'Undoing Racism' involves awareness of history, self
Until COVID-19 curtailed her travels, Victorya Redstarr was facilitating "Undoing Racism" workshops from Alaska to Rhode Island as one of 100 core trainers who help groups understand what racism is, where it comes from, how it functions, why it persists and how it can be undone.
Workshops through the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond help participants learn from history, develop leadership, build community accountability, create networks, undo internalized racial oppression and understand the role of organizational gatekeeping in perpetuating racism.
The institute believes "the fabric of racism" was an inextricable part of the U.S. founding, but can "be undone through anti-racist organizing with accountability to communities most impacted by racism."
Victorya, who grew up in Nespelem among Nez Perce Tribal members on the Colville Confederated Tribes Reservation, had just wanted to be a secretary. She had no thought of standing up before a group of people to train them, but she believes her mother led her into this work when she said, before she died in 1988, that something was coming down the line for her.
As a People's Institute for Survival and Beyond trainer for 16 years, Victorya has seen the training transform people "to understand the truth of racism" so they no longer hold onto the "status quo of racism."
After graduating from Coulee Dam High School in 1967 she went to business school in Portland, Ore., guided by the tribe's education director.
She was secretary at Hanford United Nuclear for five years, which paid for her hobby of photography.
Returning to the reservation, she was a teacher's aide for three years, before working for the City of Spokane in purchasing for five years and in data processing for another five more years.
Driving to powwows and root fests on the Yakama Reservation and elsewhere, she and her mother talked. Victorya had decided not to marry. Her mother told her about Chief Joseph, her grandmother's uncle, and about the medicine ways.
Her mother told her, "One day something will come to you to help change and transform the world. When the medicine way falls in place, you will know it."
After her mother died, she "ran away" to Seattle with no job. She was a secretary in insurance companies and then in customer service and human resources with the City of Seattle for seven years, before becoming a secretary at Antioch University.
One day in 2001 when taking photos of West Seattle High School students challenging their Indian mascot, she met a woman who talked about Youth Undoing Institutional Racism and invited Victorya to a workshop.
After accepting that invitation, Victorya kept going to meetings and eventually met Ron Chisom of New Orleans, co-founder and director of the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond. He asked her to facilitate trainings.
"I was bashful. There was no way I would talk in front of groups," said Victorya, who eventually trained to be a trainer.
In 2004, she became a full-time paid trainer and was assigned to co-facilitate a training in Juneau, Alaska.
"I hate flying, but when I went there I met other indigenous people and felt I was in heaven. I was hooked. Now I will travel anywhere," she said.
In 2006, she left Antioch and went to the reservation for a month to help her younger sister, Vivian, who was sick. Then she moved to Spokane to work with New Horizon Outpatient Treatment as a chemical dependency trainee, having become clean and sober in 1997. She then worked with the Kalispel Chemical Dependency Program at the Casino.
With a year of study at Seattle Central Community College, Victorya decided to complete studies at Spokane Falls Community College and Whitworth University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in liberal arts, community work and social services in 2013 and "retired" to focus on doing trainings.
"I was doing People's Institute trainings in Alaska, Texas, Rhode Island, New York, Portland, Seattle, Everett and more," she said.
At each two- to three-day event, she is one of three trainers.
When cancer slowed her, she wrote a book on Chief Joseph, based on six stories handed down from her grandmother and family about how he stayed true to the Seven Drums tradition of the longhouse, drumming, gathering, songs and ceremonies. He did not convert to white colonial values and ways.
"My faith is from that spiritual tradition. In the spring, women gather roots and trained children on their roles, preparing roots and feeding the community. I'm a root digger and huckleberry picker. Even after the longhouse burned, I went back to the Colville Reservation for ceremonies on that place," she said.
"Once you appreciate your own culture you can appreciate others' cultures," she said.
Over the years, Victorya has learned every piece of the two-day "Undoing Racism" workshop and puts "a medicine spin" on what she does.
"Undoing racism is a lifetime commitment," she said.
Not only does she facilitate groups in different communities, but also she shares Undoing Racism with her niece and nephew, who share the information with Reza youth.
"What we do in different communities differs," she said.
One evening last fall, with Kurtis Robinson of NAACP Spokane who has gone through the training, she gave an introductory presentation on "Undoing Racism" at First Presbyterian Church in Spokane, the first time she did a session at a church. He spoke about what the NAACP Spokane does and the impacts of racism in Spokane.
"I talked about the People's Institute as a multicultural, multigenerational organization with white, black, Latinx, Asian and Native American anti-racists coming together as examples of what transformation looks like and how anti-racism impacts whites and people of color," Victorya said.
In groups with people of color, trainers of color speak openly about what they experience and how they are impacted, to establish their common ground in pain.
"We do not say we empower people. Participants are usually empowered already," she said. "We are not experts in what race or racism is. We let people guide us. It's about community self-discovery of how institutions condition us to uphold the status quo.
"Sometimes white people may be offended, feel guilty or want to intellectualize rather than work through their feelings," she said. "People who are tired of hearing about Black Lives Matter still need to hear about and understand it.
"This work is sacred," she said, noting that she tells groups that transformation comes with truth first, then love follows.
"People who 'get' the workshop message know they are hearing the truth as never before, especially the history of how race belief began and who benefits," she said. "People of color blossom when they begin this journey by bringing their ancestors into the room. For indigenous people, it is about their tie to the land. This begins the transformation if they allow it."
Undoing racism begins with awareness of one's own culture and continues as a life-long process, she said.
"White people need to accept they are white and take accountability for a collective process their ancestors started, including ancestors who created individualism that means no one has to answer," she said.
Facilitators ask how willing people are to be "anti-racist" and help dismantle "the race construct." She said their acceptance of that is the transformative moment.
People in denial, guilt and shame may not come to transformation, unless they are in touch with their "Sacred through Truth," she said.
"We watch individuals and groups work through their conditioning to come to a new way of being. This gives us hope," Victorya said. "Hope is in a collective energy sense. We cannot focus just on individuals or one group to 'get' it."
COVID meant trainings across the nation were cancelled.
Since George Floyd's murder and COVID, the People's Institute has shut down travel and in-person trainings.
Now they offer Zoom training.
Victorya said they are relying on technology experts until travel can resume. She is also looking at local options.
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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, September, 2020