Winning with Race

By Guest Columnist Nov 15, 2008

By Terri Sterling, Idaho Community Action Network The race debate today was interesting, informative and for me an accurate reflection of how leading with race can cause conflict among progressive leaders and organizers working on campaigns. The second debate really hit home for me. As a leader and organizer in Idaho, I know first hand that using a colorblind strategy to the racial inequities of an issue used to be the road to victory. We could win for everyone without addressing race. In Idaho, not talking about race seemed smart considering our lack of diversity. In trainings and workshops, we tried to address levels of racism, but were often met with resistance by members who, of course, were not racist. We wanted to build a statewide voice for all Idahoans, but we weren’t very inviting. Not leading with race was preventing us from building the multicultural organization we envisioned. In 1998, ICAN (Idaho Community Action Network) decided to campaign around problems with the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). When we surveyed the state, we learned that problems with CHIP multiplied for families of color. We found that many Latino families couldn’t or wouldn’t even attempt to apply out of fear. ICAN decided to address the issues with the CHIP and to lead with race. Some members weren’t so supportive. The campaign ended with a huge victory, not exclusively for families of color, for all working families in Idaho. This campaign was the start of something huge in conservative, white Idaho. Ten years later, we have the multiracial organization we envisioned. We lost a few racist a**holes along the way, but what we gained is invaluable. We have built a strong diverse organization that is not afraid to lead with race. We addressed our fear and we won. The lesson learned: be explicit about race and don’t be afraid of losing. Leading with race, addressing racial justice issues, even in conservative white Idaho will not only build a powerful diverse organization, it will lead to victory.