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Deaconess Foundation starts program to help Black St. Louisans recover from racism

Jason Barney, center, locks arms with fellow protester Sunday June 7, 2020, in downtown St. Louis. He was among thousands who continued days of protests against police brutality.
Ryan Delaney
St. Louis Public Radio
Black St. Louisans marched downtown St. Louis in 2020 to protest against police brutality and racial discrimination. The Deaconess Foundation wants to help Black people in the region recover from the effects of internalized and systemic racism through a yearlong leadership program.

The Deaconess Foundation wants to help African Americans in the St. Louis region recover from the effects of racial trauma through its Institute for Black Liberation.

The institute aims to teach 25 participants how to develop a mindset that is free from internalized and structural racism. During a yearlong program that begins this fall, they will learn how to identify white supremacy and its impacts, address racism and combat stereotypes of Black people.

Funded by a $1 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the institute also will provide participants with leadership training so they can help drive change in their communities.

Black people must first understand the role that systemic and structural racism has played in their lives for generations to mentally heal and move forward, said Rudy Nickens, the institute’s program director.

“Freedom right now is the ability to imagine it, to create it and to think, ‘What would my life be like if I could live outside of the effects of those hurts’,” Nickens said. “Unless we get our minds clear and get our collective connections to this ideology, together, we'll never be able to really mount the kind of effective change and resistance that we seek.”

To help people 25 and older recover from the mental and physical effects of racism, the program will explore ways to celebrate their Blackness.

If Black people were given the chance to heal their minds from the notions that they are not good enough, then they could help build an equitable society, Nickens said.

“We are not approaching this, like, ‘Oh, Black people are so bad and messed up,’ we are approaching this, like, ‘We are brilliant humans, we are incredible,” he said. “We are strong and powerful and resilient, and we need some tools to help us to take the next steps and to move forward.”

Foundation leaders say Black people historically have not been able to imagine an anti-racist system, and they and their communities have continued to suffer the painful effects of racism.

Research shows that regardless of a Black person’s education level, they pass along stress from racial trauma to their unborn children. It is important to break that cycle, Deaconess Foundation President and CEO Bethany Johnson-Javois said.

“I envision that the St. Louis region will see a narrative that not just tweaks around the edges, but we own the narrative about our bodies, our lives and our future,” she said. “I also think we may get a strategy that is easy, more audacious and thinking that is even more incredible than what we're seeing today, because people have freed themselves to be able to dream.”

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.

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