Local organizations working for racial equity have seen a bump in memberships since the death of George Floyd last month. The Duluth branch of NAACP reported an uptick of nearly 550 members, and SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) has seen around 200 inquiries.

Claudie Washington, who has been active in the NAACP for 50 years, said this is the largest uptick that he’s aware of in the branch’s history.

Longtime member Sharon Witherspoon said the increase means additional talent and skills that can help accomplish more as a group, but the real work is on committees, for which the Duluth branch has several: health and environmental equity, educational equity, political action and criminal justice.

The local group was founded after the 1920 Duluth lynchings of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie, the 100th anniversary of which the city marked this month.

It has been instrumental in cultural events, including Juneteenth, Kwanzaa, and Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In the past months, the branch has hosted a COVID-19 panel on Facebook Live featuring Black, Indigenous and people of color who are health professionals, and they’ve conducted several community face mask giveaways.

Elena Bantle joined the NAACP after the death of Philando Castile in Minneapolis in 2016. Bantle said she’s a white-identified ally, and it’s important for white, allied folks to use their skills and resources for anti-racism work.

“I’ve lived in Duluth since 2011. I’ve seen a lot of Black friends move out in response to what their life looks like here, and I want a community to be one that can support that diversity,” she said.

Witherspoon called this “the new era,” and noted a passing of the baton from herself and Washington to others involved with the branch today.

They’ve been able to do more in the last four years, she said, but there’s more to do.

Local businesses and organizations are contacting them about ways to help. The branch receives complaints of discrimination in smaller communities such as Hibbing, International Falls and Thief River Falls, said Washington.

The group works with the League of Women Voters and SURJ on common goals, and they’d like to create a resource bank for legal assistance and ways to address disparities in education, health care and more, Witherspoon said.

The branch’s next direction will be decided by the executive committee, but the emphasis is on action.

“All we need is the right people to step up and make decisions. We talked about it for years and years. We don’t need to talk no more,” said Washington.

Added Witherspoon: “We’ve done enough studies, we need to just make it happen.”

A SURJ surge

When Becky Nelson first heard about a group of white people organizing around racism, she thought it sounded problematic. Without a relationship and accountability to people of color, you have no idea about the consequences of your actions or what Black and Brown people need, she said.

That was about three years ago, and today, Nelson is a member of SURJ, a national organization of whites aimed at ending white supremacy and systematic racism in collaboration with people of color.

“The ways that we operate in a culture that values whiteness over everything else means that we miss out on so much of humanity and all that it can offer,” she said.

SURJ Northland offers workshops and education on police abolition, allyship 101 and how to show up for BIPOC-led organizations and be less problematic, she said.

They’re also planning a book club and an upcoming event on anti-racist parenting.

The collective is currently at about 20, and they’ve had about 200 reach out for more information about getting involved.

Before joining, Nelson said she always had a belief in justice and a basic understanding of the history of racism in America. She joined SURJ with “a white savior-ist mentality” instead of understanding her humanity was tied up in the system, too.

“There’s a lot of white activists in Duluth — a lot of white people who believe in justice and health, equity and environmental equity — and all of us could use internal work on our own racism and whiteness and how that shows up,” Nelson said.

People of color are welcome at SURJ meetings, and SURJ works with the Duluth branch of the NAACP, but the organization is founded around organizing white folks and working collaboratively with people of color. They aim to create a safe space for white people to be vulnerable without censorship in order to learn about allyship, Nelson said.

This is long, hard work, and folks need to be committed to thinking about what that means and how they can contribute in a sustainable way, she added.

If your skills are around relationship-building and care-taking, that’s invaluable, she said, adding: “There’s room for everybody in the movement.”

The place to start if you’re looking to be an ally is to do a one-on-one with a SURJ member to learn about how to get plugged in and how to start checking your own beliefs. And, don’t let fear hold you back. It’s a sensitive topic, but don’t be discouraged, she said.

“You probably are going to screw up, and you need to make it right as much as you can. Keep doing the work.”

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