This Metro Detroit group is working to bring white people into the struggle against racism

Donald Trump's 2016 election victory was a polarizing moment for Metro Detroit and the country as a whole. At the time, many people, particularly those belonging to the older white male demographic, were overjoyed by his win and promises to "Make America Great Again."

But the unconventional businessman and reality TV star's ascendancy to the United States' highest office left countless others feeling disheartened, even frightened, about the nation's future. 

Unsettled by Trump's agenda and use of explicitly racist rhetoric, Erin Dwyer, a Detroit resident who teaches American History at a southeast Michigan college, felt the need to take action. 

"It was horror [that motivated me]," she says. "I, like so many people, realized after the election that the primary challenge facing this country continues to be deep-seated systematic racism and that we have to be doing that work [of helping dismantle it]." 

The extreme distress Dwyer felt at that time pushed her to attend a meeting of the Metro Detroit chapter of an anti-racist alliance called Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ). 

On its Facebook page, the organization describes itself as a "national network of groups and individuals ... [that] through community organizing, mobilizing, and education [works to move] white people to act as part of a multi-racial majority for [racial and economic] justice." 

Inspired by this vision, Dwyer soon became an active member of SURJ's Metro Detroit branch.

She would be the first to acknowledge that people of color, especially Black people, have always been at the forefront of fighting for racial justice in the United States. Dwyer's organization, SURJ, is distinct from many other local anti-racist groups because its membership is primarily composed of white individuals who organize within white communities.

It's an approach that makes a lot of sense to Dwyer, who's not shy about asking other white people to step up and take responsibility for deconstructing racism on both a personal and societal level.

"Anti-racist work can't always be put on Black people, Indigenous people, and other people," she says. "White supremacy is happening primarily [through the actions of white people,] ... so it's incumbent on white people to be challenging racism and to be doing that work among white people.”

The beginnings of SURJ

The national SURJ organization's origins date back to 2009, not long after Barack Obama's first presidential election. Alarmed by the loud racist reaction to an African-American becoming president, several white antiracist organizers from around the country, including representatives from the Highlander Center, AWARE-LA, and the Catalyst Project, came together in September of that year to see what they could do to address the situation.

SURJ members collaborate with BLMDetroit help get out the vote.
Over time a loose network of white antiracist groups coalesced into a more formal organization that ultimately became SURJ. The new organization developed around several key principles. It would be dedicated to bringing together white people to support Black and people of color-led struggles.

Rather than focus just on self-education, SURJ would focus on organizing people and mobilizing them towards collective action for social and economic justice; and it would take its lead from organizations led by Black people and other people of color. 

Today there are more than 150 chapters and affiliates of SURJ nationwide, including SURJ Metro Detroit. The organization that Dwyer is involved with first began to take shape in 2014 following the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missippi, which helped spark the Black Lives Matter Movement. It officially became a chapter of SURJ national in 2015.

Since that time, SURJ Metro Detroit has encompassed various geographic boundaries, at one point even including members from Ann Arbor. But eventually, the chapter decided just to focus its energies on Detroit and its suburbs.  

"Looking at the history of this area, with white flight and redlining and everything that's happened, we felt that it's really important that it's just in Detroit and Metro Detroit," says Lindsay TerHaar, a Ferndale resident and civil servant who's worked with the group since 2016. 

"Because folks in the suburbs historically and to this day have played such a role in the current disparities we're seeing." 

Education and action

Throughout its history, SURJ Metro Detroit has also held meetings in various locations, from local churches to the MOCAD Museum in Detroit. Members are currently meeting online right now, though, due to the pandemic. 

The local branch of SURJ typically holds two types of regular meetings, educational meetings aimed at newer members and the general public and organizational meetings concerned with administrative matters.

The education meetings take place online on the third Thursday of each month from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. Each begins with a brief acknowledgment that members live on indigenous land that was colonized by European settlers. From there, participants take time to engage in some communal learning on a particular topic, which could be anything from how to challenge racist remarks at Thanksgiving to discussions about reparations or current events.

Sometimes articles are shared, while other times, a speaker may address the group. At the end of each of these meetings, participants brainstorm different ways to respond to racism on both interpersonal and institutional levels. They are encouraged to follow through on those suggestions with action, anything from starting a conversation about Juneteenth with another white person to circulating a petition for changes to a local school curriculum.

For Jess Pasionek, a Farmington Hills resident who works in the educational field and has been actively involved with SURJ Metro Detroit since 2019, those calls to accountability are the most significant development that can come out of a SURJ meeting.

"Calls to action mean an assortment of things from sharing what you learn with white people, to monetary contributions, to physically giving time to [other] organizations," she says. "It's not just about the learning that's happening, but also that it's transferring out."  

In addition to its meetings, SURJ Metro Detroit will also occasionally sponsor educational workshops where public members can learn about topics like the negative impacts of white privilege. While the network's local chapter doesn't have any formal relations with political parties, some members were engaged in "election defense" last year with the expressed goal of ensuring everyone's right to vote.

There is no membership fee for SURJ Metro Detroit, and meetings are open to anyone regardless of ethnicity. These days the chapter regularly attracts about 30 people to its meetings. It also publishes a bimonthly newsletter that reaches more than 430 people.

Membership has had its peaks and valleys. Attendance at meetings reached around 60 people when she joined in 2016 but later began to dip as many people started to engage in more election-focused politics. Engagement climbed again following the August 2017 "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a man affiliated with neo-nazis and white supremacists drove a car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. After another slow period, participation picked up again substantially following the Memorial Day murder of George Floyd last year. 

"It tends to ebb and flow in a way directly correlated to what's happening in the news," says Dwyer. "Talking to other chapters, they saw a very similar rise and fall in attendance. So it has been interesting to see the way people come for a short time or a longer time and plugin in different capacities."  

Partnership and solidarity

Beyond its meetings and newsletter, SURJ Metro Detroit has also committed to supporting various local people-of-color-led organizations. The intention behind these partnerships is to help redirect resources — like money and donated time — from white communities into efforts that are helpful to Black and other non-white communities. According to Pasionek, Metro Detroit SURJ defers decisions about the nature of that support looks like to their partner groups. 

"We're not doing these things because it's a thing to celebrate or because we think we're doing something great," she says. "As a white people who want to dismantle white supremacy actively, it's our role to show up when we're asked and do the work that is asked of us." 

One of the groups SURJ Metro Detroit collaborates with is the Detroit chapter of Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), a "national, member-based organization of Black 18-35-year-olds dedicated to creating freedom & justice for all Black people through a Black Queer Feminist Lens." 

Among other projects, BYP100's Detroit group works with community members to host free stores near homeless shelters that distribute items like clothes, hand warmers, and hygiene products to those who need them. At that group's request, SURJ Metro Detroit held pop-up brunches and auctions as fundraisers for BYP100 in Detroit and ended up raising several hundred dollars to support their efforts. 

SURJ Metro Detroit has also been involved with Green Lights, Black Futures, a campaign launched by BYP100's Detroit chapter to oppose Project Greenlight, a surveillance program run by the City of Detroit in partnership with local businesses and community groups that has raised concerns related to privacy, racial profiling, and facial recognition technology. SURJ members held a white caucus at one of Green Lights, Black Futures events at the request of organizers to do white privilege awareness training.

Black Lives Matters Detroit (BLMDetroit) is another local group with which SURJ Metro Detroit has an active working relationship. BLMDetroit initially launched in the wake of the 2014 police-related killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, but went through several iterations before arriving in its present form as a nonprofit in 2016. 

Unlike some organizations linked to the Black Lives Matter Movement, BLMDetroit doesn't organize a lot of rallies but instead directs its energies towards a combination of advocacy, education, and support work that address a wide variety of issues, including police brutality, food sovereignty, education, and equitable access to educational resources.

Along with organizations like the People's Platform, it's been a strong supporter of Proposal P. This ballot measure would revise Detroit's city charter and features elements like a water affordability plan and reform of the Board of Police Commissioners. BLMDetroit also runs the Emory Douglas Youth and Family Art Program, which helps young people develop their artistic talents while encouraging them to express themselves. 

SURJ Detroit has primarily been involved with two of BLMDetroit's projects: a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, which buys boxes of food from local farmers and supplies them to community members who need them; and a school backpack program that delivers backpacks filled will school supplies and PPE to local students.

John Sloan III, who co-leads BLMDetroit with fellow organizer Curtis Renee says it's been a wonderful experience working with SURJ Detroit.

"People joke a lot about woke white people, right? Walking around, recently woke and using buzzwords and jargon because they just learned it from Twitter," he says. "That's not SURJ. They understand white privilege. They understand systemic racism."

John Sloan III, who co-leads BLMDetroit with fellow organizer Curtis Renee.
Working with BLMDetroit, the local chapter of SURJ helped deliver more than 400 CSA boxers to city residents. SURJ volunteers also dropped off around 1,500 backpacks to local students last year, participating in both at-home deliveries and two drive-through events. 

"That partnership is really important on an organizational level because it helps get things done," says Sloan. "It increases our reach and gives us access to communities that might not listen to us." 

While Pasionek is thankful SURJ Metro Detroit has had an opportunity to engage in this work with its partners, she harbors no illusions about the difficulty of changing racist behaviors and structures in our society. After all, having personal conversations about racism can be uncomfortable, and confronting it on an institutional level, still more challenging.

"This work is hard, and it is always going to be hard, but community always allows us to be in it," she says. "Continuing to show up is what is going to move us forward in a meaningful direction."
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David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.