Project Pilgrimage

By Eleanor Chang-Stucki

For the Rev. Dr. Carolyn McKinstry, the head-spinning events of 2020 felt purposeful– as if a divine power was trying to direct our attention to the state of the world. As a young girl, Dr. McKinstry was witness to The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing and among protesters in the Birmingham Children’s March of 1963. 

She has spent a lifetime dedicated to community service. As a Project Pilgrimage board member, author, speaker, and witness to both the Civil rights movement of the ’60s and today’s Black Lives Matter marches, Rev. Dr. McKinstry has watched racism and protesting evolve. 

The tragic and senseless murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others have shocked many into reckoning with the reality of police brutality and systemic racism in the United States. Last summer, 26 million Americans poured into the streets and months of peaceful demonstrations across the world ensued. 

Q: Many people have compared the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The Black Lives Matter Movement marches of 2020 are being dubbed the “second civil rights movement.” Would you agree with this renaming? 

A: I wouldn’t call the 2020 protests the “second civil rights movement” because there were so many movements before the Black Lives Matter movement started. I think an appropriate name for this movement is “the attempt at the 3rd reconstruction”. When slavery was abolished that was seen as the first reconstruction. When segregation was abolished during my time, that was the second reconstruction. Right now, you are privileged enough to live in what is considered the third attempt at reconstruction. I say attempt because there has never been a successful reconstruction of our country. 

We look back over everything, and we don’t see where there was ever a serious attempt to desegregate. Anywhere you travel around the country, I’ve been to so many places where it doesn’t look like integration came to that city or state at all. I remember the old vestiges of slavery, I remember all my schools, parks, and churches being segregated. If you remember this, it never leaves you. 

The Black Lives Matter movement is the first pointedly direct movement aimed specifically at the preservation of Black lives. I see Black Lives Matter as a brand new movement with a new focus, and that focus is the lives of Black people. There have been many attempts at equality, but there’s nothing that suggested that Black lives counted or mattered to any decisions or to the rest of our population. So, I’m saying it out loud to anyone that will listen, that Black lives do matter. 

Q: How has the role of Black women changed over time in the movement? 

A: The role of women hasn’t changed, except in numbers. Black women have always been on the battlefield in some way or another. Like Dorothy Height, who was reported to have written much of Dr. King’s speech on the March of Washington of 1963. 

You have Black women represented from all different generations, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Dorothy Cotton, Fannie Lou Hammer. And more contemporary figures like Jane Fonda and Angela Davis. When we marched in the ‘60s white women quietly loaned their cars to us, made sandwiches, and donated money to the cause. There were always women there, even if we couldn’t see them. 

Q: What advice would you give to all women looking to join the movement?

A: I never expected to see the assembly of women represented at protests today. We were told to stay in our places, we had things that we were relegated to and so did other age groups. But today when you watch marches you see all ages participating, young, middle-aged, and older women. 

Women are especially important right now. It will always take young women that can reach avenues that men cannot. I am supremely proud of all the young women I see marching and contributing to a better world, in such a crucial time. To young women all around, I know you’ll join the ranks, I’ll be looking for all of you.  

Q: What is the role of young people right now? How do we move forward? 

A: I have come to understand that every generation has something they are responsible for. My generation brought integration into the country. That was our primary contribution. Every new generation of young people recognizes that [racism] has been going on for a long time, too long. 

Your generation’s charge is to look back over history. Hold on to everything that has been gained, and find out what we need. What is missing from our world? What needs to be improved? Do we need to assemble or develop our schools differently or how can we change our curriculums for the better? Discussions and books are essential to undoing what has been done. 

There’s a place for everyone, you have to access your passions, your gifts, your skills, the thing that makes you jump up in the morning and wanna get moving. This is how we move closer to living in peace, loving our neighbors, and finding the Beloved Community. 

This is a wonderful time to be alive, there’s so much we need, and we require every single person.

Rev. Dr. Carolyn’s 2020/2021 Reading List: 

  • While the World Watched: A Birmingham Bombing Survivor Comes of Age During the Civil Rights Movement by Carolyn Maull McKinstry
  • The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement Is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and William J. Barber
  • The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart by Alicia Garza 
  • The Destruction of Black Civilization by Chancellor Williams
  • His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope by Jon Meacham
  • Make Me Rain: Poems & Prose by Nikki Giovanni

I first met Felicia Ishino, Project Pilgrimage’s Executive Director, five years ago on my first Civil Rights pilgrimage through the University of Washington. As a student leader, I worked closely with Felicia, who guided the student leaders in creating a curriculum that fostered reflection and vulnerability from the pilgrimage participants. Felicia’s prowess for critical thinking, supporting young leaders, and speaking her truth was evident when I first met her. Recently, I (virtually) sat down with Felicia to talk about our Asian American identities, the historical nomination of Senator Kamala Harris, and the importance of representation.  

Different Identities

As fellow Asian Americans, Felicia and I have talked about our Asian identities since we’ve known each other. She identifies as biracial: Black and Japanese American, while I identify as Vietnamese American. I grew up in Olympia, Washington, which was a predominantly white town. Felicia grew up with her Black mother and step-father in a household that had a lot of “Black culture and an appreciation of African American culture that was prevalent in the household.” Her connection to Japanese culture “was something that I more read about in books or studied in school than I truly experienced, culturally.”

Felicia later talked about having moments of exposure to her culture with her father’s Japanese family instead of “being completely immersed in it.” Although she was encouraged by her stepfather to spend time with her father’s side of the family and learn about her culture, she didn’t start to learn about Asian American activists until she was in college. This really resonated with me. Growing up in Olympia, Washington, I was surrounded almost exclusively by white folk. Despite growing up in an Asian American household, I felt like I only had moments of exposure to my own culture, similar to Felicia. No one in my family ever talked about what it meant to be Asian or to celebrate our culture. It wasn’t until I attended the University of Washington when I finally met other Asian Americans who could understand and contextualize my experiences.

Nuances and Complexities

There are nuances and complexities within any ethnic identity, and Felicia’s biracial background is no exception. “It’s unique. I haven’t met as many biracial or multiracial people with that combination specifically of being Black and Asian American.” Having a very unique perspective and set of experiences can sometimes be isolating when there’s not a lot of representation out there. There’s also the experience of not feeling enough, or that you have to define your own identity for yourself. “Biracial people go through this [process] where I’m not this and I’m not that or I’m both,” Felicia shared. “And the notion of when and how we fit into certain communities. A lot of our history, a lot of our world feels like it’s Black and white, and so when you add in another perspective and another experience, it feels like, I’m really trying to figure out where I fit.”

Felicia and I talked a lot about representation during this conversation: how there’s not a lot of representation when it comes to Black and Asian communities coming together, how society’s external perception of her (Felicia being a Black woman) differs from how she internally perceives herself (Felicia recognizing she’s Black and Japanese), and why we need representation on all types of levels, especially politically.

With the historic nomination of Kamala Harris as the first Black and Asian woman Vice President nominee, many Black and Brown Americans, including Felicia, are really hopeful by this new and much needed example of representation. “As soon as Kamala was announced, I felt that familiar kind of hopefulness… after a long stint of not feeling hopeful at all.” This nomination, for many, signified a type of representation that affirmed our experiences, communities, and visions for the future. “Kamala Harris represents real change, just by virtue of who she is. It’s incredibly important for the Asian community but also the Black community and biracial individuals, women, there’s just a lot that’s wrapped up in her as an individual. That representation really matters.”

Hopeful Representation

Being able to see a part of you reflected and in a position of leadership can inspire a confidence within you that I matter. My experiences and stories are unique and have value. I deserve to be here. I remember seeing my Asian American identity reflected in Felicia as we went on several pilgrimages together, which comforted me when my Asian American identity didn’t quite fit into certain narratives and conversations around race.

But representation is more than just what we see. It’s also about engaging with each other, sharing our stories, and deeply listening to the nuances within each other’s experience. My friendship with Felicia has expanded my awareness of biracial representation within my own community, which has been vital in how I think about those who don’t fit within a certain image or expectation. Her existence and perspective have affirmed how beautiful and possible it is to hold intersectional identities, and the importance of finding friends and a community who can wholly embrace who you are. While Kamala may be an example of hopeful representation for Felicia, I am thankful that Felicia is that type of representation for me.


Felicia and Simon on their Fall 2015 Pilgrimage
Mary Ingraham holds a photo of Robert and Jeannie Graetz

Project Pilgrimage cohorts met with Robert Graetz three separate times and he always left us in awe. Known for his support of the Montgomery bus boycott, Mr. Graetz passed away Sunday at the age of 92.

“I have always contended that the absence of fear is not the point,” Mr. Graetz wrote in “A White Preacher’s Message on Race and Reconciliation: Based on His Experiences Beginning with the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” a memoir published in 2006. “What you do when you are afraid is what makes the difference. We often had good reason to be afraid.”

Mr. Graetz seemed to toggle seamlessly between foot soldier and field general in civil rights and social justice causes for roughly seven decades. He was the only white board member of the Montgomery Improvement Association, a group that formed in the days following Rosa Parks’ arrests, to oversee the boycott.

Mr. Graetz and his wife, Jeannie, elected to aid the boycott, in part to remain effective in their new church. The pastor used his Sunday sermon to urge parishioners to avoid Montgomery’s buses on Monday and offered rides to work. As a result of his involvement, Graetz’s home was bombed several times and he was harassed by white residents.

When we consider the loss of giants like C.T. Vivian and John Lewis this year as well as Pilgrimage friends Dr. Reavis Mitchell and Theresa Burroughs, the loss of Mr. Graetz is a reminder that our time with this generation is slipping away. We must act on that good fear. It is up to us to heed the lessons they taught us while we were on the bus and carry on their legacy, together.

Robert and Jeannie Graetz in 2017

 

Our most recent session in our new Platform series was centered around Dismantling the Colonial Legacy: Symbols of white supremacy.

Thank you to everyone who joined the conversation on August 3rd, 2020 with Quess? Moore of Take em Down NOLA and Seattle youth activist, Eleanor Chang-Stucki.

Quess? and Eleanor led us through such a timely and much needed discussion on white supremacist symbols both in the American South and in Washington state.

For those of you who were unable to make the Zoom, we are providing this recording and hope that you will learn as much as we did.