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Confessions of a Former Racist

Joe told us that his father was a racist and he had believed that his father’s misperceptions about blacks were accurate until he went to a college where the diversity taught him differently. He admitted that before he came to be a consultant to the Wind River Native Advocacy Center earlier this year, he had believed that Native Americans received a monthly check from the federal government at his expense and free health care. He knew nothing of the historical trauma and the impact of the boarding schools. He had not understood the colonial relationship of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) with reservations as opposed to self-determination. That was not taught when he was in school.

But unlike some non-Natives who “come to help the Indians,” Joe took the time to learn the truth about the past and the present. He learned the core values of Native Americans of respect, family and self-determination. He is researching what works on other reservations in nation building or re-building that have been successful for effective economic development that is based on their cultures, not a “white man’s” perspective. He is building relationships and seeks to continue to work with the Wind River Reservation. He knows that the first building block for economic development is leadership, community engagement and public policy.

Joe Coyne and his business partner, Bobbe Fitzhugh, originally from Riverton, through their business, Community Builders, Inc., (CBI) have much to offer the Wind River Native Advocacy Center to achieve its vision of “A community engaged in self-determination for education, health, economic development and equality for the Wind River Reservation.” That help is strengthened by Joe (1) having an open mind to learn from the community with whom he is working, (2) taking the time to learn and to build relationships and (3) having the courage of vulnerability. The feedback I got from the participants on Saturday who heard his presentation confirm that.

Joe’s experience is not unique. Anyone who grows up in white America is likely to be racist to some degree. Institutionalist racism is so pervasive that we often do not see it. We are better off to name and confess it instead of letting arrogance and ego get in our way. Maybe no one is really a “former racist,” but we can be “recovering racists.” By being in recovery, God’s grace goes a long ways. Amazing grace!

(Note that CBI’s work with the Wind River Native Advocacy Center was made possible by a grant from the Foundation of the Episcopal Diocese of Wyoming. A second year grant application is now pending approval with a decision expected on December 11, 2016.)

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