Yesterday, George Floyd was laid to rest: a man who nearly thirty years ago told his classmates, “I want to touch the world.” Today, his name is being spoken by protesters worldwide, protesters who have not rested, who will not rest in their pursuit of justice. These protestors line the streets of Minneapolis, streets George Floyd walked every day, and they line the streets of more distant places: of New York and DC, of London and São Paulo, and here in Alaska from Kotzebue to Ketchikan.
George Floyd’s murder is unprecedented for what it has set off around the country and around world, but it is not unique in its demonstration of the deadly consequences of systemic and institutional racism embedded in our society.
In the past two weeks we have seen charges upgraded and long closed investigations re-opened. We’ve seen statues fall and pop-up galleries erected. This emerging landscape is the space on which we must build the work of a lifetime.
Nearly twenty years ago, three Alaskan teenagers targeted Alaska Natives in downtown Anchorage with premeditated and racially motivated drive-by paintball attacks. That incident, too, was unprecedented because of the statewide response it provoked, but all too banal in its demonstration of the systemic racism permeating our city and state. In response, the Alaska Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held community forums and produced a bipartisan report, “Racism’s Frontier: The Untold Story of Discrimination and Division in Alaska.”
That report included recommendations to promote change, and those recommendations were the stimulus for some of the Alaska Humanities Forum’s longest standing programs: the Sister School Exchange and the Educator Cross Cultural Immersion. Those recommendations deeply influenced the direction of Leadership Anchorage, which had been founded only a few years earlier. The work of those programs has inspired additional efforts to promote equity and inclusion: the Creating Cultural Competence (C3) program for rural educators and the Tengluni program for rural youth.
The work we are doing today is the direct result of the work that people did nineteen years ago in response to an incident that forced us, for the moment, to contend with systemic racism. In 2001, Alaskans chose to harness that momentary attention and energy, channeling the momentum into a sustainable framework for change. They were playing the long game: they understood that cultural norms and perceptions need to shift in order to see long-term, lasting social change.
The moment we find ourselves in now shows us just how much work there is yet to do, and just how long that game is. Reading “Racism’s Frontier” today, we can see many ways that the report has not aged all that well. It seems to equate all experiences of racism in Alaska, chalking them up to a rural/urban divide and failing to acknowledge Black experiences, Filipino experiences, Latinx experiences, Samoan experiences, and all the many distinct experiences of systemic racism that show up in Alaska. And yet, where would we be today without that report and work that developed from it? Without those two decades of work, would we even recognize those flaws?
With thoughtfulness and determination, the actions and choices we make today will drive the work being done in Alaska twenty years from now. How can we work to ensure the sustainability of our response to this moment? As Gary Holthaus, our founding director said, “The humanities offer us so many avenues for considering who we are and what we might become and how we might behave to create a better world.”
Systemic racism is insidious precisely because it does not need to be intentional to be powerful: we have internalized racism through our implicit biases, through our unquestioned cultural preferences and assumptions, through the subtle barriers to access we erect not because we want to discriminate but rather because we want to be efficient. We, the Alaska Humanities Forum, cannot fight racism without first recognizing that we are part of this system. Our work needs to start from the inside.
We need to recognize that in our organization’s nearly fifty-year history we have had only one non-White CEO. Our first Alaska Native board chair served just a few years ago. And as we reflect on Gary Holthaus’s question, “how might we behave to create a better world?” we must also reflect on how we are complicit in preventing change.
We are committed to starting this work from the inside and playing the long game as we pursue our vision of a culturally diverse, economically vibrant, and equitable Alaska where people are engaged, informed, and connected. An Alaska where Black lives matter.
We know that while George Floyd’s body has now been laid to rest, his memory cannot be. My statement here joins a cacophony of public statements that will be judged not by the strength of the words on the page but by the quality of the actions taken in the months, years, and decades that follow.
Watch us. Work with us. Persevere. Kameron Perez-Verdia
President & CEO