Two Leaders Confront a Major Roadblock — Structural Racism — in Their Pursuit of Equity

Posted November 6, 2017
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog twoleadersconfrontamajorroadblock 2017

On paper, Meghan Har­rah and Albi­no Gar­cia had a shared goal: to reduce racial and eth­nic dis­par­i­ties in the juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem. They also had a shared title: Co-chair of the work­ing group with­in the Juve­nile Deten­tion Alter­na­tives Ini­tia­tive® (JDAI) in Bernalil­lo Coun­ty, New Mex­i­co. But their dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives and unad­dressed pain and anger, which stemmed from decades of racial and eth­nic ten­sions, threat­ened to under­mine this work.

Today, Har­rah and Gar­cia are not just pro­fes­sion­al part­ners — they’re friends. They made a con­scious effort to address hid­den fis­sures caused by struc­tur­al racism, and their sto­ry illus­trates both the chal­lenges and oppor­tu­ni­ties JDAI part­ners face when work­ing with their coun­ter­parts in the com­mu­ni­ty to improve racial and eth­nic equity.

Read more on how to advance and embed race equi­ty and inclu­sion with­in your organization

Gar­cia is exec­u­tive direc­tor of La Plazi­ta Insti­tute in Albu­querque, a non­prof­it that engages youth, elders and com­mu­ni­ties through a phi­los­o­phy of la cul­tura cura,” or cul­ture heals.” Gar­cia and those he rep­re­sent­ed felt resent­ment and pain toward a juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem that they felt locked their kids up while dis­re­spect­ing their cul­ture and history.

Har­rah, a juve­nile pro­ba­tion super­vi­sor for the New Mex­i­co Chil­dren, Youth and Fam­i­lies Depart­ment, rep­re­sent­ed that sys­tem. She and her staff felt under attack — and a tar­get of hate — by the local community.

When Gar­cia and Har­rah became co-chairs of the reduc­ing racial and eth­nic dis­par­i­ties work­ing group a few years ago, dis­trust and neg­a­tive assump­tions cloud­ed their work. Cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences in body lan­guage and com­mu­ni­ca­tion norms led to unin­tend­ed insults. At one point, the divide between the two lead­ers grew so wide that they flat-out refused to work together.

Ulti­mate­ly, through exter­nal medi­a­tion, Gar­cia and Har­rah talked through the assump­tions that each had made and con­front­ed their own per­son­al feel­ings and bias­es. Equal­ly impor­tant: The lead­ers acknowl­edged how they, their com­mu­ni­ties and their employ­ees fit into the larg­er soci­etal dynam­ic of struc­tur­al racism.

Struc­tur­al racism rein­forces or per­pet­u­ates inequity among racial groups through pub­lic poli­cies, insti­tu­tion­al prac­tices and cul­tur­al norms. It oper­ates at the soci­etal lev­el and is not caused by individuals.

Gar­cia recalls a piv­otal moment in his rela­tion­ship with Har­rah: I saw tears come out of my enemy’s [Harrah’s] eyes — I thought, There’s a human inside there. … At least they are mak­ing an effort.’”

Now, the lead­ers are tak­ing steps to bridge the divide between their respec­tive com­mu­ni­ties. The pro­ba­tion depart­ment has devel­oped two train­ings for man­age­r­i­al and line staff. The first engages com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers to edu­cate staff mem­bers about struc­tur­al racism and inter­nal bias. More than 100 employ­ees work­ing in pro­ba­tion and deten­tion have attend­ed the four-hour train­ing. Har­rah says that she and her pro­ba­tion offi­cers are learn­ing to engage in more of a dia­logue with com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers, cre­at­ing a safe space for anger and sad­ness and rec­og­niz­ing and respect­ing cul­tur­al tra­di­tions. The sec­ond train­ing, to start in Jan­u­ary 2018, digs into local data on deci­sion points. It will help pro­ba­tion and deten­tion staff mem­bers exam­ine how their deci­sions can influ­ence racial dis­par­i­ties with­in the system.

At the pro­gram lev­el, promis­ing changes include the pro­ba­tion unit’s imple­men­ta­tion of a stress pass” to address racial and eth­nic dis­par­i­ties in pro­ba­tion vio­la­tions. There’s also a new fam­i­ly advo­cate group, which pro­vides sup­port and infor­ma­tion about the sys­tem to fam­i­lies. And La Plazi­ta is now the evening report­ing cen­ter for the coun­ty — a move that has pro­mot­ed cul­tur­al­ly com­pe­tent col­lab­o­ra­tion among the juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem, youth, fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ty members.

Gar­cia is focused on help­ing his com­mu­ni­ty stop fight­ing and start unit­ing: I have decid­ed to fight in a dif­fer­ent way,” he says. I am going to try to get a lit­tle army of heal­ers, pluck­ing allies from the sys­tem. [Har­rah] is one now.”

Join JDAIcon­nect, a free vir­tu­al des­ti­na­tion for any­one inter­est­ed in youth jus­tice, to watch a video of Gar­cia and Har­rah. In this video, the lead­ers dis­cuss how to cre­ate a dia­logue between the com­mu­ni­ty and the juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem in order to reduce racial and eth­nic dis­par­i­ties in Bernalil­lo County.

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