In Retirement, She Has Experienced an ‘Epiphany’ about the Extent of Systemic Racism. Her Approach to Change? – the ‘Ripples’ Method

ST. JOSEPH, Mich.—Now that she had more free time, Liz Garey wanted to put some of her energy into a cherished cause.  She would work in her own small way to help close the racial fault line in this area of southwest Michigan, where a river separates the “Twin Cities” of solidly middle income St. Joseph from low-income Benton Harbor. She had heeded the same impulse years ago by joining two organizations, Twin Cities Together and Council for World-Class Communities.“

Retiring in her mid-60s as the longtime local liaison for the congressman from this district, Garey figured she would create one big event to “get a bunch of people together, not necessarily to talk about race, but to bring their own diverse backgrounds together and just be. My main driving force is I don’t want my community to be one of exclusion. I don’t. It’s just in my core.”

But before she could plan the big event, something far more ambitious came her way. Garey’s friend Lynn Todman, the executive director of population health for Spectrum Health Lakeland, was beginning a project called Community Grand Rounds: Healing the Trauma of Racism. As it evolved in the early months, planners felt they needed small-group discussions. The presentations on the medical science of racism’s toll on the body were heavy with facts, and people needed to sift through and reflect on what they had heard. That’s what gave birth to the idea of discussions ultimately called Brave Talks: Addressing the Impact of Racism. These candid talks were also seen as a way to gather the community’s ideas on solutions to local systemic, institutional racism.

 

She Chose Most Participants 

Garey was one of the first people to host a conversation. By the time she sat down for an interview in mid-April 2019 to discuss how these Brave Talks had gone for her, she had hosted five evening-long discussions at her home in St. Joseph. More conversations were planned, and the enthusiastic participants seemed intent on having these meetings, spaced a few weeks apart, go on indefinitely as they discussed presentations, books, documentaries, racial incidents making news, or whatever.

As of late summer 2019, the Brave Talks groups (including Garey’s) were, on average, 70 percent white and 24 percent African American. Berrien County, Spectrum Health Lakeland’s primary service area and the focus of Community Grand Rounds, is 80 percent white and 15 percent African American.

Except for Community Grand Rounds team members taking part in the conversations, Garey handpicked the original core of the group that meets at her home. She did not invite any of her friends. 

She chose people already leaning toward racial awareness and justice, like the white woman who had lived for years in a mostly African American neighborhood in Detroit and who, soon after she retired and moved to St. Joseph, told Garey she had found herself wondering: “Where are all the black people in St. Joe?”

Said Garey: “You have to have a heart for it, and you have to have a head for it too. You can’t just have one or the other.”

A Personal ‘Epiphany’

What has Garey learned from the overall CGR effort and from the Brave Talks in her living room? Plenty.

She said she had been aware for years of systemic problems with police in the treatment of African Americans. But in recent months she had experienced an “epiphany” about the extent of structural racism in other spheres, including the CGR subject matter at hand: the health of black people. She said the “staggering statistics” about disparities of health outcomes in Dr. David Ansell’s book, “The Death Gap”, “knocked me between the eyes. It’s like, yes, this is real.” She had discovered that “distress from racism can cause health problems.” Before, Garey said she had naively thought that the poorer health and shorter life spans of black people were due solely to such things as smoking, eating the wrong foods and not getting an annual medical exam. 

She had discovered that “distress from racism can cause health problems.” Before, Garey said she had naively thought that the poorer health and shorter life spans of black people were due solely to such things as smoking, eating the wrong foods and not getting an annual medical exam. 

She thinks the Community Grand Rounds effort should eventually lead local residents to put other things, such as education, “under a microscope” to discover structural problems with “the way things have always been done … but nobody’s really stopped to look at it.”

 

The ‘Maze’ and ‘Ripples’

“When I started this I thought I was just going down the path,” Garey said. “Now I realize I’m in a maze. And I’m in a maze” with the other participants, making some good turns and some that are dead ends, forcing everyone onto another path.

“I didn’t think initially it was going to be that complicated,” she said, adding, “I’m not naïve enough to think it was an easy solution. But the complexity of a home life (for black people) that isn’t equal, or finding a job, of structural problems within school system, within your health system, within your law enforcement … is very, very complicated. It is a big pie with lots of pieces, and each piece is going to need to be worked on.” 

“I didn’t think initially it was going to be that complicated,” she said, adding, “I’m not naïve enough to think it was an easy solution. But the complexity of a home life (for black people) that isn’t equal, or finding a job, of structural problems within school system, within your health system, within your law enforcement … is very, very complicated. It is a big pie with lots of pieces, and each piece is going to need to be worked on.”

Garey reached for yet another metaphor to explain how she sees these conversations creating change in the community. One group of participants moves outward to influence the next “ripple” of people, those with whom they are close and share much in common. And then this “ripple” influences others, and so on in an ever-expanding circle. “Small victories” along the way push people to bigger and bigger victories. But these are “very personal victories,” with a person’s skill set determining what such successes look like for each individual. Ultimately the war is won through such a series of incremental moves creating a “really big” wave.

Garey was asked: Would the ripples eventually reach hard-core racists? Yes, she answered emphatically. But she’s not interested in talking with such people now, though she wants to get there eventually. 

She thinks that the next phase might include identifying people who can be “change agents” in specific areas. Their tools could include information, people-to-people contact, and “fact-based initiatives,” among other things, as CGR works to change local “policies and procedures that really keep people down. 

“I think my job is may be to start peeling the layers back.”

 

Problems in Translation

It’s difficult for Garey to connect conversationally with other middle- to upper-middle-income people in her circle about why she’s involved in Community Grand Rounds. “I’m still struggling. It’s still really hard for me to make my salient points with people. It’s not that they don’t care; it’s just not in their daily conversation. And when it’s not affecting their daily lives they’ll go, ‘Oh, that’s great, I’m glad you’re doing that.’ And then they move on.”

She feels that most people have no idea of the deep-seated reasons she has had all her life that motivate her to work for racial justice. In the interview, Garey spoke in personal terms of wanting to live in a place that treats all people with dignity – using the words “my town,” “my community” and “my street.” For instance, she talked about how disturbing it has been to hear comments about people who walk into a store “in my town” and are followed because of the color of their skin.

She grew up in a white suburb of Detroit, but the broader city exposed her to a great diversity of people. And on a recent trip to Washington, D.C. trip, she said, “You see people of all backgrounds holding hands being together. Whatever, it’s just we don’t have that here.”

When she does attempt to explain to acquaintances with a similar background to her why she is in CGR, she tells them “it’s because I want to make sure there’s an awareness out there, that there are things we all need to do and say to be more inclusive or … just to kind of open our eyes more. And everybody says, ‘Yeah.’ And, again, people don’t inherently think they’re racist. They don’t inherently believe they’re bad people. But I think sometimes they don’t hold the mirror up to themselves to see how” they could change. 

 

Holding on to What’s Tangible

What does help Garey connect with other white people on the subject of systemic racism are the “concrete things” that can ground everyone in a common knowledge, such as the online toolkit the CGR team is developing, presentations by expert speakers and books. (Community Grand Rounds is planning a so-called “community read” of a book.)  Garey took her “very open-hearted” sister-in-law – “I would consider her in my category” as far as open-mindedness – to a CGR presentation. 

On the D.C. trip with 11 other people, all white, Garey said she wanted to go to The National Museum of African American History and Culture,” and three other couples went. It was a “fantastic” experience. “And it was easier for me to tell them to go to the museum so they can on their own hear the words, see some of the milestones that people along the way have had to face, than me trying to explain in my own words from my own privileged background why I’m doing it.”

And Garey provoked laughter in one Brave Talk when she held up the book “White Fragility” and said she was thinking she should give it to a few people for Christmas, and wished she could say to them, “I want you just to be enlightened. I’m not making a judgment about what you’re doing, right or wrong. But here, merry Christmas, just be enlightened.”