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Davis, California

Monday, February 26, 2024

‘Come together in solidarity right now’: Founder of Culture C.O.-O.P. Sandy Holman talks to The Aggie about racial justice education, activism

Holman hosts weekly discussions and “The Cost of Darkness” documentary viewings sponsored by the Yolo County Library

By LEVI GOLDSTEIN city@theaggie.org

Activist, educator and author Sandy Holman spoke with The California Aggie on Friday, Feb. 4. She described the process that she and her organization, The Culture C.O.-O.P., designed to create lasting change in systems that perpetuate racism and imparted guidance for self-care and resilience for fellow activists. Holman also provided insight into the politics of Black History Month and racial justice initiatives. 


Below is a transcript of the interview that has been edited for length and clarity.


Q: How did you get into anti-racism work, and why is it important to you?


Holman: That’s a long story, but the short version of it is that a long time ago, when I was young, I realized that people had tremendous fears around differences and race in particular. There’s only one race, the human race. But a lot of our history, globally and in this country, has been based on a caste system where white people are on the top and African diaspora, or Black people, are on the bottom of that caste system. That combined with global white supremacy, eugenics, the treatment of First Nation people — the genocide of them — as well as chattel slavery and the enslavement of African diasporic people set a foundation for everything that we’re seeing today in the world. Every movement that you see today — the LGBTQIA movement, the women’s movement, the disability movement — all of them have their origins in those two original sins of what was done to First Nation people and African diasporic people. All of that has infiltrated every aspect of our society, from the individual, to the community, to the organizational, to the systemic, to the globe. It is having a catastrophic impact and cost to humanity, especially people of color, or people who are put in vulnerable situations just because of who they are, what they represent and what they look like. So all those years ago, my understanding wasn’t as nuanced as it is now, but I realized we had a lot of hate based on what you look like, based on Black skin or dark skin or difference, and I wanted to do something about it. So [I worked] in schools and eventually [started] my own organization, The Culture C.O.-O.P., and the sister organization, United in Unity, with the mission of promoting systemic change, inclusion, equity, cultural competency, literacy and quality education for all, because I feel that everyone, regardless of your discipline or focus, needs to have the ability to think analytically and understand historical constructs, policies, practices, ways of being and structures that have advantaged or privileged white people over other cultures and why we’re seeing all the inequities we see today. 


Q: Tell me more about your organization, The Culture C.O.-O.P. How do you create change and cultivate understanding?


Holman: Creating change is a relative thing, especially when dealing with issues of -isms and racism in particular. We believe that in order for things to be changed, they have to be approached systemically and not all the Band-Aid approaches that you’re seeing where people are doing diversity events, or they’re doing unconscious bias trainings — all things that are important, by the way, but in and of themselves are not going to change anything. We believe that you have to approach things systemically and go a lot deeper. For example, “The Cost of Darkness,” the showing that we’re doing with the [Yolo County Library] and the [Yolo County Health and Human Services Agency], is trying to point out to people that it really does take tough work to dismantle these huge structures that perpetuate the status quo of what we’re seeing to this day. We focus on economics and education, politics, media, healthcare, white supremacy, Blackness, the criminal justice system. We’re trying to get people to create groups, where each person has their niche, or their specialty, but they come together as a pod to address things systemically, because what happens in economics affects what’s happening in healthcare, what happens in healthcare affects what’s going on educationally, what happens educationally affects what’s going on in the criminal justice system. For example, they predict prison beds based on reading scores in second and third grade. All these things interconnect. They’re not an island unto themselves, and they create a compounded institutional impact on people of color, on what we’ve referred to as poor people — people who don’t have a lot of money — and those who are different. 


We all need to look at our systems, our environments and our spaces, and we need to do a scan, from the micro to the macro, every aspect of it, that may be perpetuating things that we say we want to do away with. The hard work is digging deep and having a plan where you look at things even a year at a time and beyond. You come up with a strategy after you’ve identified everything that’s not helping in an organization or a community. You put in interventions based on historical knowledge of what the root causes of a problem are, and you come up with solutions to address those problems. Then you try them all out, and at the end of the year, you say what worked and what didn’t, and then you throw out all the things that didn’t work and put in things that will work better. You keep doing this until you start to see a dent in systemic change. Again, that’s very difficult. It’s hard to measure a lot of the time, and, I’m being very honest with you, few people are willing to do this systemic work. 


We do get indicators, though, of success. When individuals are exposed to the true information and the root causes of what we’re experiencing in each of our institutions, they are often more likely to come up with better interventions and strategies and not just shoot-off-the-hip, Band-Aid approaches or celebratory kinds of things. Again, all those things are beautiful and important, but they don’t get to the heart of the matter. That’s why, in 2022, quite frankly, we’re still dealing with this zoo in the room, and not just the elephant in the room anymore — it’s a zoo. We’re at a tipping point, I believe, because we constantly make two steps forward, but then we crush it. We’re seeing a backlash today in our country. [The banning of] diversity studies, ethnic studies, critical race theory — all this is fueled by fear and the desire to continue to have privilege and control power at the expense of others. This is really serious stuff. It really requires serious thought and learning and working collectively to systemically approach change. 


Q: What is the purpose of the weekly discussions and “The Cost of Darkness” documentary showings?


Holman: It’s like an advertiser, because obviously four weeks is not enough. It’s not our whole paradigm. We have a paradigm. The documentary is part of a paradigm for transforming individuals, communities, systems and beyond. The documentary is one of eight tools that are a part of that paradigm. It’s a key part of it, but it’s only one tool. There are ongoing presentations that go with it. We have PowerPoints, paper and other things that go with it. The goal is ultimately to create a mindshare among people so that they understand root causes, historical happenings and structures that have built what we’re seeing today. It’s not the deficit of some cultural group; it’s the systems that were built by design to do what we’re seeing today, and they’re working quite well. This is just a tip-of-the-iceberg introduction, because quite frankly, I’m being honest, people are willing to pay just a skosh more attention because it’s Black History Month. Whether it’s Black History Month, Latinx Month, First Nation Month, LGBTQIA Month, during these months — which should be 365 days throughout the year part of a curriculum and approach — we take advantage of the fact that some people might be willing to pay a little bit more attention. This “Cost of Darkness” showing is dipping our toes in the water and trying to get people to expand, to begin their journey, individually, organizationally, community-wise and so forth and beyond. They’re not going to finish after four weeks and be ready to go out and do all they need to do. In fact, we have to do all this in parallel now, because we’re in the red zone. We can’t afford to wait until people get totally acculturated to the foundational aspects of learning to take action. It’s too late to do that. They need to do it in parallel as they’re taking action because we’re in a very, very dire situation as a country and beyond. That’s what we’re doing — dipping their toe in the water to get them to think much deeper about these issues, not just going to restaurants of different cultures, buying relics of different cultures or learning the language, even, which is a little bit better. Again, all beautiful things. But [we’re] going deeper into the historical interconnections of culture, what’s been done to cultures and what needs to be deconstructed as a result of dominant culture and white supremacy. That’s a lot more painful and a lot scarier for people, which is why we need people who are willing to do it. 


Q: How does someone get involved in making change after they’ve gone through the process of education?


Holman: I honestly have most hope with young people. I’m not giving up on people my age. I’ve been doing this for over 35 years. But it’s young people that give me the most hope. Originally, when I developed this paradigm, it was to happen over a year period in parallel with action. So people would be learning, and then I wouldn’t be getting all the kickback as much because they would understand things better, and they would be given assignments to actually take action in their communities or their organizations. I reduced this down to a three-month experience, and that’s why I say these guys are just getting a tippy-toe, although it’s deeper than most of them will ever get because of what they learn from the documentary experience. Hypothetically, in an ideal world, people would go through this paradigm for transforming individuals, communities, systems and beyond, and the assignments they would be getting would require them to interact with real people, real situations and so forth. Also, after developing a whole list, a road map of sorts, for whatever issue they were trying to address, they would connect with other people who were addressing other aspects. Maybe my thing would be education, so I would connect with someone who is trying to address economics, and we would connect with someone who is focusing on the criminal justice system, and we would connect with someone who is focusing on media, and we would connect with someone who is focusing on politics, looking at all of our institutions. Our documentary covers the eight of them. And we work together as a pod — maybe in the Davis community, maybe on campus, whatever our space is — and collectively identify a few top things that we thought were harming people, and we would start there. [With] all the knowledge we would learn from this paradigm and experience, from coming together and dealing with the tough stuff, from creating brave spaces and not just safe spaces, we would act. That’s what would happen. 


With these issues, you can’t be safe. People are going to get their feelings hurt and be upset and not like what they’re hearing, so I believe in brave spaces. Over time, we would start to put dents in systemic structures that, hopefully, cumulatively, would make it easier for the next generation. This stuff is going to take a minute. Systemic change, in an ideal way, takes a minimum of three years. If you don’t have the will of people to do it, if you have saboteurs, and all the things that we do have built into the system, it’s many more years than that, which is why things have not moved. Obviously, certain things have moved tremendously, but others have not. You see, we fall back into old ways. It’s a process. Really, it’s a lifetime journey. But we need to, and we can if we have the will, make faster change. Now, we’re at the point, I feel, that the consequences of not doing so are at their highest levels. It’s been that way for many years for people of color and marginalized groups, but we’re in a place now where it’s even going to affect the dominant culture a whole lot more than it has in the past. That’s what I would say to that. You know you’re making a difference when you’re at least trying. Even if initially you don’t see any difference that it’s making, it doesn’t give you an excuse to stop trying. This is a case where we have to. And we know some things that work. So let’s do it. First, educate ourselves. I’m hoping people come, particularly young people. I would love them to come. I was so happy to see a few high school students. I think I saw one college student. A professor had shared. But, oh my gosh, I would love it to be filled with college students, or young people in general, because they get it, and they’re young, and they want a better world. Again, not saying older people don’t, but it’s a little more difficult. 


Q: If you and your work could have one impact on the world, what would you want that to be?


Holman: To encourage people to love themselves and others and to share power and resources in the world. That’s my legacy statement. That’s what I want on my tombstone, or my crematory stone, since I’m not going to get buried in the ground. Everyone should have one. It drives everything that I do: to encourage people to love themselves and to share power and resources in the world. In a nutshell, so much of what we’re seeing is based on the need to control power, money, people and to hoard more than our fair share of resources in the world. I’ve always thought it was interesting the way the world was designed. Most of what we’ve referred to as third world countries have most of the natural resources, and most of what we refer to as first world countries — which, I hate the terms, because they’re pejorative, and that’s a whole nother session — have the capabilities to process those resources. I feel that it was designed that way for us to have to interact with each other and cooperate. But that would be my dream, is people loving themselves, because you’ve got to love yourself. Otherwise, you don’t have the chance to love someone else, especially a different person — to love yourself and others and to share power and resources in the world. Because that would change a lot of things in itself. 


Q: How do you feel about Black History Month?


Holman: I’ve often been asked the question, why is there a Black History Month? Why is there Mexican History [Month]? Why is there Black Mixed History [Month]? Why are there all these different months? White people don’t get a month. And I say, that’s because you guys get the whole year. Our curriculum and our society are structured to perpetuate you empowering yourselves and having privilege. “White History Month” is all year long. All cultures should be celebrated all year long. It shouldn’t be the tokenism that goes with these months. However, having said that, these months are critical, because if we didn’t have them, there wouldn’t be any or very much focus on those other groups. 


Often, it’s during these months that you find those groups, if it’s their month, being represented. They try to offer a ton of activities because they know people might tolerate it a little bit more. Right now, even as we speak, they’re restricting schools from reading Black history books and things like that. We’re having this backlash. Even in this month, a lot of people are not even being allowed to honor Black history or African diasporic history. It’s going to be the same for the other groups, too. It’s a sad thing that we have not [incorporated] all of the major cultures in this country into our curriculums at school, into our institutions, into our everything. It’s mostly white folks for anything. I don’t think white people are bad people, by any stretch. But the power structures and historical structures are set up so that they are more likely to control the political process, the economic process, the educational process and the criminal justice process. Although you have some people of color here and there, on the by and large, it is controlled by white folks, even this concept of being allowed to focus on a group in a particular month. 


I’ll take this month, for sure, but “The Cost of Darkness” wasn’t designed just to be shown this month. It was designed to be used throughout the year to get people to feel like they really have a chance, maybe begin the journey of making a difference. And it’s critical to do it. So yes, let’s have these months, because it gives us permission to be who we are, because of how things are set up from an oppression perspective. But how sad that it is not honored throughout the year for all the groups in a much more in-depth way that is affirming to all people. There’s a reason why young people of color start school with high self-esteem on average, and by the time they graduate, don’t feel as good about who they are and what their culture represents. It has everything to do with how we’re educating them and the perpetuation of Eurocentric learning versus pluralistic learning, for example. That’s why I do take advantage of this Black History Month, or what we call the Black quarter, because we have Martin Luther King [Day] in January, and then we have Kwanzaa right after Christmas. But really, there should not be no Black quarter, no brown quarter. There should be throughout the year incorporation of all these things. In the year 2022, the fact that we’re seeing a backlash where they’re banning books in schools, banning ethnic studies, banning teaching all of this, all under the guise of it being unpatriotic, when really it has so much more to do with hate and fear, is sad. 


Q: If you had one last call to action, one thing to say to allies of the Black community and allies of all marginalized communities, what would that be?


Holman: Come together in solidarity right now. Not doing more than your share so you won’t burn out and be overwhelmed by all of this. But come together in solidarity. Choose your focus. Unite with others who have a different focus and create a cluster for approaching systemic change. And never, ever, ever give up. Beyond being an ally, you need to be an accomplice, which is a lot deeper. An accomplice treats these things as if they are happening to themselves, not to some other cultural group where you’re just being the good do-gooder, trying to help out so you can make yourself feel good. An accomplice treats all of what’s happening as if it was happening to themselves. So come together in solidarity. Cluster with people focusing on different institutional problems. Educate yourself. Never give up. Don’t burn out. Take breaks. And be an accomplice, not just an ally. 

Written by: Levi Goldstein — city@theaggie.org


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