BY MAIRE O’NEILL
“The Racial Justice Advisory Council (JRAC) disrupts systems of racism in Los Alamos and creates opportunities for equity” is the mission statement of a relatively new group founded in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, an African American man who died in police custody last May.
Michael Adams told League of Women Voters members during their recent virtual Lunch with a Leader presentation, that after the George Floyd suffocation, Los Alamos High School students began organizing Black Lives Matter events in Los Alamos and several community members attended the rallies in support of the students.
“We wanted to we wanted to organize a group that would focus on racial justice. At some of those early rallies they asked for volunteers to form a SURGE group – Showing Up For Racial Justice. Typically it’s a group of Caucasian activists who partner with black, indigenous and people of color or BIPOC activists and create actions based on what the BIPOC activists think will be the most helpful,” Adams said.
He said a SURGE group is a supportive organization that works to center the voices of the people of color and their activism but the challenge was that there aren’t really any BIPOC activist groups in Los Alamos for SURGE to partner with. With that in mind, a decision was made to form a group that is inclusive of BIPOC activists.
At the first meetings, Adams said people were fired up because they had seen Floyd being suffocated on the hells of previous killings that had happened over almost a decade.
“After we had these meetings where we talked and talked and talked, we started breaking into little subgroups of the people who were consistently showing up. We made a decision that we were going to organize our group in a non-traditional leadership model. What that means is that we don’t operate in a typical hierarchical model. We don’t have a president at the top and then vice presidents and people like that. We’re not organized that way,” Adams said. “We decided that RJAC would be a consensus-based model so we’re kind of a flat organization. We build consensus for how to proceed. We don’t proceed with a simple majority so if we have 100 members we don’t take a 51 person vote and then make a decision based on that. We keep discussing and exploring the idea until we’ve reached a consensus that includes the vast majority and ideally everyone can get on board with and we’ve agreed holistically on how to proceed.”
He said it was decided that the RJAC would not be directive so it doesn’t tell people what to do but rater it is a place to share experiences, resources and communications.
“The actions we take are to rise from subgroups where volunteers can plug in and utilize their talents to forward some facet of racial justice that they care about. We haven’t decided as a central committee what subgroups will and won’t exist. Our volunteers decided what subgroups they’re interested in participating in and if they don’t exist we form them and find volunteers,” Adams said. “We decided that the subgroups could determine for themselves how they make decisions based on who is in the group and what they’re trying to accomplish. We decided as a group that we would determine which issues we want to focus on and that we would focus on issues that are identified by BIPOC community members, however we would choose which identified topics to work on and how we would proceed.”
This means that the JRAC is not just a group of five people deciding what they think intellectually are the important issues that other people of color are facing in the area, Adams noted.
“We actually have a subgroup for BIPOC members of the community and we talk about issues that we’re dealing with and out of that subgroup subjects bubble up and as those topics bubble up, we bring them to the RJAC and say, ‘Here’s some issues that are being talked about in the people of color caucus and ideally people will then jump on board and a subgroup will try and address that issue,” he said.
The subgroups are largely autonomous, Adams said but they cannot affiliate with RJAC if they engage in things that are controversial for RJAC members.
“For example a subgroup cannot be anti-Los Alamos National Laboratory because several of us on the RJAC are LANL employees. Part of the consensus is the subgroups are autonomous, they make their own decisions, they decide what their strategy, how they admit members to their stuff but they cannot affiliate with us if they’re going to take a stand that is controversial to members in the RJAC. They can go form their own group and be unaffiliated but they can’t be affiliated with the RJAC,” he said.
Current subgroups focus on LANL, Los Alamos Schools, Los Alamos County, Facilitation & Organization and Communications. There has also been talk of a Los Alamos Medical Center subgroup and a group for organizing protests and events.
“We have talked about having a youth caucus but we haven’t had enough interest in that to form one. We have a BIPOC caucus. We’ve talked about having an ally-ship or partnership caucus primarily for Caucasians to learn how to be allies or partners or advocates for people of color in how we try to address racism in society. We have a newly-formed environmental justice subgroup,” Adams said.” The LANL subgroup formed because we had a number of people in our first few meetings who are employees at LANL and they were discussing the Employee Resource Groups. They meet fairly regularly and they discuss what’s going on in their respective ERGs, share information with each other and report to the RJAC about what’s happening at LANL, especially within the ERGs. We discussed with them the possibility of offering some similar training in the community. For example they have an incredible active bystander training that we’ve been sort of interfacing with them on to try and find out how we might be able to offer that in the broader community.”
RJAC member Andrea Determan discussed the Los Alamos Schools subgroup saying that they support schools, teachers and students in combatting racism. They have been in contact with school board president Ellen Ben-Naim and Kristine Coblentz, director of the LAPS Healthy Schools program. Determan said Ben-Naim and Coblentz shared an inventory of things Los Alamos Public Schools is working on to increase racial awareness and that the subgroup is looking for ideas and curriculum to be ready for the next school year.
Adams noted that he just found out that the Public Education Department is going to roll out a program aimed at decolonizing the school system.
“Colonization is the process of outsiders coming to this continent and creating colonies and along with that, sort of imposing their will, their values and their ideals on the inhabitants of that continent. So my mother for example, was a victim of colonization. She was abducted from her tribe in order to be taught how to be assimilated into white culture and white society. Her family was a victim of colonization because they lost their daughter,” he said.
Adams also spoke of the JRAC’s work with Los Alamos County. He addressed training where employees and elected officials will learn how to identify their own implicit biases.
“Attendees will rethink how to create objective systems that minimize the impacts of implicit bias in decisions. For anyone who is wondering, implicit bias is essentially the biases that we as human beings bring to our interactions that we’re not aware we bring. Everyone has them. We have race-based implicit bias, we have class-based implicit biases, we have gender-based implicit biases, and they’re basically biases that we just don’t know we have. We’re not aware of them. They’re like the air we breathe and the realm inside of which we understand reality,” he said.
Adams said the training would be aimed at helping people identify what kind of implicit biases they have.
“We want to help the County understand how they can create structures inside the County governance and how the County deals with employees and the public that take implicit bias out of the question and turn it into an objective criterion. They actually do a decent job for some aspects of that in terms of hiring. If you’re hired and you go through an application at the County, all the applicants are asked the exact same questions, they get the exact same criterion for their interviews, and then they’re rated on a scale and the person with the highest score gets offered the job. It’s things like that where we sort of take the subjectivity out of it,” he said.
Earlier this year, RJAC submitted a petition to Los Alamos County Council expressing a desire to address local perspectives on issues of race. See https://losalamosreporter.com/2020/09/04/racial-justice-los-alamos-petition-on-los-alamos-county-councils-tuesday-agenda/
Since then Councilor Katrina Martin has met with groups in the community to develop a means to highlight racial issues and identify suggestions for ways to address concerns. A community survey was developed and conducted and at Tuesday’s Council meeting, the survey and path forward are on the agenda.
Check back with the Los Alamos Reporter for information about Tuesday’s meeting.
For more information or to get involved in the Racial Justice Action Group, email firstname.lastname@example.org.