Sharing our paths to and through the course: Why are we here?  What are we learning?

After the third week of our course this year, Jan Reek shared some of her path to our course. 

On what led her to the course:

Throughout her adulthood, Jan has looked long and deep into the racist ideology she unconsciously learned growing up.  Among crucial moments when she found herself confronted by her own racism, Jan recounts: 

“In my 30s, I remember walking down the street, seeing a black person walking my way, and the n-word popping into my mind. I was really upset with that because I thought, ‘Why is this happening to me? I’m not like that! I don’t think that way! I didn’t understand it.  I didn’t grow up in an obviously racist family, but I did live in a segregated white community.”

“In another experience, I was in Philadelphia and I got on a bus and I was the only white person. I was terrified. And I’m like, ‘Why am I so scared? These are just people going home from work? Why am I so scared?’  And I didn’t know.”

“Looking back I really think I was brainwashed: Our family’s the best. Our religion is the best. Our country’s the best.  We didn’t learn the history about: how we got this land?  And slavery was something that happened somewhere else.”

Living in Madison and working at non-profits for affordable housing and home maintenance (Project Home & Wisconsin Partnership for Housing Development). Jan has consistently searched for opportunities to understand and dismantle racism.  

In the 1990s, on hearing about Building Bridges, a mixed-race group of people who shared about their lives, Jan immediately contacted the organizer. His response was, “We already have enough white middle-class women.”  But Jan persisted, she absolutely had to be in that class. “I got in, and it truly changed my life. I’d never heard anyone else’s stories.”

“From that initial experience with Building Bridges, I’ve changed personally. My comfort level has expanded in seeking out people from different backgrounds. I used to be really afraid and I’m sure that was just … I don’t know the word…inculcated from my lack of experience with just being around these people.”

Jan continued her commitment to learning and connecting to the lived experiences of Black people, our shared history and current reality. She became active in Madison’s race study circles, serving as a facilitator and on the steering committee.

“It’s taken me a long time to realize that…that you know I grew up white in the United States and that’s bound to have certain outcomes. You know, it’s not a surprise that I was inculcated with this whole white supremacist view of life.”

“I’ve been blessed to have some personal interaction with people of color who were generous to share their stories.”

Reflecting on the course:

In 2017, after decades of learning from whatever resources she encountered and supporting those groups on boards and in other volunteer roles, Jan took the Justified Anger’s African American History class.  She has supported Nehemiah since that time, and this year she is volunteering as backup facilitator. 

“I remember one of the most powerful things that we did in the 2017 class was holding these pictures of different Black people in different phases of life. You were supposed to look at the picture and try to feel what that person might be feeling and write it down.”

Jan is clearly moved as she recalls the experience. She pauses before continuing:

“It just really brought up a lot of feelings that really touched my heart.  I don’t think we see each other as human beings enough. And to really feel what another person is feeling, makes you know:  This is another person.”

As she absorbs the lectures this time around, the content is reaching her at a new depth. 

This year, one piece of knowledge stands out: 

“Dr. Clark Pujara’s clear presentation and documentation of the fact that that the North immensely benefitted from slavery just as much as the South. The US economy during slavery times was a well-oiled machine, benefiting both South and North. The United States wouldn’t be the superpower that it is, if it hadn’t been for slavery.”

Jan believes strongly in the work of Nehemiah.  She sees it as a cutting-edge effort to create effective white allies. 

“Knowledge is transformational. To have a group of people that now see our history clearly – It is going to empower them to do things differently in their lives.”

“I am convinced, like Rev. Gee says, that this idea could be spread to other places.”

Looking ahead, she considers it essential that White people learn our history and talk with each other:

“When I think of going forward, I can imagine something that I could initiate with other White people, perhaps a book club where we can focus on and discuss the full history of this country. The more people with this knowledge the better.”

This article was authored and edited by Cecilia Ford with interview participation by Jan Reek