World Trust

Neighbors Combat Racial Profiling and Build Community in Oakland, CA

Posted by Valerie Fulton on March 3, 2015


Being neighborly means more than sharing gardening tools and taking in the mail, as World Trust's Outreach Manager, Ginny Berson discovered several years ago when she and her partner moved to a new neighborhood in Oakland, California. Their efforts to address a few specific instances of racial profiling on the listserv have blossomed into unexpected opportunities for community building and transformative learning about systemic racism throughout the neighborhood.

We recently spoke with Ginny to learn more about the grass roots organization, Neighbors for Racial Justice, that has sprung out of her own personal diversity initiative.

It Began with a Simple Observation

"After we moved to this neighborhood three and a half years ago," Ginny says, "my partner noticed a disturbing pattern of posts on the listserv (an email group for residents). These were clear instances of racial profiling, things like 'There is a black man walking through the neighborhood, and we've never seen him before. Just keep an eye out.' Messages to that effect."

Ginny knew that even though there was crime in the neighborhood, racial profiling would do nothing to help. "It doesn't make white people safe from crime," she points out. "It just makes them afraid of blacks."

The posts were simply frustrating until George Zimmerman was acquitted in the Trayvon Martin case. For Ginny, that was the final straw. She posted on the listserv that she had noticed the racial profiling and asked anyone else who felt concerned to contact her.

Six neighbors, all women, responded to Ginny's invitation. They agreed that they would not allow instances of racial profiling to go unaddressed. They developed a strategic approach to handling the posts -- both responding on the listserv and offering to meet with the people who'd engaged in racial profiling to hear their perspective.

It Evolved into a Movement

Those original six members have grown into an organization that is 25 neighbors strong and engaged with in a broader agenda. Here are some of the ongoing projects Neighbors for Racial Justice has taken on:

  • Three or four times a week, members stand on a central corner in the neighborhood to promote #BlackLivesMatter and have informal conversations with whoever happens by. This is an important vehicle for involving more neighbors.
  • They developed guidelines for posting about incidents of crime to cut down confusion over  terminology and decrease unintentional occurrences of racial profiling on the listservs.
  • The white members have developed a circle in which they are working toward understanding white privilege and systemic racism.

Recently, the group experienced a victory when the Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) for Oakland voted to include on its agenda more training for local police in racial profiling.

The Role Cracking the Codes Plays in Keeping The Conversation Going

Neighbors for Racial Justice has hosted two screenings of the World Trust diversity video, Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequity. The video has also made its way informally around Ginny's Oakland neighborhood, being seen by people individually.

When asked what part of the film resonated most with viewers, Ginny observes that the great thing about Cracking the Codes is that "there is something there for everyone, and people are touched by so many different aspects of the film."

Ginny explains how one member of the group reacted to the film by saying, "I never realized how afraid I was of black men. I thought I was the only one who felt this way until now."

Moments like these, when individuals understand systemic racism and white privilege for the first time as part of a broader cultural experience, are what make the film such as important tool in allowing this diversity initiative move forward. The concrete examples in the film and clear explanations help reduce the shame of having racist thoughts and open the door to compassion.

Want to Start a Similar Initiative in Your Neighborhood?

According to Ginny, here are the three qualities you'll need to make things happen:

  • Commitment

"It takes a lot of work," Ginny says bluntly. "You need to be willing to take the lead until there is critical mass, which means that you will be organizing meetings, setting the agenda, and handling outreach."

  • Open-mindedness

"You also have to be willing to listen to each other," she says. "Multiracial group conflicts and tension are inevitable. You have learn to live with your discomfort. It is really about being willing to listen to what other neighbors are interested in, what their issues are.  That's how this group grew beyond just confronting racial profiling.  It's about not imposing your agenda on everyone else, but being willing to be expansive."

  • Perseverance

When you are engaged in a long-term process, sometimes the conflict gets worse before any progress can be noticed, Ginny observes. "You just have to be willing to go through it and keep doing the work."

Learn More about Oakland's Neighbors for Racial Justice

The group hosts its next screening of Cracking the Code Saturday, April 4 from 1 -4 pm at the Dimond Library in Oakland. Interested parties can attend this event by looking here.

World Trust is seeking to change racial inequity through facilitated conversation and the screening of diversity films like Cracking the Codes. For more ideas about how to engage people in diversity activities, check out the information on our website or reach out to World Trust.

Download pdf of System of Inequity

Topics: Film: Cracking the Codes, Talk about Race, Responding to a Racist Incident, Diversity Initiative, Community Building, Oakland, Engaging White People in Racial Equity