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Racial Equity Inclusion, Sophic Solutions
Sophic Solutions partnered with the Kauffman Foundation to manage Kansas City's racial equity training in early 2018.

We need to clean the pond, not fix the fish

Data and fact-based training is helping Kansas City residents understand the systemic issues behind racial inequities.

Like many cities, Kansas City has a troubled history of racial inequities. This city’s particular version of systemic racism depleted the generational wealth of middle-class African Americans through targeted racial policies. Those have included whites-only clauses in housing developments, challenges to African Americans seeking loans, and a long-time divide along Troost Avenue tied to school boundaries that established and secured segregation.

Racial Equity Institute (REI) co-founder and trainer Suzanne Plihcik said that all the systems in our society – in every city – have a DNA that ensures outcomes are best for white people and worst for black people. All other people of color, she said, go back and forth between the bookends in the construct.

The Racial Equity Institute of Greensboro, North Carolina, works with the private and public sectors, as well as with every type of leader and employee, to rework the racial structure of society. Over the past 18 months in Kansas City alone, more than 500 people in Kansas City have begun their journey to being equitably minded by attending an REI training.

The training uses historical fact and current data – largely untold and untaught portions – to give participants a broad, objective view of the racial stratification of our nation.

“So much emphasis and energy was placed on keeping people down based on their race and color and keeping them inferior, keeping them almost like you had your foot on their neck, that they would never be able advance or ask for or have the equal opportunities that their counterparts had,” Cassandra Wainright said she learned in the REI training.

Wainright is the pastor of Heavensent Outreach Ministries in Raytown, Missouri, and is the president of the Concerned Clergy Coalition of Kansas City. A native Kansas Citian and woman of color, who’s an involved community member, she said she went into the training thinking that she had a good handle on the disenfranchisement of oppressed and marginalized people.

But she hadn’t expected a history lesson, not just about race relations in her own city, but about systemic challenges faced by the entire nation. She said what she learned was devastating.

“It was very riveting to me to become aware that this was the country in which I was born and raised in, and that it was already set by design that we would be at a disadvantage,” she said.

If you live near a lake and one day saw one fish floating belly-up dead, it would make some sense to dissect that fish and see what it died from.

If you woke up one morning and half the fish in the lake were floating belly-up dead, it’s time to look at the lake.

Suzanne Plihcik, co-founder, Racial Equity Institute

Plihcik explained that our society believes that bigoted and prejudiced people and their individual actions are the cause of racial problems. But, the Racial Equity Institute, as well as most contemporary writers and scholars on the subject, say individuals are the product of the current structural arrangement that has allowed them to develop those negative behaviors.

“We have a structure that creates an ideology that causes the bigotry and prejudice,” Plihcik said.

In order to illustrate the problems within the education system, social service system, housing system, economic system, and others, Plihcik and her peers have developed an analogy.

“If you live near a lake and one day you saw one fish floating belly-up dead, it would make some sense to dissect that fish and see what it died from. If, however, you woke up one morning and half the fish in the lake were floating belly-up dead, it’s time to look at the lake,” Plihcik said, likening overlooked members of society to the fish and the lake to the systems within that society.

Racial Equity Inclusion, Sophic Solutions
The Racial Equity Institute training session.

The institute’s observation and concern is that American society tends to fix the “fish,” even when their suffering is being inflicted by their environment. Plihcik said that at our worst, we blame the fish themselves.

“And we believe,” Plihcik continued, “that it is in fact way overdue that we clean lakes, that even to fix fish and put them back in toxic water isn’t a viable plan.”

In Kansas City, as in other locations across the country, REI was invited by the community to offer training. Sophic Solutions partnered with the Kauffman Foundation to manage Kansas City’s training in early 2018. Sophic also contributes the perspective of a local advisory council to help shape that work. Since launch, a number of organizations have come forward to provide food and training space for participants for the two-day events.

Responses to the training are as varied as the participants, but all feel moved to reexamine their viewpoints and behaviors in one way or another.

“It’s not like white people are immune from the problems of racism and the expectations of a racialized society,” REI Community Advisory Member Beccah Rendall said. “This work often seems optional for white folks, because it’s not about us, right, it’s about liberating other people.”

The racial equity training underscored for Rendall that equity for all means liberating absolutely everyone and allowing all to live “their fullest lives.”

It was very riveting to me to become aware that this was the country in which I was born and raised in, and that it was already set by design that we would be at a disadvantage

Cassandra Wainright, pastor, Heavensent Outreach Ministries

Rendall is white and in her late 20s. She works as a Volunteer in Service to America (VISTA) program specialist at the Kansas City Public Library through AmeriCorps. VISTA is the only national service program specifically focused on poverty alleviation. She knew the equity training would be important to her because any discussion about poverty alleviation also needs to involve racial equity.

“It’s pretty evident based on people’s stories, based on geographic dispersion of folks in Kansas City, that racism and poverty are linked, and therefore poverty alleviation and anti-racism also need to be linked,” she said.

Rendall said in her work, and with her REI training in mind, she understands that a racial restructuring with an eye toward inclusion will ultimately lift everyone.

When she thinks of beneficial societal changes, she sees that they sometimes start with regulations tailored to a specific group. The Americans with Disabilities Act comes to mind. She points out that increased accessibility to and within public spaces came with unintended benefits to populations like mothers pushing strollers. Working toward restructuring society’s treatment of minorities may benefit other groups left on the sidelines.

“When we make things accessible to the most historically marginalized groups in our community, it makes them accessible to everybody,” she said.

Plihcik added that while access is an issue, it’s structure and culture that the training focuses on. “Opportunity is blocked because of built in advantage to white people, which is the goal of racism. Oppression is racism’s strategy,”

Unlike the Americans with Disabilities Act, legislation alone cannot fix the more complicated systemic issues or give individuals awareness of the much larger historical context of racism.

Carolyn Watley said that the “how” of fixing flawed structures is the hard part.

“How can a community grow and thrive in the right way?” she asked.

In Kansas City… racism and poverty are linked, and therefore poverty alleviation and anti-racism also need to be linked.

Beccah Rendall, AmeriCorps VISTA member, Kansas City Public Library

Watley, who is also white, is the chair of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and co-chair of the diversity equity inclusion task force for KC Rising.

Plihcik cautions that, though the impulse is to find a way to fix and actively find solutions, being aware of the big picture is a big deal in itself.

“The notion that we have something to do besides spending a great deal of time understanding and studying and being clear that our diagnosis is correct before we take action, is imperative. We are not there to tell people what to do,” Plihcik said.

The training “creates an opportunity for greater empathy and understanding, and I think also maybe awareness of sensitivities and biases that exist within myself and within all of us,” Watley said. “It’s kind of really taking a step back to think about those and how they impact us on a day to day basis.”

Watley said modeling behaviors to other leaders, behaviors like resistance to judgement and biases, is a place to start.

Rendall said that the REI training made her more aware of the way she communicates with her clients and with the facilitators she organizes. As a member of a social service system, one of the basic societal systems that Plihcik said is structurally skewed in favor of white people, Rendall said the training “was a good grounding and reminder that people communicate in different ways, and that there’s not one that’s more valid than others.”

In the past, she might have conducted business through email, because to her that’s easiest and most effective. However, for many of those she works with, face to face interactions are the primary way to build trust and rapport.

As part of her growing awareness of larger structural flaws in society’s systems, Pastor Wainright said she sees the necessity of communicating at a different level altogether. She finds herself stepping forward to call out systemic inequity when she sees it. Before her training she’d mostly wanted to hang back and support people in quiet ways.

“Because of the things that I feel that God has allowed me to see and witness, I no longer can stay in the background,” Wainright said. “My voice needs to be heard, even though to some it may not be as significant.”

She recently supported a young black man through a court trial, who received a lighter sentence than he might have because of her intervention.

“White counterparts are fined or maybe put on probation, but our black young men are being convinced that they should take a guilty plea, then run the risk of being incarcerated,” she said.

Do we need to speak up for people? Absolutely. Is that the answer to this problem? Not in a million years.

Suzanne Plihcik, co-founder, Racial Equity Institute

And though this man would count as only one “fish” in the REI analogy, Wainright wanted to speak out and be heard by those in the courtroom – a start in building an alliance of people who challenge the system.

Plihcik agreed that speaking up is important work, and reemphasized that it’s crucial to remember that really cleaning the groundwater is collective work, not the work of one individual another. She said her institute teaches that people must “build a base of power sufficient to challenge power.”

It’s consistent, targeted, and intentional justice reform that’s necessary, otherwise we’ll be “fixing fish,” that is, speaking up for or helping individuals, until the end of time.

“Do we need to speak up for people? Absolutely. Is that the answer to this problem? Not in a million years,” Plihcik said. “Yes, you continue to do it, perhaps someone else does come on board and you’re building that coalition. But you need to build that group of people with some intention and with goals that will be addressing some of the issues that you want addressed.”


The Kauffman Foundation has started on the journey to embed diversity, equity, and inclusion into how we go about our work, from our programmatic areas in Education, Entrepreneurship, and Kansas City, to our internal efforts to ensure our team of associates understand and reflect the communities we serve. Whether it be found in our efforts to increase capital investment for underrepresented entrepreneurs, our support for after-school and STEM programs, or our grants for early childhood education, our mission is to make certain that every person opportunity to learn, take risks, and own their success.

Our Bootstrap Obsession: Let each of us own our success, exhibit the grit and determination it takes to forge our own paths to define and achieve it, but with the recognition that we don’t get there alone.

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