People’s Institute co-founder Ron Chisom remains committed to undoing racism
5th March 2012 · 0 Comments
By Travis M. Andrews
It’s hard to fix something without knowing what it is. In this case, racism.
That’s where Ron Chisom and his The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond come in. The Institute, founded in 1980 by Chisom and the late Dr. Jim Dunn, seeks to define racism for certain groups, including the media and social service institutions.
Chisom compared racism to cancer or something else in the medical world: Without a solid and agreed-upon definition, there can never be effective steps taken to reduce or eliminate it, since no one would be sure what s/he was attempting to eliminate.
“Racism is a major factor, and we believe at the People’s Institute that if you don’t understand racism, then everything will tend to confuse you,” Chisom said. “And once everyone agrees upon the definition, then the treatment can begin. How can you fix something without a common definition?”
He said this is a particular problem in the media.
“People in the media talk about racism every day, but they don’t have any clue what they’re talking about,” he said. “I’d love to find a way to educate the media at all levels, so they understand when they talk about racism, the whole team, the whole communication system, needs to understand racism. When the media doesn’t have a clear analysis of what they’re talking about, they call themselves helpful but they’re really hurting in many ways.”
He founded the Institute in 1980 with an eye toward institutions doing social work, which he said were clearly trying to do good but with a blind eye toward many of the problems stemming from racism, which were exacerbated by the fact that most of the people running these institutions were not Black. He’s also strengthened his own understanding through educational programs, such as the Loyola Institute of Politics.
“I’ve been in New Orleans all my life, and I’ve worked with many, many organizations … and for years I found that when organizations would come together, we would begin to forget what our focus is,” he said. “Later, I realized there were predominantly white people running these organizations, and they were doing good work, but a lot of them never talked about racism in culture … I realized later you cannot do any kind of real social change work unless you understand how racism plays into it. The predominantly white groups had a passion to make a difference but they didn’t want to talk about racism because they were uncomfortable, would get emotional.”
So he decided to found an institution to teach them what racism is. At the time, it seemed like a dicey proposition: The goal may have felt defined, but it was hard to argue that it was particularly tangible. It’s not like one can ask for an analytics report on who truly understands racism.
Thirty-one years later, Chisom has completely allayed any fears he and Dunn may have had at the time of the founding, using the Institute for whatever needs to be done “for survival and beyond.”
“You wonder your first couple of years if you’re on the right track,” he said.
“But now we’re doing work in New York at the universities, social service organizations … [we] even worked with Texas child protection services.”
According to Chisom, Black children in Texas were being adopted at a far lower rate than white children, proportionally, a statistic that has changed since the People’s Institute stepped in to educate adoptions agencies.
The future of the Institute remains a bit of a question for Chisom, but in a different way than when it first opened: he’s not wondering if it will last; he’s wondering how it will evolve next. And he hopes to have racism education it in all American universities.
For now, he’s training other people to become trainers so they can travel the country as well and teach about racism in the modern world.
“Right now the work is picking up. So right now I’m training a lot of other people. I think it’s making a major difference. We trained over 500,000 people,” Chisom said. “My goal now is to get this training in all the universities, so it can become part of the social work curriculum.”
What happens next remains to be seen, but Chisom doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon.
This article was originally published in the March 5, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper