An Interview with Rebecca Mintz and Justin Stein

Rebecca Mintz and Justin Stein
Date Published: 
September 1, 2008
This interview was written by Rebecca Mintz and Justin Stein, two white anti-racist activists who moved to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to do solidarity work in the reconstruction movement.  They both volunteered with Common Ground, a grassroots relief organization that was formed right after the hurricane by New Orleans residents Malik Rahim and Sharon Johnson.  It was through Common Ground that Rebecca and Justin were able to connect with Community Mediation Services, a New Orleans nonprofit that promotes conflict mediation and facilitation.  They were able to receive paid Americorps positions under the umbrella of CMS, while continuing to work with Common Ground.  This interview is the result of their experience in striving to transform the process by which Americorps volunteers are selected through CMS.

1.  How are the institutions of Americorps, NAFCM, CMS and CG connected?

Rebecca: Our funding starts at the level of Americorps, which gives the National Association For Community Mediation (NAFCM) a certain amount of money each year to administer a national community mediation program.  NAFCM's national work consists of giving logistical and training support to many local mediation projects in cities and towns around the country; one part of this support is allocating money to local programs to train and hire mediation volunteers.  Community Mediation Services (CMS), based in New Orleans, is one of the local projects that NAFCM funds.  In the past few years, NAFCM has passed Americorps money onto CMS to fund as many as six volunteers each year.  

Justin:  CMS's director has been closely involved with Common Ground (CG) since its founding, and is personally close with CG's director.  Therefore, many of the Americorps positions were offered to Common Ground volunteers, who are primarily white people from outside New Orleans.  This is how Rebecca and I were able to receive Americorps positions.

2.  The piece of this structure that you all worked to change was the way that volunteers are recruited and selected to receive this funding.  What was the process for choosing volunteers in the past?

Justin:  In the past the process for choosing volunteers relied predominantly on the personal relationship that the CMS director had with CG volunteers and leadership.  The director of CMS would either personally offer positions to volunteers that she had worked with in CG and thought would be good for the position, or she would seek references from CG leadership.

3.  what were your theoretical beliefs that made you want to change this process?

Rebecca:  One of the main tenets of anti-racist organizing as i understand it is to support the work of those who are from and who are working in their own oppressed communities.  This principle is central because, for one, people can usually be more effective in their own communities than can organizers coming in from the outside.  Local organizers often know the needs and nuances of their own communities in a way that most outsiders do not.  And, because of internalized superiority that folks with privilege have been taught, folks from coming in from outside can unknowingly perpetrate oppressive dynamics on the communities they are trying to organize.  

Another thing is that, as we have seen in so many other historical moments, struggles that are not led by those who are most impacted so often end up reinforcing the same systems of oppression they are seeking to challenge.  To me, the just rebuilding of New Orleans is a clear example of a time in history when local communities of color must lead the work.  Katrina and its institutional neglect have displaced poor and Black New Orleanians, and these are the people who know what it will take to get themselves home.  So any way that we could strengthen the leadership of local organizers of color seemed important to me.

I have seen a lot of examples of "out-of-towner" organizing in post-K NOLA that show these mistakes, and their impacts.  In terms of the organization that I worked most closely with, I have developed an understanding of why CG had been so successful in comparison to other organizations.  Since it was founded, there have been many college students involved, often middle-, ruling-class, and white people, who could then recruit resources through their well-resourced networks.  So from the beginning, this organization was more connected to resources in general than organizations that we based in and built out of poor and working class communities.  As I began to see this, I also heard many painful stories about how CG's access to resources actively detracted from the work of other organizations that were more grounded in local communities of color struggling to rebuild in the aftermath of Katrina and challenge the ongoing legacy of racism.  Instead of turning over those resources to local leaders whose organizing was incredibly limited by lack of resources, "out-of-towners" created their own projects that often overshadowed the local work being done.  

It was painful for me to recognize how CMS was, in certain ways, part of keeping resources within those networks of privilege.  The resources that our director has were being poured back into her own personal and work community which was, in this case, CG.

Justin:  One way we often think about this reality is through the concept of "gatekeeping." I have seen myself a number of times in a position where I have access to resources and institutions that affect the lives of other people. I have some sway over what those institutions do and/or where those resources go.  In this particular situation, I had access to institutions with resources and was responsible for helping shape a process to decide who would get Americorps positions. I was an Americorps member, and hence a member of NAFCM and CMS. I had a position carved out for me that gave me a place at certain decision making tables where the decisions made would affect the lives of other people.  
    I think we'd be irresponsible to not acknowledge the role of the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond in regards to our understanding of institutional gatekeeping.  It was through their Undoing Racism training and ongoing mentorship that we developed an analysis around the concept of gatekeeping and began to really look at what it means to be an "accountable gatekeeper".  
Rebecca:  That is such a big part of all of this.  When I am a gate-keeper, I’m deciding where money goes and what organizations benefit from my distribution of resources. In this situation, CMS's priorities and principles were determining which projects got funding, and which did not.  That is a serious degree of power over a large amount of resources.

3.  What would it look like to be an "accountable gate-keeper"?

Justin:  I feel that centering my work, actions, and analysis around the experiences and leadership of those I seek to stand in solidarity with is absolutely essential. I need to be taking direction from those who will be impacted by my work but do not have the same type of access I do because of my level of privilege. I think being accountable in a gate-keeping role like that requires me to open doors for involvement and input of those who will be most impacted by the decisions of whatever institution I have access to. I also think making sure all decisions and processes are transparent for the people and communities most affected by the decisions being made is essential. In that role I see myself accountable to people and communities who historically are denied access to resources, institutions, and decision making power on a systemic level.  This means taking leadership from and being accountable to communities of color, queers, women and gender oppressed people, and poor people.  In the specific context of post-Katrina New Orleans, I feel I need to prioritize accountable relationships with people of color led organizations doing racial justice work in their communities.
Rebecca:  There are a lot of pieces to being an accountable gatekeeper.  For one, I have to recognize how the individual discretion that I wield affects other people’s lives and work. I think that it requires me to be clear about my ultimate goal of my work, which is the just rebuilding of New Orleans, and to always keep that goal front and center when I decide how to act.

4.  given those beliefs, what was your vision for the new process this year?

Rebecca: As justin mentioned, so many of the positions were going to people from out of town, rather than people who were from new orleans.  this is a zero-sum situation, meaning that there is a finite amount of money, so if it goes to folks from out of town, it does not go to local organizers.  I was hoping that the new process would put those resources in the hands of organizers of color, who themselves were working in their own communities, and who were working for organizations run by local people of color, as one concrete change.  

Justin:  My vision was a lot about the process we would use to achieve that concrete change.  As folks with privilege, it would not be enough for us to just redistribute those resources.  We need to redistribute those resources through processes that are transparent, accountable, and open to critique.  The process needed to include and take direction from local folks of color, so that we wouldn't be arbitrarily making those decisions on our own.

I envisioned it beginning with mentorship from local organizations and organizers of color in the New Orleans area. This way we could structure the process and move along with it in a way that was accountable to organizations of color doing racial justice work in the reconstruction movement.

I ultimately hoped the finalized structure of the process would be institutionalized by CMS as a means of accepting applicants in the future.

I believed the benefits of the new process would be to create a more collectivized decision making process by allowing input from more people. More importantly, it would also allow CMS to be more accountable to the greater New Orleans racial justice organizing community, specifically to local people of color struggling to rebuild their homes and communities.

5.  What were the concrete steps you took to create a new selection process?

Rebecca:  The first thing we did was have informal conversations with respected and unifying leaders of color in the city, folks that we had been doing work with for a long time and with whom had built up some quality relationships.  Together, we made a list of social justice organizations that collaborate and work towards the same political goals.  Out of those conversations, I wrote up an explanation of the opportunity and application process.

Justin:  I worked to identify and recruit individuals who could apply for these positions. I served as a liaison of communication between folks and kept everyone involved up to date on what was going on. I was also a member of the group to make a final decision on who would receive a position.

Rebecca:  I worked a little bit differently than Justin at this point.  Instead of talking to organizers who might apply themselves, I spread the word to to leaders who knew of up and coming organizers that they would like to bring in to their organizations.  

Justin:  After we received applications from those who wanted to apply, we asked them for ideas on what criteria we should use to make those decisions.  We also checked in with local allies who were not applying to ask for suggestions on criteria to use.
I was also a member of the group to make a final decision on who would receive a position.  That group, made up of current CMS members and a few outside allies, met, agreed upon criteria, and allocated positions according to those criteria we had gathered.  

Rebecca:  We took careful notes during that meeting about how we determined the positions, and offered those notes freely to organizations that had applied for positions.  

6.  Given your position as gatekeeper of these national resources in relation to the NOLA community, how did you perform those roles in a way that was accountable to your local racial justice allies? (how did you shape this work with that identity in mind?

Justin: I try to do outreach and relationship building with organizations and organizers working within their own communities. So as someone that identifies as a white antiracist solidarity activist I strive to build relationships with organizations of color doing racial justice work. I seek to support the work that they are doing, and I check in with those organizations about the work I am doing. I think owning my privilege as a white heterosexual man and developing a praxis based on ending all forms of oppression is also key.
Rebecca: Practically, being accountable means that I do consistent work within communities of color so that my racial justice work is grounded in a real, personal experience of how communities of color are affected by racism.  Through that work, I build a crucial, solid antiracist community, so that I’m constantly checking in with people who share my goals.  Those allies help me understand the destructive preconceptions that I’ve learned about myself and other people, about money, about gender, as well as how those preconceptions interfere with the work that I’m doing.  Being accountable also means that I check in with the people that are going to be affected by my decisions, that I am getting feedback from them about the work I do and the decisions I make.  
Through those relationships, I try to ensure that my work is in keeping with anti-oppressive principles, as expressed by a community much wider than myself. I try to make sure that I am applying those principles as other folks in my community would apply them. These practices are not meant as self-deprecation, as a way to put down my own leadership or value.  They are meant to keep us unified into a healthy, productive community that serves each other's needs.  

8.  What were some challenges in performing these roles in a principled way?

Justin:  I think figuring out how to initiate the process was difficult.  It was hard to come up with a plan on how to most appropriatly go to antiracist organizers of color and propose this idea.  We wanted to be accountable to the racial justice work organizers of color were doing in New Orleans, but we also didn't want to overload them with another project some white volunteers from out of town felt was important.  In the end, I think we did the best we could and learned a lot through the process.

Rebecca:  The step of publicizing the position to specific social justice organizations was super challenging and scary: it was hard to figure out exactly how to publicize and to whom. I didn’t want to replicate the same “tap tap” syndrome that had been happening in years before, in that i would be tapping organizations rather than individual volunteers within CG, but I would still be tapping according to my own discretion and in my own networks.

8.  given that most people involved in the decision making in this process are white, how did you shape the process with that in mind?
Rebecca:  Justin and I were both at the table that made final decisions about who would receive the positions and stipends.  We invited local organizers to that table in an effort to be transparent, but it ended up being just those folks that were involved in our program.  Because the positions in the past had gone mostly to white people from other cities, that table was mostly white.  That was a particularly difficult moment.  We saw this reality as an even greater responsibility to be transparent in our process, and to keep anti-racism at the center of the table as best we could.

Justin: Given that most people outside the program were not at the decision-making table, we checked in with them beforehand, through personal relationships and through formal meetings about our process. We also shaped our criteria through conversations with local organizers of color and through our understanding of antiracist principles. The goal of that process was to make sure that our decision-making was based as firmly in the antiracist community in NOLA as possible, instead of just making the decisions from our own assumptions.
In the end we funded some really amazing people, all of whom are local people of color doing racial justice work.  That means that hopefully next year, those local organizers will make the decisions about who gets Americorps positions.  
9.  In this structure, how would you consider yourself accountable to Americorps (as the institution that provides the actual stipends),  to NAFCM (as the institution that runs the national mediation program), and to CMS (as your local organizational home)?  How did that complicate matters for you in this process?

Justin:  As a salaried full time volunteer for NAFCM and its Americorps program, I feel completing the required number of volunteer hours expected is a big part of being accountable to both institutions.  Also, in relation to my accountability to NAFCM in particular, I make sure that I'm continuously learning about conflict mediation and facilitation.  As a salaried full time volunteer for NAFCM and its Americorps program, I feel completing the required number of volunteer hours promoting it as a model for dealing with conflicts are central pieces of my day to day work.

Rebecca:  To add to what Justin said about keeping mediation central to my work, I feel responsible for being honest about the work that I’m doing, even if that work doesn't fall completely under NAFCM's and Americorps' job descriptions.  It is part of my commitment to attend their trainings. I also feel committed to and grateful for my relationship with my supervisor; when she asks me to do something for our parent organizations, I do it.

On the other hand, the fact that my paycheck comes from Americorps does not mean that I feel more accountable to my funders than to my allies here in New Orleans. My work here is to support a just rebuilding of NOLA, so when choosing the specific work that I do, I prioritize those goals over the obligations or commitments I have to our parent organizations.  I make those decisions through my relationships with organizers working for racial justice, rather than through checking in with the organizations that fund me.  Therefore, I feel politically accountable to local racial justice organizers and allies in a way that I do not feel accountable to the organizations that pay me.

Justin: Maybe part of what Rebecca is saying is that she feels that one way of being accountable to NAFCM and CMS is to use their resources to help local racial justice organizations.  And that being accountable to NAFCM sometimes means challenging it and pushing to use it’s resources in a way that’s accountable to racial justice orgs in NOLA.

10.  How does antiracism inform this project’s work and transformation?
maybe this should be structured to be a wrap up conclusion thing?  so it could be okay to repeat things, as long as its kinda pulling out the most important pieces and showing how they all fit together?  or something?

Justin: Anti-racist analysis is what pushed us to transform this process from what it was into a process that supports the work of local activists, specifically activists of color doing racial justice work. Trying to be explicitly anti-racist means that we have to do certain things: taking leadership from explicitly anti-racist organizations led by people of color to structure the process, using the process to ultimately strengthen the work of organizations of color doing racial justice and right of return work, being transparent, and really owning privilege, specifically race and racism.

Rebecca: In my understanding, anti-racism is grounded in principles of transparency and equity.  One major tenet that has been very central down here is that oppressed communities know how to best liberate themselves, and should therefore control the resources that support their liberation struggles. Throughout my time in New Orleans, the racial justice community has expressed to me that resources and salaries need to be in the hands of organizations of local folks.  I see the transfer of resources from the hands of white people from out-of-town into the hands of local folks of color as a clear example of that principle.