A Civil Rights Pilgrimage and My Journey of Reeducation

By Janis Avery, Treehouse CEO

I grew up abundantly sheltered, fed and clothed. Life seemed simple growing up in 1960’s white, middle class, suburban New Jersey. With a white collar employed father and stay-at-home mom who did community service on the side, I was cared for, supported and loved. Cello and then piano lessons, swimming, arts and crafts, an enriched public school environment, community organizing for a clean environment in junior and senior high school. I learned to sew and cook side-by-side with my mother and was on track to grow up to be like her—college educated, white, married and a mother.

Growing up, I didn’t think of myself as having a “race” and believe my primary exposure to race was from TV. The images streaming across the nightly news were confusing, frightening—all crossing my young eyes without any interpretation from my parents that I remember. My education was more powerful and subtle through the segregation of my life and my mother’s instruction to lock the car doors when we drove through Harlem on the way to Manhattan-based cultural sites a couple of times each year.

I never learned about the continuing through line of anti-blackness and anti-otherness that has infused policy in the United States from our beginnings—policies that benefit those who already have the most and disadvantage anyone else. I managed to get through high school and college without learning anything about the Holocaust and spent time in my 20s filling that and other knowledge gaps. Otherwise, I came of age in the post-war period where this young baby boomer was told and believed all racial inequity was behind us, and the U.S.A. was fair to everyone who applied themselves.

Since social work graduate school in the 1980s, I’ve worked to develop awareness about racism through workshops such as “Undoing Institutional Racism,” “Foundations of Cultural Competency” and “Intersectionality.” Each learning opportunity had shock value and acted almost like a reset button. With each exposure, I understood that racism continues to exist, and oppression is impacting all of us. But, I didn’t take action to change it in any meaningful way, and awareness doesn’t go far enough.

It’s well known that foster care disproportionately impacts youth of color. With that in mind, I wholeheartedly agreed to a goal we set at Treehouse to promote and take action toward racial equity. After 18 months and four workshops that all Treehouse staff participated in, I realized how far I still had to go. I wasn’t changing my deeply held beliefs or behaviors and still consuming information about race from the same biased sources. So I changed who and what I read, where I spend my time and opened my world up to more than people who looked like me.

Recently, I felt an urgent need to continue deepening my education. That led me to apply to Project Pilgrimage and take a week-long civil rights pilgrimage through the South. Arriving just before dinner on a Saturday in New Orleans, 30 of us loaded onto a charter bus and headed into a gauntlet of overpowering history throughout Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

Project Pilgrimage is designed in a brilliant way. Each traveling group is purposely created to be an intergenerational and interracial community. We had the opportunity to learn deep history before we went. We read memoirs of three civil rights foot soldiers—Bernard Lafayette, Bob Zellner and Carolyn McKinstry, all of whom joined us on the trip. Along with local experts and an embedded historian, Dr. Terry Scott, they provided context and personal stories to bring history to life.

Twice we visited murder sites at dusk—Medgar Evers’ home and the river side where Emmett Till’s body was recovered. In both places I felt tremendous unease, even though there was no obvious threat to my safety. On this trip I was able to connect the dots between historical moments that had previously seemed like isolated incidents, but in fact, were part of a pattern of escalating direct action by oppressed people and allies—and the violent reactions of white politicians, law enforcement and local citizenry. George Wallace standing in the doorway of University of Alabama Tuscaloosa to stop integration; John Kennedy addressing the nation, saying we will be better; Medgar Evers murdered—all on the same day.

And there was hope. Philadelphia, Mississippi, is a place where miracles really happened. Raised with no information about the local, brutal murders of three civil rights workers during freedom summer, a racially diverse group came together to raise awareness and find a way to be diverse and inclusive. They consider themselves largely healed from the effects of white supremacy, even though some murderers and family members live among them unrepentant.

Selma and lifelong activist Joanne Bland, asking what our piece in this is and how we will it to complete the puzzle of a just society. Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery exudes hope and possibility. Historical signage throughout Alabama plainly communicates the racial injustices that have taken place. The Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice teach and display our history of violence against African American people.

I could not help but leave the South changed. No matter what else unfolds in my continuing journey, a key insight is that I have always treated Civil Rights history—even the history of enslavement—as Black history. I now understand it is my history, our history.

I’m committed to partnering toward action here, in our community. I will listen and take the lead from people and communities that suffer, and I will join an ally community where this is the guiding principle. I will advocate for policies that reduce the biases that hurt all of us and disproportionately impact people of color. I will use my spirituality to send and receive love everywhere I go.

You will see me asking city council members how our approach to collecting unpaid fines and garnishing wages leads directly to homelessness. You will see me supporting immigrants and legal pathways to immigration. You will see me in D.C. at the Mass Poor People’s Assembly & Moral March on Washington June 20. You will see my name among those supporting the Duwamish Tribe’s federal recognition and listed as a contributor paying rent to the tribe through Real Rent Duwamish.

My learning journey is far from over, and I vow to use my voice to praise progress and encourage improvement. You can find me on Twitter and LinkedIn. Stay in touch and share your journey.

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About the Author

Janis Avery has led Treehouse since 1995. As CEO, Janis advocates for racial and educational equity for youth in foster care through alignment of goals within Treehouse, promoting systems change, maximizing community collaboration and resource development. Janis holds a Master of Social Work and Certificate in Human Services Management from the University of Washington. She is a social worker and an adoptive parent of two children from foster care.

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