Couple inspire interracial awareness
James and Roberta Wilburn founded Wilburn & Associates LLC in April 2018 to promote diversity and social justice through diversity-equity-and-inclusion training, executive-and-cultural coaching, African drumming lessons, advocacy and social justice, and experiential learning events.
"We want to make a difference in the world, bringing out the best in people by helping them realize their potential without giving up their culture or heritage," said James. "We seek to foster respect and dignity, celebrating human diversity."
In workshops and presentations, Roberta has trained more than 1,000 counselors, teachers, government workers and social workers locally, nationally and internationally.
James brings knowledge of African and African American history, first-hand experience navigating living South during the Jim Crow era, and experience working with schools. A master African drummer, percussionist and vocalist, he speaks in schools and at cultural events.
In June 2017, he retired after more than seven years as achievement gap intervention specialist and community engagement program manager, serving in several schools and the Spokane Public Schools district office.
Roberta, who has worked 12 years at Whitworth University, is associate dean for graduate studies in education and diversity initiatives.
With starting this program, they see their coming to Spokane as a fulfilment of their calling.
"When God puts you in a place, it's God's plan," said Roberta, associate minister at Jesus Is the Answer Church.
James, a past president of NAACP Spokane, began receiving requests for motivational speaking in the community.
From DNA tests, they found their ancestors came from Congo and Cameroon—37 percent for James and 54 percent, Roberta. James also has 34 percent from Benin. Their ancestors also trace to Virginia.
James grew up in black towns of Marion and Sunset, Ark., where elders helped him understand the repressive segregation laws and violence in the Jim Crow era.
"Fascinated to learn about our history, I have been on a journey to help other African Americans and people of color understand how they are affected by things that happened in history," he said. "The younger generation has no idea of history and what we have overcome."
One high school student whose skin color matched James' was upset that a teacher let a white student go to the bathroom, but did not let him go. The teacher sent him to the office when he acted out. He did not understand. When James suggested he look at his skin, the student said, "I'm white." School records listed him as white. His mother is white.
"He was confused," James said.
"Racial identity problems make a difference, but they can be difficult to address because most counseling theories are based on European-American models." Roberta said. "When students of color are adopted or biracial, their white parents may have no idea how to educate them culturally, so the children do not know how to navigate the system.
"We have not reached Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of judging people by the content of their character, not their skin color," Roberta said. "It's important to help African Americans understand power issues and who they are, and help European Americans understand how trauma impacts African Americans. Many white people want to come alongside and be allies, but it's hard because of the history of not discussing racial issues. We create space to talk so they feel they can ask questions without being intimidated."
The Wilburns offer cultural events in community venues, such as ones at West Central Community Center or a Riverfront Park Kwanza celebration, to create "courageous conversations."
A conversation on reparations for slavery drew more than 60 to the Carl Maxey Center. Participants discussed whether money would provide the repair needed for what happened in 250 years of slavery since 1619 and 150 years of Jim Crow repression.
"The justice, education, banking, housing and other systems still need repair, so handing a check over does not repair what continues to fail us," James said. "We need more than the equivalent of 40 acres and a mule."
The Wilburns find it's hard to have conversations in Spokane where there few people of color and systems treat them unfairly. Even though people of color graduate from school and college, employers say they can't find "qualified people of color."
As a Police Department ombudsman commissioner, James sees disproportionate use of force against people of color. He continually asks for data on that.
"The police not sharing information stirs suspicions," he said. "I want to understand why there is more force used against African Americans. Is it racial profiling? Do they want to fix it?"
With Spokane Public Schools, he was also able to address issues.
At Lewis and Clark, he held a retreat for African-American students at the East Central Community Center. A panel of African Americans said they could talk about anything. Some thought "n" word was a term of endearment among African Americans. Others did not want to be called that. They agreed whites were not to use it.
"In the Deep South, a teacher would suspend an African-American student who reacted when called that," James said. "We were allowed to read only 90 years ago. In African-American schools I attended, books were passed down.
"Our history was not in most history books. My first year of integration was in college. I grew up in an African-American community, church and school and did not know how to deal with white people's bias," said James.
As a Baptist, he tried Southern Baptist College after dropping out of Arkansas State, but still found it hard to overcome discrimination. Later, he graduated from Columbia School of Broadcast to be a DJ, but found no job in the Memphis market.
"I needed to find out who I was and why I was hated. I began to read and learn that I was not just descended from slaves but also from African kings and queens, people who developed hieroglyphics, philosophy and navigation. The more I learn history, the more I am proud.
"Most schools teach from a Eurocentric perspective, so it's hard for children of color. They are to think, do and act white. Their parents work and don't sit at the dinner table to talk with them," he said.
"It's also important to have African-American teachers so students have role models to aspire to," said James, who is publishing memoirs of his self-discovery, My Journey Through the Black Sacred Cosmos.
"Children need to know the African-American social reformer, abolitionist Frederick Douglass' words: 'It's easier to build strong children than repair broken men.' African Americans suffer the psychological effect of slavery. Mothers say, 'Quit!' 'Stop!' 'Don't!' to protect their children so they don't venture too far," he said.
Roberta calls it "epigenetics"—how trauma changes genes passed down for generations.
"Slaves preached the sermon and sang songs their masters gave them. Then they worshiped in the grove," James said.
His walk through the black sacred cosmos led him to understand that not all white people are bad. Two years after he graduated from LeMoyne-Owen College, a historical black college, in 2005, he and Roberta came to Spokane, where he developed his first positive relationships with whites, working on an equal footing. In 2010, he earned a master's degree at Whitworth.
"I've had ups and downs, but I can decipher more now," he said.
Working with Whitworth to produce teachers and administrators who are sensitive, Roberta has developed ways to help organizations create diversity practices, and look at their policies and procedures through a diversity lens. She offers an intercultural inventory to help people expand their cultural awareness on a continuum.
"We live in a time of changing demographics in every field. People need to be culturally aware to interact effectively, so we seek to build culturally responsive work places and communities," she said.
The Wilburns offer webinars and online classes to take people at their own pace into diversity skills. They also offer healing circles to help people embrace their cultural heritage.
Roberta, who grew up in New York City, first encountered a racial slur when bussing with sixth grade classmates, taking two city busses and a train to go to a white school. In Queens, she was integrated into high-achieving, diverse high school classes.
After graduating from Mt. Holyoke, a women's college, she studied special education at George Washington University, learning why special needs children are marginalized.
"Motivated by my passion to learn and teach, I'm always taking classes to learn how to challenge people to have conversations," she said. "Many students at Whitworth have had limited experience with other cultural groups. I help them learn to broach topics so they are not defensive but ask questions.
"The only way to learn is to ask questions," she said. "We need to be transparent to talk about our experiences without putting a guilt trip on white people, so they understand the experiences of people of color and can be effective in diverse groups."
For information, call 901-289-9627, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit wilburnassociates.org
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, September, 2019