Beyond Housing Employees Explore Anti-Racism with an Internationally Known Educator

As a leader in transformational change within the St. Louis region, Beyond Housing is known for its direct approach to addressing poverty and inequity. The Once and for All effort launched earlier this year to create a stronger, more equitable, and prosperous St. Louis is just one of many examples.

Dig down past the public messages, and you’ll find a deeply held organizational belief in an inclusive mindset where individuals accept each other’s uniqueness, bridge across differences, and adapt their words and actions to show genuine respect.

The employee-led Inclusion Working Group (IWG) is central to Beyond Housing’s internal work to build knowledge and foster meaningful thinking on challenging topics. Over the past several months, the IWG has undertaken a bold new initiative: exploring Jane Elliott’s work through a series of in-person and online experiences.

Elliott is an internationally known educator, lecturer, and diversity trainer whose 1968 “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise labeled students in her elementary classroom as inferior or superior based solely upon the color of their eyes. She designed it to expose children to the experience of being discriminated against—and its power can still be felt today.

Shared experiences and personal reflection

The first step the IWG took in expanding Beyond Housing personnel’s knowledge about racism, its origin, and its continued impact was to introduce Elliott’s work by screening the documentary “The Eye of the Storm” at the 24:1 Cinema in Pagedale.

Because the IWG has laid a foundation for successfully navigating conversations across differences, the discussion after the movie was rich with personal perspectives.

Beyond Housing staff members Alexandra Schmidt, Shaela Woody, and Venita Govan, who organized the screening for the IWG, said they were encouraged by the attendance and by the level of gratitude participants expressed.

After the discussion, the IWG collected questions and comments for Elliott to answer during the second shared experience: a live conversation via Zoom.

Elliott’s candor as a speaker is legendary. She does not dilute the history or experiences associated with biases and racism—even when she pays a personal price.

You are born into a racist society. And like anything else, if you learn it, you can unlearn it.” The problem, she believes, is that racism is linked to a desire to avoid sharing power. That strong incentive to maintain the status quo impacts us all on a personal as well as societal level.

Elliott explained that she was motivated to dive into anti-racism teaching after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. She launched the first blue eyes/brown eyes exercise in her elementary school classroom the very next day. As she continued to speak out about race, she and her family experienced both overwhelming support and extreme backlash—with the latter eventually causing them to move from the small Iowa community where she taught and her children attended school.

It was a sobering reminder for Beyond Housing staff that even though diversity increases productivity and strengthens our collective ability to reach goals, it is not always an easy path to pursue.

Ongoing efforts and next steps

Thanks to the IWG’s work, Beyond Housing’s employees are no longer at the starting line in their journey to understand and address the root causes of issues like poverty and inequity. Going forward, the IWG is encouraging participants in the experiences with Elliot to continue:

  • Complete learning materials from Jane Elliott’s website, including the “Commitment to Combat Racism.”
  • Join an employee book club to discuss excerpts from recommended readings on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
  • Share their insights via an organization-wide reflection board.
  • Participate in future trainings with varying approaches to anti-bias work.

Learning about Elliott’s work has had an impact across Beyond Housing, said President and CEO Chris Krehmeyer. “She is an extremely thought-provoking woman, and we are fortunate to have had her spend some time with us,” Krehmeyer said. “This series is a pivotal step in our organization’s anti-bias, anti-racism journey.”

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