Following last year’s uprising for Black lives, institutions of all kinds—government bodies, schools, health systems, companies, nonprofits, and more—have sought out trainings on racial equity. For racial justice organizers, this historic level of interest raises some critical questions: How to hold trainees accountable to what they’ve learned rather than simply absolving them of individual guilt? And is it possible to train institutions founded on structural racism on how to dismantle it?

In rural North Carolina, Chatham Organizing for Racial Equity (CORE) has some answers.

Chatham County is a largely rural area located in the central part of NC, with a population of around 75,000. The county has major income disparities, with rapid gentrification happening in the northeast. It also has a history of racist violence, from slavery to 6 recorded lynchings.  A monument to the Confederacy stood at the county courthouse in Pittsboro for 112 years before coming down in 2019, following years of organizing from local groups like Chatham for All. In response to its removal, Confederate supporters protested for months.

CORE’s racial equity trainings are informed by the history and experience of rural North Carolinians. “We try to find policies and history specific to your area that affects your work today,” says Karinda Roebuck, CORE’s Executive Director.

CORE was founded in 2016 in response to increasing public attention around racist violence. A group of community members and faith leaders gathered to discuss ways they could be proactive about addressing violence and inequities in Chatham County. From there, they banded together to start hosting trainings from the Racial Equity Institute.

Since its inception, CORE has grown to additionally provide their own trainings based on a Chatham and NC history-informed curriculum. For the eager and the skeptical alike, the group credits its local origins as a key entry point for trainees.

“We might walk in to see people with their backs turned to us and their arms crossed,” says Roebuck. “After the training, this hostility turns into getting a testimonial from someone saying ‘I feel like I was being heard. I may not agree with what you’re saying, but I’m listening.’ It’s like, wow, we really have something here.”

CORE now offers its trainings statewide. It has also expanded its programming—taking up antiracism caucuses, direct community organizing, an annual Juneteenth celebration in Chatham County, and more.

“We’re trying to create something that’s never been done before,” Roebuck says. “I really think we’re on the right path of doing that.”

Education and accountability 

At CORE, everything starts with educational trainings and workshops.

For individual trainees, education is followed by reconciliation. Upon completion of their training, they’re invited to attend a People of Color Caucus or a White Antiracism Caucus, where they’re challenged to do the personal work of understanding how to dismantle racism.

To complement the trainings and workshops, the group also invite community and government leaders to “Community Conversation” webinars. There, participants discuss the racial equity work they’re doing in their sectors—and are held accountable to their goals.

Last June, after CORE conducted a training at the Chatham County Health Department, they presented a letter to the board asking that they declare racism a public health crisis in Chatham County. By its August meeting, the board had made the declaration. Since then, CORE has been included in a discussion about COVID-19 vaccine distribution and a more equitable approach to the upcoming community health assessment.

CORE’s role is to keep pushing. “Now that we have that public setting, we try to hold them accountable, and then we follow up with them in a month. We’re that annoying gnat that doesn’t go away,” Roebuck says.

Building on its work with the department, CORE is now contracting with the EMBRACe (Equity for Moms and Babies Realized Across Chatham) project to address racial disparities in maternal health and birth outcomes in the county. A report on health disparities released by the Chatham County Public Health Department in Fall of 2020 found that infant mortality rates of Black and Latinx Chatham County residents were much higher, at 18.7 and 15.1 per 1,000 live births, than those of white residents, at 7.9.

In this work, CORE and EMBRACe will be covering and addressing the racial equity of the maternal healthcare policies of the UNC Chatham Hospital’s new Maternity Care Center, the county Public Health Department, the county Department of Social Services, Piedmont Health Services, and the Chatham Health Alliance.

Last year, CORE organized an REI Groundwater training for the Chatham County School System, educating teachers and administrators on the basics of the history of racism. Afterward, administrators were moved to release an RFP for a full-scale equity audit and a rewriting of curriculum.

Shifting power

In addition to their education and reconciliation arms, CORE additionally has a 2-pronged organizing approach: community organizing and institutional organizing to shift power.

In 2019, local organizers with Chatham Takes Action rallied to resist Confederate flaggers who were intimidating schoolchildren after the removal of the Confederate monument outside the Pittsboro courthouse. Confederate supporters had erected large Confederate flags in the area—one positioned directly across the street from Horton Middle School, a historically Black school. Members of CORE joined in with Chatham Takes Action to recruit volunteers to walk students in and out of school as they passed the Confederate supporters.

Outside of educational trainings and reconciliation, the CORE members will go into institutions like school or health systems to assess their leadership power dynamics, and consult on recommendations to make for more equitable outcomes. CORE has been approached by companies and institutions for this consulting statewide.

The goal here is to redefine community engagement and what that means for an institution that holds power over the community.

“In that time, we teach organizations and institutions that, in order to create a culture of equity, they have to shift power to the community. A lot of their strategic planning, a lot of their development, should be community led,” Roebuck says.

What’s next 

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, CORE’s work ramped up. In collaboration with other local organizations, the group created a Chatham Solidarity Fund to provide relief for the community. Organizers were able to send $900 checks to 250 families and individuals who did not qualify for the stimulus check.

In 2021, CORE is booked with trainings and consultations past August—and is looking to continue growing.

Roebuck said she is most looking forward to seeing what the planning committee comes up with for this year’s Juneteenth celebration. The event will be hybrid, with an in-person gathering at the Black-owned and operated Chatham County Fairgrounds as well as a livestream.

“This year we said, let’s stop trying to find community organizations, or government agencies to be community partners, let’s open this up to find any and all community members to plan this,” Roebuck says. “Everything we do is community-led.”

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