April 19, 2024

Finding "Beloved Community"

The impact of Title Track’s Understanding Racial Justice program
By Anna Faller | June 17, 2023

It’s been three years since the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests and racial reckonings that spread across the country. Traverse City-based nonprofit Title Track was one of the first local organizations to tackle conversations around racial equity, but how have those efforts changed since the nonprofit launched in 2019? Has the urgency and momentum of 2020 faded away?

Northern Express sat down with Title Track’s team to learn about their programming, local participation, and what it takes to build a more welcoming and equitable version of northern Michigan.

Who They Are

The brainchild of Michigan cultural worker and musician Seth Bernard, Title Track has three areas of focus—clean water initiatives, youth empowerment, and racial equity—with an emphasis on employing creative processes to build and sustain community.

The group also carries the torch of the Neahtawanta Research and Education Center (NREC)—an organization built around environmental sustainability and community resilience, upholding nonviolence, and respect for all life—which conferred its endorsement to Title Track before closing its doors in 2019.

“I think that [northern Michigan] is becoming a more welcoming place,” Bernard says. “The more we can come together to make these systems more liberating for everyone, the more all of us can survive and thrive.”

Though Bernard was the starting point for Title Track, he now shares his co-executive director title with colleagues Holly T. Bird and Jenny Jones.

An accomplished attorney (and founding board member), Bird joined ranks at Title Track straight from the ground at Standing Rock, where she provided legal counsel. “I was already on so many boards, but I couldn’t resist Seth’s call to action,” she tells us. A native Detroiter, Bird has served as a school board official and worked in countless legal environments ranging from corporate to criminal. Today, she’s an indigenous judge in addition to maintaining her own private practice.

Meanwhile, Jones is the organization’s “intergalactic communicator.” A classically-trained instrumentalist and community networker, Jones got her start as a liaison between musicians and businesses. She has more than two decades of experience in project coordination, scheduling, event planning, and even HR. “I like to get things done,” she says, “because when you connect people, you can really impact the community.”

What They Do

Title Track’s launch coincided with a particularly eventful global period that not only included the COVID pandemic but also heightened social and political tensions nationwide following the murder of George Floyd.

“I think, for a lot of people, that [event] really cemented the reality of what Black and Indigenous communities live with, and that inspired us to work even harder,” says Bird. “We have plenty of racism [in our region], so the activism coming out that time period was really beautiful and exciting to watch.”

Prior to 2020’s events, Title Track had piloted a few programs surrounding inclusion in the region. Those efforts, Bernard says, largely fell flat, as the general public at that time just “wasn’t warm to the idea.” With the nation’s renewed focus on the fight for racial justice, though, Title Track noticed a sharp increase in interest towards anti-racist efforts.

One of those efforts is a Title Track program called Understanding Racial Justice (URJ). Established in 2020 in partnership with We the People Michigan (a fellow advocacy group), URJ is a five-week course created for white people who want to learn more about racial justice.

The course is meant to be a starting place for people with little to no prior antiracism or anti-oppression training. According to Title Track’s website, “themes explored will include race, racism, identity, solidarity, accountability, collective liberation, cultural healing, and embodied antiracism practice.” Participants attend five two-hour classes and complete about an hour of work each week in tandem with the live sessions.

Bernard recognizes that there are still misconceptions—and even fear—surrounding the idea of racial justice. “It’s not about picking people out and saying they’re good or bad,” he explains. Instead, he says it’s about identifying and dismantling oppressive systems that harm all of us.

Who Has Participated

Since URJ’s inception, more than 300 people have enrolled in the course, and preparations are already underway for its 15th and 16th iterations this year. The program began online and now offers both in-person and virtual options, and the face-to-face format—while a bit more of a commitment in terms of time and reserving space for the group meetings—seems to have paid off in terms of interpersonal connections.

“It has been so energizing to do this work in person,” URJ facilitator Lucy Waechter Webb says. “There is a deeper connection and a bigger trust we can wade into together when we can feel each other in the room. More transformation becomes possible as we turn toward the hard things.”

Title Track Communications Director Chris Good reports that overall interest and engagement in the organization’s anti-oppression initiatives has remained mostly stable since 2020, though he acknowledges there was an intense upswell that coincided with the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020.

Good adds that participant feedback has remained overwhelmingly positive. “I feel like this [is] a really powerful program where community members can grow in real time and in a space that we just haven’t had so far,” he says.

Rachel Jones, a URJ alum, said at the completion of the program, “I am taking away a greater understanding of the racist history of the United States and ways it is baked into our society. I am taking away tools to help resource myself and a desire to learn more about embodied antiracism. I am taking away a good feeling knowing this community of folks exists in northern Michigan.”

Another grad of the program, Lydia Bloem, said, “I think I’ll be processing this experience for a long while. … I found this program to be extremely valuable.”

Why Their Work Matters

Has all this work really moved the needle on creating racial equity in northern Michigan? For the folks at Title Track, the answer is a resounding yes.

For starters, Bird says that the group has witnessed a joyous domino effect wherein local anti-racism efforts support each other to strengthen the message. “We’re seeing not only [graduates] of that URJ training, but also the support and fellowship that goes with it in so many places. It’s just fantastic,” she says.

Northern Michigan E3, for instance, collaborates regularly with Title Track. Other local institutions, including the educational community (Bird names The Leelanau School, in particular), as well as Traverse Indivisible and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, are also active in URJ efforts.

Bernard underscores that while the topic of racial justice can seem daunting, we shouldn’t be afraid to explore the crusade for ourselves.

“Some of us have to get closer to the movement to see that it’s full of people pouring their hearts and souls into improving our society and making it less harmful,” he says. “Once we discover how we connect, we find beloved community.”

Understanding Racial Justice’s next in-person cohort will take place June 23-24 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Traverse City. The next virtual cohort will be offered this fall on Monday evenings from October 16 to November 13. To register, or for more information on future dates, visit titletrackmichigan.org/understandingracialjustice/.

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