This is a major step in the right direction. Everybody is not going to be happy with it; everybody is not going to like every single component of it, and that’s ok. We’re going to get better; we’re going to keep building, keep improving, keep enhancing, keep expanding—180 organizations and 744 people. I think we’ve got the attention that we need to move forward the right way.”

Angela Stanley is a writer and race & gender scholar. This article was originally written for Fort Wayne Ink Spot.

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