Racial Justice Rising: standing for a solution

  • Members of the Racial Justice Rising met Saturday to share stories and food in celebration of the volunteer group's 10th anniversary. —Contributed photo

  • Members of the Racial Justice Rising met Saturday to share stories and food in celebration of the volunteer group's 10th anniversary. —Contributed photo

Staff Writer
Published: 1/6/2019 10:50:48 AM

GREENFIELD — Almost two decades ago, a few white people from Franklin County created the group European Dissent, and started writing an apology to African American descendants of slavery. That apology was to be included in a local play about slavery in western Massachusetts.

Well, the play never happened and the group stopped meeting, but that wasn’t going to stop three members of the group, Sharin Alpert of Shelburne Falls, Teegrey Iannuzzi of Pelham and Annie Keough of Greenfield, from writing and delivering that apology. 

“People care,” said Alpert, looking across a packed room at the First Congregational Church Saturday.

This weekend, Racial Justice Rising celebrated its 10th anniversary. The group arose from a few people writing the apology, and has become a large, volunteer-driven effort to spread its anti-racism, pro-reparations message and hold educational workshops on recognizing and fighting discrimination.

During its anniversary celebration, Racial Justice Rising members shared stories and food. Alpert, Keough and Iannuzzi reflected on the group’s history and the importance of its message. 

“We knew that one of the most important things whites who get it can do is to spread the word in our own communities,” said Alpert, remembering that when the apology was first drafted, the group didn’t know what to do with it. After seeking some advice, they decided to take it on the “great white road,” and spread the message within their own community.

And it’s certainly spread, Alpert said, through the hundreds of people who have attended workshops, handed out information at local farmers markets, given talks at schools and churches or signed Racial Justice Rising’s foundational and principal project, Mass Slavery Apology, which has been signed by roughly 500 people, from Shelburne to Scotland. 

“We wrote about how our country’s history of brutal racism lives on in the present, and, recognizing that an apology is empty if not coupled with meaningful action, we made commitments to change,” Alpert said. 

“We had two main goals: to reach other people of European descent who were ready to learn more about white supremacy and systemic racism, and to build support for reparations for slavery,” Alpert added.

The group began its own events in 2013, after years of handing out its Mass Slavery Apology, launching a series of films and workshops that became the Racial Justice Rising monthly meetings, each with a different focus but centered around antiracism. And in 2016 the group began its weekly Saturday morning vigils on the Greenfield Common. More exciting, Alpert said, is the group is still coming up with new ways to spread its message.

“More recently, we’ve begun responding more actively to the racism in our communities, and I’m really excited about our newest project, which will be directed by Gloria Matlock. Twice As Smart will work with elementary school kids outside of school hours on academic skills and also on less concrete things like self-respect, learning to collaborate and goal-setting,” Alpert said. 

The group has come a long way, but there is still work to do, Alpert said. In western Massachusetts, Alpert said many of the white people she talks to believe the area is special, that there is no racism. But from talking with people of color, Alpert and Iannuzzi have a different impression of the area.

“Racism is a great problem in our area,” Alpert said. “Do they still call it the Happy Valley? For people of color it’s not.”

Reading from the Mass Slavery Apology booklet, Iannuzzi quoted the apology statement she began drafting years ago. 

“’African Americans have made incalculable contributions to this country and have also suffered immeasurable losses. As whites, we assert fervently that we are accountable for those damages. We also assert that the ways in which reparations take place must be determined by descendants of those who were enslaved,’” she read. 

Iannuzzi said if the group continues to collect hundreds of signatures on its apology through its website, Racial Justice Rising will be able to take the statement to Massachusetts legislators in a bid to get state support for reparations. Iannuzzi also added she has successfully lobbied U.S. Rep. James McGovern, D-Worcester, to cosponsor a bill calling for a federal-level study on the need for reparations. 

What reparations are appropriate, whether monetary or otherwise, should be determined by those descendants of slaves, not by whites, Iannuzzi said. 

“Inner and outer racial repair work is relevant, because for us to solve the pressing problems of today like the threat of nuclear war, climate destruction, poverty caused by extractive capitalism, et cetera, we need to unite. Racism and white supremacy are barriers to uniting,” Iannuzzi told the group. “By showing up today, you are being part of the solution.”

Reach David McLellan at dmclellan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 268. 


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