Category: Reflections and Ideas

Ibram X. Kendi, How To Be An Anti-Racist

Most of us in the ABCD world might consider ourselves pretty advanced in the world of anti-racism but I came away from reading How to be an Anti-Racist with my eyes open to new ways of thinking about racism This  is one of the most important books I’ve ever read for it attacks one of the most prevailing problems the United States faces, and it addresses that problem with vison, personal humility on Kendi’s part, and practicality on how difficult it will be to move from being racist to anti-racist. Fortunately, his path and therefore our paths are hopeful.

Kendi goes far beyond Black/White and White Privilege and White Supremacy and explores several forms of racism including Black on Black and Black on White.  I thought often of my own history of thinking in an assimilationist manner – thinking that certain traits were unique to different races and they could be fixed through education and behavioral change. Assimilationist means that problems are rooted in groups of people, not in individuals. For example, Blacks are; Jews are; White people are; Native Americans are; Women are; gay people are; etc.

 What is racism? Kendi posits that anytime you make a negative comment about another racial or ethnic group that makes that group inferior, that is racist. He defines anti-racism as focusing on power rather than people; on changing policies rather than groups of people. Being anti-racist is learned behavior. It takes education, it takes research, it takes personal soul searching; it takes an understanding of white privilege and how deeply you believe in the superiority of one race over another. It takes work!

 Kendi talks about several forms of racism:

  • Biological – assigning various biological traits to different racial groups. By the way, no matter what your racial or ethnic group we are all 98.6% biologically the same;
  • Ethnicity – collection of racist policies that lead to inequity between racial groups;
  • Bodily – perceiving one racial group as more violent, more deviant than others. The Black body is a crime in America;
  • Cultural – imposing a cultural hierarchy between people of various cultures;
  • Behaviorally – assigning the actions of one person to an entire group;
  • Color – policies based on color – light/dark among Blacks with one another – lighter is better; same distinction among whites – Black is bad; white good!
  • White – classifying white or European as inferior;
  • Black – the illusory thought that Black people can’t be racist because they don’t have the power. In fact, some Blacks have power and there are also white people with very little power;
  • Class – categorizing people by class as superior/inferior; a very common phenomena in America;
  • Space – Because a certain action is predominant in a particular neighborhood, that neighborhood gets classified in terms of safety and other forms of dysfunction;
  • Gender – bias both within and across races; and
  • Sexuality – bias toward whites and Blacks regarding sexual orientation both within and across races.

A true anti-racist is to be anti-racist in all of these areas. When we look at healthcare, housing, employment, education, the environment, law enforcement, etc., to be anti-racist, all policies must be of equal benefit for all, not just a particular race or group. Policies that benefit one group over another are racist. Healthcare policy in the United states is a racist policy. The only healthcare policy that is not racist is universal healthcare. Housing policy is racist since it does not give people an equal opportunity to live where they want. Clean water and clean air are not available for everyone. Do you think the people in Grosse Point, Michigan have the same amount of lead in their water as the people of Grand Rapids? Do you think the children who attend many urban schools in America have the same resources as children in suburban schools? A racist policy is any policy that does not apply universally in equal doses for all regardless of race, gender, neighborhood, class, culture or sexual orientation. To be anti-racist is to work for policies that benefit everyone in all of these areas.

 What will success look like. Kendi talks about racist polices moving to the margins and anti-racist policies moving front and center. People will stop blaming other people for their misfortune and instead, blame policies for societal problems. America would become a place where anti-racist ideas are common sense, just like racist ideas are today. What will America look like with anti-racist policies?

 White people do not benefit equally from racist policies. Rich whites not only oppress Blacks, they oppress white people as well. Most economic policies such as tax shelters, capital gains, exclusive housing, education policies that benefit private schools, bankruptcy laws, and crime policies that punish rich people for embezzling millions much more leniently than poor people selling two ounces of marijuana. Benefits fall very unequally to the rich to the exclusion of poorer people.

 We must remember that the source of racist policies does not come from ignorance and hate, but from self interest and then producing racist ideas to defend and rationalize the inequitable effects of their policies, while everyday people consume these ideas which spark ignorance and hate. It started with slavery. Slavery was a policy that paid great economic benefits to Southern slaveowners but also Northern bankers and wealthy people who sold their cotton and agricultural goods to Europe at reduced prices. If you don’t have to pay your workers, you gain a great economic benefit. 

 Kendi ends with what can we do to become more anti-racist?

  • First, we have to admit racial inequity is a problem of bad policy, not bad people. Each policy needs to have an anti-racist lens placed on it and it needs to be changed to apply equally for all;
  • We can join an anti-racist organization and protest current policies;
  • We can donate time and money to anti-racist organizations;
  • We can examine the intersections of where racism is mixed with other bigotries or ism’s and seek to change our ideas;
  • We can join the struggle by tracking where we personally stand on racist polices from which we benefit and develop anti-racist approaches to these policies;
  • We can monitor ourselves about anytime we make a comment about another racial group that is negative and makes people feel inferior. This one is hard because it assumes assimilationist thinking that assigns problems to groups and doesn’t separate the majority of people in that group that do not have that problem;
  • Stop using terms like colorblind. To be colorblind is blind and is racist;
  • Stop inviting Black people, women, gay, immigrants to your meetings and ask them to represent their race, gender, sexual preference, etc.;
  • Invent or find anti-racist policy that can eliminate racial inequity;
  • Figure out which groups have the power to institute anti-racist policy and focus your efforts there;
  • Disseminate information about the uncovered racist policies in your community as well as the anti-racist correctives;
  • Work with anti-racist power groups to drive from authority the unsympathetic racist policymakers in order to effect anti-racist policy;
  • Monitor the new policies closely to assure the anti-racist policies actually eliminate racial inequity;
  • When policies fail, do not blame people. Start over and tweak your policies so they work; and
  • Monitor very closely to ensure new racist policies from being instituted.

 We lost a great champion of that philosophy this past week in John Lewis. I believe he said it best – “You must be bold, brave and courageous. You must find a way to get in the way!” We must all stand together to keep John’s flame for justice burning.

 Kendi and his wife Sadiqa both had metastatic cancer and he proposes that we treat racism like cancer. Saturate the body politic with chemotherapy of anti-racist policies that shrink the tumors of racial inequity. Remove any remaining active cells the way surgeons do with cancer patients. Check out and treat the margins to make sure you got all of it. Always remember that racism is the fastest spreading and most fatal cancer humanity has ever known. Believe in the power that the cancer will not return just as the racist policies do not return. We can never lose hope.

 Today we stand at a crossroads. With the senseless murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, America’s Blacks and Whites for the first time appear to be joining together. It is not a time to rest but to capitalize on the national unrest and turn over every racist rock in America and begin to institute anti-racist polices in their place.


Robert Francis



An Occasional Book Review -- Michael Mather, Having Nothing, Possessing Everything: finding abundant communities in unexpected places


My friend and fellow ABCD faculty member Michael Mather has written and inspired me to take my ABCD work to another level and to revise my training to include more discussion of what people do when they try to help others. He also told the story of his colleague, De’Amon Harges’ (the “roving listener”) of how he helped him through his ”learning journeys” through the neighborhoods to identify and rise up resident’s gifts and turn them into learning opportunities for many others. This book is loaded with lessons for me but two stand out more than others:

 First is the theory of “Iatrogenesis.” The origin of iatrogenesis comes from the Greek for brought forth from the healer. The dictionary defines iatrogenesis as referring to any effect on a person resulting from an activity from one or more other persons acting as healthcare professionals or promoting products or services as beneficial to health, which does not support a goal of the person. In other words, there are unintended consequences that the cure might be worse than the original problem. For example, in human services we may recommend that a couple having difficulty should go to therapy, which may result in divorce, loss of your children, severely reduced income to support yourself, alienation from many of your friends, loneliness, depression and anxiety attacks. In the criminal justice system, we often punish offenses by jailing people, which in turn gives them a record, alienation from everyone who could care and help them, separation from and in many cases loss of family; and limitations in pursuing meaningful future employment,

 The second lesson that stood out for me was what should we do when someone comes to you for help. Our instantaneous response is to make suggestions as to how they might get themselves out of the mess they are presenting. Mike Mather suggests another way. He gives a great example of Amos who comes to him for help about a problem. The first thing Mike does is ask him who loves him? He then asks Amos to gather those people who love him in his office and have them talk about what they love about Amos. My suspicion is that Amos will now have a list of traits or assets that may show him he has the wherewithal to solve his own problems and he has a support system available  to be there for him to provide support and caring, to love him and will be there the next time he feels weak or will stray again!

 Both of these examples spell out where systems or institutional responses often fail to solve the problems they are set up to solve. Institutions are not capable of caring. Only people can provide true caring. Good institutions are those who get out of the way and give their staffs who can provide care the room and support to do so. We are seeing so much more of that now during the Covid 19 pandemic from hospitals and healthcare systems that are providing creative avenues for their staffs to truly provide care.

 As Mike and his friend and colleague De’Amon Hargis tell their stories of the Broadway Church in Indianapolis they highlight all of the other traits of ABCD that make for true caring and raising up the gifts of the people most affected by the issues they are trying to repair.

  1. Never do for others what they can do for themselves;
  2. Ask what are you good enough at that you could teach others?
  3. Start with gift assessments; not needs assessments;
  4. Always build on what is present and not on what is not;
  5. Ask yourself, are we more interested in helping others than achieving equality?
  6. Look for root causes and not just symptoms – for example, the single most important factor keeping young people from high school graduation is economic status. Maybe if we really want to have an impact, let’s start there.
  7. Practice hospitality and welcome the stranger! We must welcome every person in need as gifted people. True hospitality doesn’t refer people to others. It welcomes people into your community;
  8. When we travel, let’s go on learning journeys where we take the learnings and apply them as they fit into our communities when we return home.
  9. Challenged youth need teachers who can help them make sense of the world and their place in it. The teachers must work from the young people’s gifts; not their challenges. Yes, the challenges are real; but as John McKnight is so fond of saying “no need or challenge ever solved a problem. Only your gifts or assets can address the problems you are facing.”
  10. There is great strength in storytelling! A person’s and a community’s stories are essential to what makes communities strong.
  11. Institutions have instituted practices, rules and regulations that can act as barriers to seeing the gifts of the people we were put here to serve.
  12. When you look at the world as a place of abundance; you begin to see it everywhere!
  13. Our job as professionals is to get out of the way sometimes – provide space, provide resources -- food, facilities, materials, facilitation to a point, provide advice when asked but remember to ask first – who loves you? (“Lead by stepping back!”)
  14. 6 Broadway Church lessons – (1) our neighbors are God’s people; act like it; (2) everything begins with and builds on people’s gifts; (3) parents and guardians are the first best teachers – respect this; (4) we invest first and foremost in the good of the people in the neighborhood: (5) money must flow to the neighborhood and (6) practice neighbor love!
  15. People with skills; not programs for every need!

 I want to thank Michael for writing this book about where the rubber hits the road with ABCD and De’Amon for his creativity and caring in supporting him.

 Robert Francis


A Book Review - David Brooks, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life

When I started this book, I did not expect David Brooks, noted author, NY Times op-ed writer and PBS pundit to be an advocate for community building based on mobilizing citizen’s gifts. Brooks begins by writing about how we climb our first mountain by developing our skills and personality to build up our ego and define our unique self. The first mountain is about acquisition, moving up based on personal achievement, gratification and security. The second mountain in contrast is about contribution and planting ourselves amid those who need and walking arm in arm with them. He goes on to describe how striving and achieving does not necessarily bring happiness and contentment, but rather how it often leads to personal loneliness, distrust of others, lack of purpose with life, tribalism, and suffering. What stuck with me was the idea of tribalism in this age of deep polarization beginning in the early 1990’s and peaking in the present time where we have walled ourselves off into warring liberal and conservative camps where neither side is capable of hearing what the other side has to say. It has fractured families, long-standing friendships and communities.

 It is only when you climb the second mountain toward defining for yourself what it means to be a good person with empathy toward others that we attain more complete happiness. With reflection and consideration about the consequences of our actions we begin to understand what really matters is the depth and satisfaction we derive from our relationships with others. These relationships are both one on one but also with our community. This is where Brooks enlists those of us who are devotees of an asset-based approach to community building on the gifts of each person to build healthy environments in which to live. If you are someone who believes you have climbed the first mountain and are fully actualized and have determined the role that your religious faith or lack thereof, has helped form the person you are,  you can skip to page 253where he introduces his approach to community building. I would not however, recommend it since they are rich with great stories.

 Jane Jacobs wrote eloquently in her seminal work – The Death and Life of Great American Citiesas she describes looking out her Greenwich Village window at a scene where a 10-year-old girl is being mugged. Before she can act, she sees shopkeepers and residents exiting their buildings to help the girl and quiet the situation in the spirit of community building public safety. Brooks uses this example and quotes the work of John McKnight and Peter Block. He cites examples of very positive neighborhood efforts in Detroit, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Chicago, New Orleans, and New York, where people identified and took their gifts to the point of what he calls “combustion” or action, which contributes to healthier neighborhood life and renewal. Brooks composes what he sees as the “code of the neighbor.”

  1. We are enough– individual citizens discovering their own power to act,
  2. Village over self– inconveniencing self for the good of the community,
  3. Initiating the connection– inviting others to the community building party,
  4. Thirty-year eyes– being in it for the long haul,
  5. Radical hospitality– As Robert Frost said, “home is the place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” So it is with healthy neighborhoods. The code of the neighbor is “hospitality first.”
  6. The community is the expert– The people of the neighborhood puzzling together to determine the direction,
  7. Coming in under– or in my words – “leading by stepping back,”
  8. The least are the most– communities are defined by the treatment of the least among them: the young, the poor, the aged, the disabled, etc. and
  9. The sin is partly my own– the evil and what can be changed is inside us and it is really the only thing we control. It is through transparency and truth that relationships are built and neighborhoods and the people in them thrive.

 ABCD practitioners have been toiling in neighborhoods and spreading the word of ABCD for several decades. Through prominent writers like David Brooks, ABCD thinking has entered the mainstream and may help us move through this dark period of polarization and despair for our country. 

 I’ll leave you with one personal short story. Growing up in a small industrial town in Western Pennsylvania I was a pretty good baseball player. I lived about 15 minutes away from the fields where we played. After games it would take me over an hour to get home because my neighbors would stop me to talk about the game. I often tell people when I am facilitating an ABCD workshop that I left St. Mary’s, Pennsylvania when I was 19 years old for the excitement of living and working in cities where I’ve worked all my life trying to cultivate communities and neighborhoods like the one that nurtured me as a young man.




Robert Francis
About Robert Francis

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what are your gifts and talents?:

Group facilitation, program and strategy development, community organizing, understanding implicit bias, youth development, juveniel and adult criminal justice reform

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I am rejoining