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“If you could pick one leverage point in systemic racism to make a difference. . .”

Rev. Pat Jackson, Interwoven Congregations Quarterly (ICQ): Thank you Bernard Carpenter and Marty Swaim for joining us for this conversation about "Congregations Doing Racial Justice" and the partnership between Calloway UMC and Rock Spring UCC in Arlington, Virginia. As part of that partnership, you co-lead the "Racial Equity Action Group" focusing on education. How did you get connected to these congregations and this special initiative?

Bernard Carpenter: I was raised in Halls Hill, a segregated community in Arlington County. In 1965 my mom had to go into Washington D.C. to have me even though we lived a block away from Arlington Hospital. Calloway UMC was the church my family went to up at the top of the hill.

Marty Swaim: I moved here in 1978 and taught in Arlington public schools for 20 years. After I retired, I got involved in conversations on race at Rock Spring where I found a welcoming community and people who didn't think I was crazy.

ICQ: Bernard, how did you get involved in the antiracism efforts at Calloway and the education Racial Equity Action Group?

Bernard: When I heard about the Courageous Conversation with Rock Spring and Calloway, I thought that was amazing because we have to have a conversation. You can't walk around thinking everything is fine and it's not. I joined the education group because I just retired and I'm getting ready to be a math teacher in the public-school system.

Marty: This idea about public schools that it's really difficult to overcome achievement or opportunity gaps between African American kids and other kids of color and white kids drives me crazy. From my perspective as a teacher, that's nonsense.

ICQ: Why do you say that?

Marty: Because it's not rocket science to teach kids to read. It's a skill and I respect the teachers who do a good job of it. But we have a school system in which maybe 45% of the kids of color on sixth and seventh grade tests are way below grade level and it's just irresponsible. The reason is because they're not reading on grade level at grade three and then by the seventh and eighth grade kids start talking about dropping out. I feel that if you could pick one leverage point in systemic racism that would make a huge difference, it would be education. If you can persuade members of the school board to invest in the areas of pre-K and three-year old education, you have a possibility of really changing the community. Of course you're talking money, but this is a rich community.

ICQ: What does the education Racial Equity Action Group do? What are its goals?

Bernard: We started meeting right after the 6 month Courageous Conversation series to decide what our goals and mission were going to be. Goal #1 is to ensure that students are at reading level by grade three. Goal #2 is ensuring that children hear or experience all of history. Children deserve to understand what this country actually was developed on.

Marty: We wrote a letter to the school board with our mission statement and arguments for what they should pay attention to in their budget. We started talking to people in the school system and the lady who runs the early childhood department said, “Don't focus on four-year olds. We have resources for four year olds, but we have almost nothing for three-year olds. So focus on that.” So we put together an analysis and testimony about things in the budget that would improve early childhood services through grade three. We met with two schoolboard members this past year and other school system people.

ICQ: Do you think you’ve been able to impact things, or are you still finding your legs?

Marty: We work with 5 or 6 people on our REAG and we're finding our legs. I do feel that cultivating relationships with school board members has the potential to be very productive, even though we lost the chairman of the school board with whom we talked last year when he didn't run again. I feel like one of the biggest productive investments of time is talking to people in the school system at the middle management level, like the early childhood person.

Bernard: We're still learning where to prioritize our time and effort. I agree with Marty, we can go to the school board and advocate for what is needed in the middle management areas. We met with the director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for Arlington Schools, Dr. Ottley, but he has left. There's going to be transition in people, but the office staff knows us and what we're doing and how to reach out and advocate for us and ask us to advocate for them.

Marty: That's true. When Dr. Ottley set up a new diversity, equity and inclusion advisory group group, we were the beginning people in the group. Some of the members of the criminal justice Racial Equity Action Group have gotten involved too.

ICQ: Was that DEI advisory group something that Dr. Ottley had in the works, or did your outreach play a role in its creation?

Bernard: I think it was a brainchild of a meeting we had at Calloway with Dr. Ottley where we discussed the possibility of a community advisory group. Based on that conversation, Dr. Ottley birthed the group.

ICQ: So you engage the school district at multiple levels. Do you use other strategies to advance your goals?

Marty: We’ll talk to the NAACP about their goals and see if we can support them. They have a tutoring program that some of us have supported financially.

Bernard: We are still young as a group, we’re passionate, and we're still learning to prioritize and to find opportunities to advocate.

ICQ: So this takes time. I think it’s helpful for other congregations to hear that.

Bernard: Don’t give up!

Marty: Yes!

ICQ: What are your challenges and encouraging signs in your work to impact systemic racism in education?

Marty: I think our practice of sharing our goals with school board members laid a good foundation so that those in the system understand that we represent people very committed to educating everybody by third grade. You just have to take the long view. You have to get your oar in the budget cycle one year and keep going back and back and back. And if you're lucky, you get two or three people on the school board who can really push it along. I think our biggest challenge is our lack of time.

Bernard: I see the challenge as keeping the ball rolling. The good things that I've seen are the relationships that we've built with the people in early childhood education and the DEI office -- relationships not just with one person but with a staff. Those relationships are just going to grow.

ICQ: Can you speak about the significance of your own relationship between the two of you?

Bernard: I think that's huge. Marty and I just clicked.

Marty: And vice versa! I mean from the first time we met over lunch, we've had a good time.

Bernard: (laughter)

Marty: I think that's a really important part of organizing. If you're going to be in this for 5-10 years, you've got to have a good time along the way.

ICQ: How do you keep the whole Racial Equity Action Group together for the long haul?

Bernard: Respect and let everybody's voice be heard. Understand that Rome wasn't built in a day; systemic racism wasn't created in a day. So it’s not going to take just a day to break it apart.

Marty: You don't need a lot of people. We would be glad to have another six people, but dance with the people who come. I do think the experience of doing the testimony and writing letters was very affirming and empowering. “Yeah, we can do this.”

ICQ: What advice would you have for congregations who want to take a swing at systemic racism but just aren’t sure how to go about it?

Bernard: First thing, if you see an opportunity to participate -- participate. Don't be afraid, jump into it. You're not going to find out if you don't try.

Marty: I feel like one of the most important things if you're interested in education is to not be intimidated. The skills involved in running a really good school system exist and there are people doing a really good job of this. So if your school district isn’t, hold them accountable. Just show up and talk about it -- because the kids who aren't succeeding in third grade in reading are not different from the other kids who are succeeding. I'm sorry, they aren’t. So don't be intimidated by the bureaucracy or by people who say how complex education is. I would recommend that anybody who is thinking about working on education in public schools reads “Whatever it Takes.” It’s about the Harlem children's zone and the young man who takes the children from birth when their parents are raising them through third grade and gets them all passing the New York state regents tests. The book demonstrates what's possible.

ICQ: Final question. To what degree does your own faith and participation in your congregation sustain your personal commitment to anti-racism?

Bernard: As a black man growing up in a segregated Arlington County, I had nothing but faith to hold onto. This is not a society that was going to help me. My faith is what brought me through all of what I've gone through in my life, and so I stand here today, giving honor to God and my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. If it wasn't for them, I'd be dead and gone somewhere.

Marty: I don't talk about faith in the same way that Bernard does, but I do feel very strongly that the underlying assumption of the Christian faith is that all things work together for good. That gives me support.

[This interview was a part of the October 2023 Interwoven Congregations Quarterly on "Congregations Doing Racial Justice." Catch the full issue here.]

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