Looking back on work for racial justice

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office for Racial Justice is to close after 14 years on July 1. The office was created to address the sin of racism in 2000, in the wake of the racially motivated beating of Lenard Clark, a young black boy who ventured out of his neighborhood, by white teenagers who had attended Catholic schools, according to an interview the director, Sister Anita Baird, gave the Catholic New World in 2010.

Sister Anita, a Daughter of the Heart of Mary, was the office’s only director.

The office took it as part of its mission to carry out the directives in “Dwell in My Love,” Cardinal George’s pastoral letter on racism, which was published on April 4, 2001, the 10th anniversary of the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The following year, two anti-racism implementation teams were named, one for Catholic schools and one for the archdiocesan pastoral center, and members of the teams, as well as department and agency directors received intensive training from Crossroads Ministry, an interfaith ministry for racial justice, and they developed the Anti-Racism Strategic Plan, which was approved in 2003.

In 2004, the office started holding one-day anti-racism introductory workshops for employees, to help them become aware of systemic racism, particularly within the archdiocese, and to understand the barriers to changing that. It also started more indepth, two and a half day training sessions for department directors and school principals.

“The goal would be to have a transformed institution in a transformed society, but we know that’s a lifetime commitment. As long as we’re human, we will always be dealing with the sin of division, and that’s really what racism is. Each generation will have its own work to do,” Sister Anita said in the 2010 interview. “Our goal is to acknowledge, number one, that it’s not just an issue of people’s personal prejudices, but that it’s built into our institutions.”

Achieving that goal was never something that was going to happen in a few years, she said.

“We always say that we’re on a journey, and we’re certainly a pilgrim people,” she said in the interview.

Meanwhile, starting in 1997, more than 300 parishes participated in workshops on racism and ethnic sensitivity. The workshops aimed “to sensitize people to racial and ethnic traditions, customs and behavioral characteristics in the hope that Catholics of all races and ethnic groups will be socializing and collaborating more harmoniously in our parishes.”

“Some good things have come out of that,” Sister Anita said in the interview. “We tried to bring together parishes of diverse backgrounds. We had people that would give witness talks, and they would share their experiences of how racism has impacted their lives.”

Those workshops led to the 2009 publication of “Witnesses to Racism,” a book that compiles some of the talks given by people who participated in the workshops. They also led to the formation of Catholics United for Racial Justice, a multicultural group of people from parishes throughout the archdiocese who presented two Unity Rallies, one in 2004 and one in 2005, and sponsored other anti-racism events.

On the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Office for Racial Justice, Sister Anita said that changes were starting to be evident.

“In the meantime, you’re trying to expose as many people as possible to the analysis, which is our understanding that racism is our personal prejudice coupled with how we use or misuse power in our systems and institutions.

“We have to transform our institutions and transform our parishes to become those welcoming places where people really feel at home and they are respected for who they are and they have an equal role to play. Have we made progress? I think we definitely have in the sense that 10 years ago, the archdiocese had not made this long-term commitment, we did not have Cardinal George’s pastoral letter, we did not have an anti-racism team that has been mandated, we did not have thousands of people who have gone through the training within our agencies and departments.”

The archdiocese will continue to work toward the goal of eliminating institutional racism. The Office of Catholic Schools will collaborate with the Department of Personnel Services in continuing to offer training and workshops for staff of the archdiocese.


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