NOTEBOOK: Engagement, listening, acting just a start in breaking down racial inequities – UD cultural competency training write up

NOTEBOOK: Engagement, listening, acting just a start in breaking down racial inequities

BY MICHAEL CRUMB, Senior Staff Writer

Friday, June 19, 2020 6:00 AM

“Once you know better, do better.“

That was the prevailing message of a cultural competency training the staff at the Business Record recently participated in.

We sat down on June 11 with Izaah Knox, the executive director Urban Dreams, and Negus Sankofa Imhotep, the agency’s coordinator of education and workforce development, to listen and learn what we as a media organization can do to better tell the stories affecting members of our black community, and, as an overwhelmingly white staff, what we need to do to better understand the challenges facing the black community and ensure their voices are being heard in the stories we want to tell.

For those who don’t know, Urban Dreams is an agency founded in 1985 by Wayne Ford, who served as its executive director until he retired in 2017. Ford also served as a state legislator from 1996 to 2010. The agency, which strives to break down barriers for underserved residents by collaborating with key stakeholders to overcome obstacles to success, focuses on community connectivity, mental health and substance abuse treatment, education, and workforce development, and it has opened a food pantry to help serve the community. It tailors its trainings to the organizations it’s working with.

In the two-hour training, held both in a conference room at the Business Record office and through the video platform Zoom, our staff learned statistics that show how systemic racism exists in our community.

For example, people with white-sounding names received 50% more callbacks for job interviews than people with black-sounding names, no matter what industry they worked in. 

Knox and Imotep said employers tend to hire people who look like them, which results in a lack of diversity in the workplace. Knox told us systemic racism is evident in the job market and in inequity in pay, which often leads to increased crime and incarceration.

A study done by the University of Iowa in 2016 shows that white teachers more often than not see black males as being two to five years older than they really are, and see them as a threat, Knox said. 

Imhotep told us that “whiteness equates to property and wealth. Blackness equates to poverty and criminal, and that’s the way society looks at us.” Imhotep said studies show that people with African American features receive higher penalties in the criminal justice system than white defendants, and that even white people who have black-like features get harsher penalties than those who don’t.

“So the issue of systemic racism … is permanent, and we just have to come to realize we’re going to have to work this out,” he said.

We also listened and learned about dog whistles, or those things people might say that express bigotry without appearing to. Expressions such as “That’s ghetto,” “he is such a thug” and “that neighborhood is hood,” are just some dog whistles. 

Other “dog whistles” are telling a black person, “You are so well mannered or carry yourself so well” and “You are very articulate.”

Knox said one way to start overcoming racial stereotypes and systemic racism is to begin engaging in an authentic way with people who aren’t like you. 
Knox also said if someone makes a mistake and says something they know is offensive, they should apologize right away.

“Say ‘sorry,’ say ‘I really didn’t mean it.’ Literally, if you are authentically sorry, apologize — that’s all you can do,” Knox said. 

“Call yourself on it. Oftentimes people of color, people who have been marginalized do feel uncomfortable calling someone out on those kinds of things, and you can understand why. … How many times have those things escalated?”

We also listened and learned that the organizers of the current Black Lives Matter movement want their voices heard, and don’t want people of previous generations speaking on their behalf.  They are tired of talking and tired of inaction. They are seeking change, and they want their generation’s voice to be the voice of that change.

Imhotep told stories of growing up in Houston and a high school football game against a team from a “sundown town,” which meant people of color were to be off the streets before sunset. He told about his experience moving from a “unified black environment” to Iowa after his parents divorced in the late 1960s after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

There was a lot that was discussed in that two-hour training. But the biggest lesson we took away from that afternoon was that we must continue to listen, learn and engage if we are to be part of the solution, and do better because we know better.

If you’d like to know more about Urban Dreams and the work they’re doing, visit them at their website at