James Baldwin wrote in a 1962 essay in the New Yorker: “If we, who can scarcely be considered a white nation, persist in thinking of ourselves as one, we condemn ourselves . . . to sterility and decay, whereas if we could accept ourselves as we are, we might bring new life to the Western achievements, and transform them.” Today, among the growing numbers committed to realizing this vision are Allie Simmons and Elena Jimenez, who on 24 February 2018 co-hosted the conference Shifting the Paradigm Back to Humanity at Historic London Town and Gardens.
Allie, a history teacher who specializes in racism and its origins, established the company The Change Starter for the purpose of dismantling racism one conversation at a time. This vision, shared with Elena Jimenez through her own enterprise Execute Your Destiny, resulted in the conference, which brought together speakers from diverse ethnic perspectives to focus on how we can all participate in the solution. For Allie, as for James Baldwin, persistent racism constitutes the biggest threat faced by the United States. For him, failure to eradicate would bring decay; for Allie, “If we don’t figure out how to come together, this nation is going to fall.” Fleshing out her point, Allie focused on what has become a crisis level of suicide among indigenous youth, and on how the preschool-to-prison pipeline actually targets African-American and Latino students.
Linking these societal failures to the type of environmental disregard demonstrated at Standing Rock was the focus of Gray Michael Parsons’ talk. A member of the Machapunga Tuscarora Native tribe as well as having Scotch Irish heritage, Gray embodies ethnic and cultural coming together. He is devoted to stopping the pipelines that he says are currently planned for all over the United States on sacred indigenous ground. To this end, Gray travels throughout the country and participated in the water-protection efforts at Standing Rock.
Also representing U.S. indigenous populations were Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs member Rico Newman (Piscataway, Prince George’s County), who welcomed attendees to the Piscataway land on which the conference was held; and Aminah Ghaffar (Lumbee, North Carolina), who is working on a master’s in alternative medicine at Georgetown. She spoke passionately about missing and murdered indigenous women, providing as an illustration the shipping of disappeared women directly from the Great Lakes region into overseas sexual-slavery rings. During her own childhood school days she experienced attempts to marginalize her, causing her to question her identity and to empathize with the extremely high suicide rate among indigenous youth. For example, in 2007 while Aminah was at school, a white boy asked her about her ethnic background. Informed that she was Native American, he said that was impossible because “Native Americans don’t exist: they’re extinct.” The boy may have been simply parroting what he had been led to believe, but it left young Aminah once again wondering who she actually was, if anyone.
Conference cohost Elena Jimenez, a financial manager of Latina ethnicity, works on personal growth through spiritual awareness. She launched Execute Your Destiny in order to coach others through the process of finding and “walking in” individual purpose. Elena brought to the conversation a continual thread of connection with the spiritual domain that, she explained, saved her. She has committed herself to assist others in opening themselves. “When you start asking deeper questions,” she said, “that is your spirit trying to realign you.”
The overall aim of the conference was to share ways to help heal a nation in crisis, starting with individuals. Two invited attendees briefed the audience about more cross-cultural, cross-racial initiatives along these lines: Monica Lindsey from the South Sudan Hope Network and Linda Davis from Showing Up for Racial Justice.
The day’s theme could be encapsulated as a collective exploration of different approaches to “building bridges”—between ethnicities, races, dramatically different backgrounds. As Allie summed it up in a Rosa Clemente–inspired conclusion: “We melanated people don’t need you nonmelanated people to be our allies. We don’t have time for allies. We need conspirators.”