ROCKFORD -Shortly after the killing of George Floyd last May, Rockford Area Habitat for Humanity gathered its staff, volunteers and community residents to read and discuss Richard Rothstein's book, The Color of Law, which argues that segregation in America is the byproduct of explicit government policies.
"As an affordable housing organization that's designed to increase equity in homeownership, we felt that we had a responsibility to ignite dialogue in our community around topics of equitable housing, housing discrimination and how we can affirmatively promote fair housing," said Caitlyn Baylor, homeowner service coordinator for Rockford Area Habitat for Humanity.
When the organization received a $4,000 Healing Illinois grant from the Illinois Department of Human Services, they expanded their book discussion into a virtual learning and discussion series, where they discussed books, articles and documentaries that shed light on how racist government policies and housing practices, like redlining and blockbusting, impacted housing and wealth-building opportunities for African Americans.
"Ultimately, the objective of our learning and discussion series and the works that we've chosen to look at is to garner a deeper understanding of the historical and cultural context that our work of affordable housing is situated in," Baylor said.
Between November 2020 and March 2021, they discussed such works as the documentary "Owned: A Tale of Two Americas" by Giorgio Angelini, the book How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, and the documentary "I Am Not Your Negro," directed by Raoul Peck and based on James Baldwin's unfinished manuscript, Remember This House.
The learning and discussion series, which drew 50 to 60 participants, was a significant source of education about housing discrimination history in America, said Baylor, who was a facilitator for the discussions.
"Where we may have been ignorant before about some of the historical contexts of housing discrimination, hopefully we are coming out of that fog with eyes wide open on the way that our country has really imbedded discrimination into our housing market," Baylor said.
The learning and discussion series will continue throughout 2021 thanks to an additional $2,000 in Healing Illinois funds the organization received through United Way of Northwest Illinois. The grant will also fund diversity, equity and inclusion training for the organization's board and staff beginning in April.
"Our ultimate goal… is that we will become a more inclusive and equitable organization at every level," Baylor said.