Building Anti-Racism Work from the Ground Up in Millbrae, CA
By Amy Kelly Lauer and Joy Pasamonte Henry. Posted July 2, 2022.
Introduction:Millbrae is small suburban town just south of San Francisco. Home to over 23,000 people, it is mainly a residential community with a diverse population: Whites make up 47.3%, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders accounting for 45%. and Latinos are 12% of the population. It’s a quiet town not known for political activism. But all that has changed.
The Millbrae Anti-Racist Coalition (ARC) was founded in June 2020 by a group of Millbrae residents who were shocked by the killing of George Floyd and wanted to do something. One man, Oded Korszyn, put a message in the “General Feed” section of the NextDoor App, and asked everyone if they shared his outrage; he wanted to meet to discuss racism in Millbrae and beyond. About a dozen people responded and met.
What started as a handful of strangers coming together to share pain, passion, anger resulted in a successful rally with hundreds of neighbors, with their families and friends, out in a peaceful but markedly emotional protest. The event ended with open support from the City of Millbrae, as shown by their kneeling for 8 minutes and 46 seconds while High School Students read the names of Black Americans killed by police, and inspiring speeches from a racially diverse group of local youth.
ARC formed and stayed together from the simple desire to positively combat the racial divide in our small 22,000 resident city. And, by extension, the world. Our existing advocacy work has focused on education, raising awareness, inspiring community action, strengthening our community through collective experiences, and influencing policy change.
Our group primarily meets virtually, with occasional in person gatherings. For the most part, our core group came together as strangers and built trust through our shared interests in being anti-racist and helping other become anti-racist. The steering committee attempts to meet at least one monthly with no set general member meetings. As people began to have more freedom outside of their bubbles, our team has found it difficult to collaborate and stay connected.
A world where all human beings have the same access to resources, education, and safety, regardless of their race, religion, or social standing.
We stay true to our Vision, and recognize that as Dr Martin Luther King Jr. stated, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Lead the City of Millbrae in creating a social equitable society.
At this time, Millbrae ARC is a grassroots organization with all members living in or somehow tied to the City of Millbrae. Millbrae ARC is still solidifying its organizational structure. It is currently led by a volunteer 8-member Steering Committee composed of a racially, culturally, generationally, and professionally diverse mix of people: 30% White, 30% Asian, 20% Black/African American, and 10% Hispanic/Latine.
Proudly, we represent a truly diverse American population and despite our economic, educational, and social differences, we have come together to advocate for all underrepresented people in a community which, for a multitude of reasons, still grapples with the importance of social and racial equity to the overall development and success of all Americans.
In a community where difficult conversations are culturally taboo or ignored, our greatest successes to date center around the following two tenets:
Providing safe spaces to discuss social injustice and race (through town halls, peaceful protests, city-wide community events, and our book club).
Leading by example.
We work to educate ourselves and others about social and racial inequities that existed in the past and today, so we can determine the best path forward. Our community book group meets 6-8 times a year to discuss a wide-range of book selections from The Color of Law (Richard Rothstein) and Caste – The Origins of Our DIscontents(Isabel Wilkerson), Asian American HistoryThe Making of Asian America (Erika Lee), Desert Exile (Yoshiko Uchida), Dear America (Jose Antonio Vargas), The Seed Keeper (Diane Wilson), and Gordo (Jaime Cortez).
We participate in Community Cultural Celebrations including: Eid al Fitr decorating, sweets swaps and cooking classes; Dia de Los Muertos featuring community ofrenda, keynote speaker, remembrance notes.
We’ve held several Art In Action events: anti-racist chalk-outs across the city; social justice “hope stones” planted at all Milbrae Schools, parks, and City buildings. And we’ve erected a Wall of Hope: Personal notes placed on the Millbrae History Museum fence to encourage self-expression and messaging about hopes for a socially equitable world. We also offer a Free Little Library support with a range of authors and book topics which represent the diversity of the Millbrae Community
Engagement and Advocacy.
ARC members attend city council meetings to advocate for anti-racist, socially equitable policies. In 2020, we organized two successful protest marches with speakers and an open mic. In 2020 – 2021, we worked with Millbrae Mayor Ann Schneider, City Council, and City Manager Tom Williams to ensure all National Heritage months were recognized by the City through proclamations, public comments at Council meetings, and hanging relevant banners at City Hall. We also support of non-profit organizations who support and provide for our underrepresented community members.
Below are some of our more notable events/projects from 2020-2022:
Japanese Culture Festival – Supported engagement and participation.
SamTrans Art on Buses to Stand Against Racism and Love Our Communities in support of the AAPI Community. Partnered with SamTrans to collaborate with three artists who painted murals which were placed on buses.
Bake-Against-Hate. Collaborated with community members on Bake Sales to raise money and support www.stopaapihate.com, a reporting center that racks and responds to incidents of hate, violence, harassment, discrimination, shunning and child bullying against AAPI communities in the US.
United Against Hate Campaign. Hosted Rallies, featuring student speakers & engaged the community through digital campaigns.
Mills High School Social Justice Club – provided support to students and their teacher-advisor who formed a Social Justice Club for the school to increase awareness of racism and discuss solutions for the community.
East of El Camino Neighborhood Group – After the City Council of Millbrae created districts that split the neighborhoods east of El Camino Real and refused to directly address concerns from constituents, ARC assisted community members in mobilizing and forming a group dedicated to representing the neighborhood and its interests. This is a neighborhood of underrepresented, working class neighbors with the only Title 1 school in the District and a growing number of unaddressed safety, infrastructure, and representation concerns. Enabling the group falls in line with the mission and vision of our organization.
Belmont Neighbors Against Racism (BNAR) – we are expanding our partnerships and networks by reaching out to and working with local organizations with goals similar to ARC.
In the fall of 2021, we hosted/co-hosted two community town halls and a youth-focused forum, encouraging open dialogue about racial views and providing calls to action for participants (which included two school district superintendents, city council officials, civic leaders within our community, and local youth). Those calls to action include:
Evaluating the existing policing structure
Creating more inclusivity through training and community events
Evaluating and overhauling school policies around systematic racism and microaggressions so there is greater transparency and accountability.
In April, 2022, the Millbrae ARC Steering Committee endorsed its first candidate running for office, Chief Christina Corpus for Sheriff of San Mateo County. ARC used the following guidelines to make their determination: Does the candidate reflect the values, mission, and vision of Millbrae ARC? Millbrae ARC will support candidates in elections to remind the community that voting is a powerful right which can positively affect change.
To date, ARC has not been able to successfully drive racial and social systemic changes through the existing power centers in Millbrae.
In 2021, we did not achieve our goal of influencing the City to create a social equity commission Millbrae ARC wanted to help the city create a diverse commission to lead the City of Millbrae in creating an inclusive, safe, and socially-equitable community.
The area of focus to drive near-term results are listed below:
Update hiring and staff development practices to ensure representation and unconscious bias training for all.
Neighboring larger cities including South San Francisco and Redwood City created similar commissions. Millbrae ARC lobbied each City Council member, the City Mayor and City Manager, and seemed to gain alignment that adding a social equity commission would improve the lives of residents, employees, and visitors of Millbrae.
However, once the proposal to create the commission was discussed publicly by Council, despite clear calls-to-action by members of the community who spoke during public comments, the commission was immediately watered down to an ad hoc committee and shelved by a council sub-committee of two who have yet to bring back their recommendations to Council.
Millbrae ARC has shifted resources to support and empower others to engage in civil service, question, and demand action of elected officials.
We have not mobilized a large volunteer network to move our work forward. We continue to push our work in a decentralized model with small numbers of people grouping around their passions to create, lead, and execute a range of initiatives and projects. The impetus ranges from community input about what matters, issues of national, regional, and local concern – from police use of force to highlighting important cultural events and bringing them to the community (eid al Fitr and dia de los Muertos).
However, despite our challenges, the Millbrae Anti-Racist Coalition has a large presence and to many, is an important organization in Millbrae, bringing racial and social equity at the center of its work in our community.
Amy Kelly Lauer is a co-founder and steering committee member of the Millbrae Anti-Racist Coalition. She is committed to supporting anti-racist education, increasing awareness, and deepening allyship to drive equity through policy change. Among her many tasks, Amy leads ARC’s art events and initiatives, manages our social media, and one of her favorite projects is hosting the Anti-Racist Book Club.
Joy Pasamonte Henry is a co-founder of the Millbrae Anti-Racist Coalition and currently serves on the Steering Committee. She occasionally helps with ARCs communications and marketing and is passionate about social and racial equity in education.