Growing a Community – Ep.2

Welcome to the Jali Podcast – Ep.1
September 30, 2020
Finding Your True Self – Ep.3
October 14, 2020

Executive director of Sow A Seed Community Foundation and city council member of Tracy, California, Rhodesia Ransom joins the podcast as our guest to share how she assisted in implementing leadership training, educational programs, and city policies to advance social equity within the community.

Melyssa Barrett: Welcome to The Jali podcast. I’m your host, [Melissa Barik 00:00:08]. This podcast is for those who are interested in the conversation around diversity, inclusion and equity. Each week, I’ll be interviewing a guest who has something special to share, or is actively part of building solutions in this space. Let’s get started.

Well, welcome, this week I’m excited to introduce you to my guest Rhodesia Ransom. She’s an educator, planning commissioner. She’s been a nonprofit director for Sow A Seed Foundation, and she has connected hundreds of local youth with leadership training and mentorship opportunities. Aside from that day job, she is our current city council member in Tracy, California. She’s brought gang violence intervention programs into schools. She’s helped families protect their homes from the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. She’s also been an associate faculty member at the University of Phoenix’s Graduate School of Business. She’s got 15 years of private sector management experience. And certainly as a planning commissioner, she looked to attract new jobs while protecting the community’s resources. She’s been on the San Joaquin Civil Grand Jury, a member of the Anti-Bully Committee for the School District, a state certified family mediator, and certainly a volunteer instructor for the Student Discovery Program.

Her number of activities goes on and on and on. So I’m just ecstatic to have you here. I know you’re currently running for County Supervisor for San Joaquin County, and I’m excited to have this conversation with you now that we are in this era of focus on social injustice. So I just appreciate you being here and I’m looking forward to kind of digging into a little bit about your own personal journey and how you even got here.

Rhodesia Ransom: Well, thank you. I am really happy to be here, so thank you so much for the invitation. Oh, I’m listening to you, I’m like, “Oh my gosh, she’s written all the things, you’re telling everything.” So yeah, those are things that I have done and things that I am involved in, in our community. Currently the city council position takes up a lot of what I do in addition to my day job as executive director of the organization. But I am here to help people on similar journeys and add whatever value I can to these fights for social justice and making sure that we are open to diversity and inclusion and really making sure that we are empowering our community when it comes to equity and really making sure that we’re not just talking about equality, that we are talking about equity and having these conversations in our community and what the differences are. So thank you for having me, I’m here for it.

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah, absolutely. I think I’ve known you for, I don’t know, maybe several decades, I’m not sure, but I remember you working for a local financial institution way back when.

Rhodesia Ransom: Yep, yep.

Melyssa Barrett: And so when I think about your own personal journey, you were doing things back then, I think you grew up in San Francisco?

Rhodesia Ransom: Yeah. So yes, I grew up in San Francisco. I was actually born and raised in San Francisco and got my education there as well. My grandmother was a missionary and that was like my introduction to service. And really, when you met me, it was nearly 20 years ago. Yes, I had the traditional career job, but I also did things in the community service things because that’s just in my DNA, when you have a grandmother that’s a missionary, you are a public servant. That’s what you do, it’s what you know, it’s what you eat, sleep and breathe. And so you don’t know that there’s another world until you get around other people and you try to invite them in.

So growing up with connected families to resources, and that was kind of just a way of life. And then moving forward throughout my life, I went to college and then I got involved in a sorority, which is a national sorority that’s focused on sisterhood, scholarship and service. And so continued service through there and through different board membership, board opportunities, serving on some youth focused foundations, some social justice focused foundations. And then co-founding Sow A Seed back in 2005, we became an official nonprofit where we would work in the schools with youth, the superintendent and the prevention services would call us in to mediate situations, to do some mentorship.

And as we worked with the young people, there were a couple of things that just really stood out. One being the disparity in the graduation rates, a disparity in the suspension and expulsion rates. And then realizing that as we were mentoring these young people, that a lot of them weren’t just experiencing behavior problems, but they actually had some trauma that needed to be dealt with, they had a lack of resources that people in the systems that they were moving throughout just did not recognize.

And so as a nonprofit, we really moved to close some of those gaps by focusing on what can we do to make sure that these young people who were traditionally black and brown students, black and Hispanic students to be specific, they were not graduating at the same rate as their peers. They were being suspended and expelled at higher rates than their peers. And just looking at what the data was saying in regards to that demographic of students and the experience they were having was putting them specifically on the pipeline to prison. And if you look at the numbers and the similarities, it’s kind of shocking.

And so we really work to provide mentorship for young people, provide trauma informed programs, to educate the educators about cultural differences, because when you’re in a place like Tracy, which is… We moved here 20 years ago, it was growing. And one of the schools was practically brand new and they had the highest number of suspensions. And really there was a lot of culture issues there, you got teachers that they’re not used to teaching kids that don’t look like them, and maybe those kids come from a [inaudible 00:07:17] household or they do things differently. So we had to also build into our programming, into our curriculum, some restorative practice trainings, some climate training, some cultural training. And as much as we could include that, we tried to get that in as well. So that’s [crosstalk 00:07:35].

Melyssa Barrett: Well, that’s actually profound because I think in a lot of ways, that’s really a lot of what’s missing in so much. Because as I look at my own kids, I remember having conversations with teachers about Black History Month or other things that they were less familiar with and their responses were absolutely offensive. And I’m not sure they quite understood how offensive, but to the extent that you’re talking about restorative practices, things that both for the students and the people teaching the students are so important. So what are some of the challenges that you have seen and some of the benefits that you’ve seen from the work that you’re doing?

Rhodesia Ransom: It’s really interesting you say, “What are the challenges?” The challenges are very much what you mentioned is that there’s a resistance. There’s kind of a, “Well, we’ve always done it this way.” And then there’s also this tendency to not want to be accountable for learning about other people’s culture and how other people come into our world and then into our space. And even dealing with kind of some of the administrators, they are in places where they can’t force their staff because teachers as example have bargaining rights. And so they can’t just go and say, “Okay, well today you’re going to learn this new practice.” Because they have to agree to participate in it.

So one of the things that we did to… Gosh, teachers are going to hear this, so to infiltrate is through our programs, we really modeled it and we let them see how successful it could be. And then you make them want to go, “Well, what did you do with that student?” Or we’ll find other teachers, because you’d have a student who would do great in six of seven classes, but is totally failing without one, or it would be quite the opposite, you would have a student who was terrible in six classes, but then that one teacher who understood how to relate to them, how to accept their culture, how to redirect. And honestly, to work with them as opposed to do things that were punitive or completely ignore it. Those teachers have more success and we kind of tried to build on the success stories and try to get other people to see, “Well, here’s a tool you can use, to make it more successful.” And so those-

Melyssa Barrett: That’s fabulous.

Rhodesia Ransom: Yeah. That’s one way we did it.

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah. It sounds like a program that could definitely look to expand in other areas. Are you focused mostly right now within Tracy or the county or?

Rhodesia Ransom: So we work in schools throughout the county, mostly Tracy and Stockton is where we’re located, it is where the schools… We go wherever in our county, whatever schools are requesting our services, just because we’re a small grassroots organization, we only have 14 employees. We can get more employees, but honestly we really want to do a good job. And it’s all about making sure that the people that you are connecting with, the young people, one, they have a heart for them, but two, they have to have had significant training in different things.

So we started off more as a mentorship organization, but through the years, in San Joaquin County, there’s this thing called Adverse Childhood Experiences, ACEs, it’s based on a Kaiser study. And it’s kind of a scoring model, like if so many things happen to you, then those are called ACEs, like living in poverty is an ACE, experiencing abuse, witnessing violence, those things.

Well, in some of the areas that we work in, a lot of those young people have really high ACE scores. And so we can’t just mentor them. We have to actually help them heal their situations. And some of the situations include what we were talking about, which is justice and racism, experiencing racism or experiencing injustice is actually a traumatic experience that we have to not only help them understand what’s happening, if we can, get some acknowledgement for what’s happening, but it’s an experience that we have to try to help heal at the same time. So that’s why it’s impossible to just be everywhere because you just need to do what you can do as well as you can.

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah. It’s definitely a marathon and not a sprint. There’s a lot of work to be done for sure. Which is why I really wanted to have this conversation with more people. Because I think when we start talking about students and the experiences they go through in school, then they end up getting their driver’s license, they go out into the world and they believe that they have an opportunity, especially our black and brown, underrepresented minorities. They believe they can in fact, conquer the world. And there are a lot of systems in place that sometimes make that a limitation, which is so sad because I think everybody, if you’re a parent, you want to see your kids thrive. So what are some of the…

Some of the things that you’re involved in with the city council, we’ve had a lot of conversations over the last few months about social injustice and racism and the movement. There’ve been a lot of protests, both from black and brown, but also from white and other ethnicities around the city, the country, the world, which is fabulous to have allies who are actually understanding the depth of the challenges that have been going on. And I know you’re doing a lot of work with the police and other agencies. Can you talk a little bit about how it’s impacting your community and some of the solutions that you see?

Rhodesia Ransom: Absolutely. Yes, there’s so much happening since the George Floyd killing, I really feel like it’s given people an opportunity to breathe and a freedom to really just say, “Look, this is what we’ve been dealing with for a long time when it comes to racism and injustice.” And it’s not that we’ve never seen it before. It’s not that we’ve never seen a film. We’ve seen films before, but we’ve never seen one quite like that. You never seen one that just kind of hit you in a place where you’re just saying, “You know what? I can not be silent about things. I cannot ignore certain things. I cannot allow people to make comments.” And we just can’t leave people in their ignorance anymore.

And what I appreciate about this moment in time is it’s not just black people representing, “Hey, we want justice.” It’s not just brown people, but it’s everyone. And it’s very reminiscent of kind of the civil rights movement, when you look at pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. and that movement. It was not just black people in that fight for civil rights, it really takes people to come together to say, “We’re done. Enough is enough.”

And I really think that this is a moment in time that I feel like every generation has a moment in time. I don’t even feel like this moment belongs to my generation, I feel like this moment belongs to my children’s generation as they’ve been at the forefront of different protests. And when you look at a community such as Tracy, where things are relatively peaceful, but we know that there are stories here. We live here, we’ve heard some of the stories, we’ve seen, there was a play once called Being Black and Tracy. And it was very educational. And we know that there was the national socialist white people’s party that was here in Tracy at one point. And we know that people have had some experiences.

And so this moment in time, once this happen and 600 people show up at a protest, there were at least five protests that I know of, that I participated in to go and my kids went and just to see people talk about their different experiences and it’s not okay, so we need to one, give them an opportunity and a platform to express what they’ve been through. But then as people of governance who are charged with setting the rules, making the policy and honestly, quality of life, this is a big quality of life thing, when you have young people saying, “This happened to me in school.” In the city, that you are a leader in.

We were at one and they said, “Well, who’s in charge of the police?” And I said, “Well, actually, I’m in charge of the police. So what’s your concern? What’s your problem?” And I think we are very fortunate that our police department has done very well as far as going out and engaging the community. But that didn’t mean that, to some other folks, they were saying, “Well, yes, that’s your experience, but don’t discount my experience.” And we can not do that.

So one of the things that has come out of this in addition to us, really trying to give, not just young people, but anyone a platform to express what they were feeling and what their needs are. My question is always like, “What your demands? If you’re going to protest, you’re going to need to have… What are your demands? I need to know what they are.” And at the end of the day-

Melyssa Barrett: Because we need to hold you accountable. Right?

Rhodesia Ransom: Tell me what you were hoping to accomplish. What are you asking for me? And what I found is really, people just want to know that they can trust, they can feel safe, they can feel safe when their kids go out, the young people want to feel like they can be treated equal. And so after a few protests, 500, 300, I think the smallest one was like a 100 people and a candlelight vigil.

And really what we’d have to do is go back and myself and the other council members, myself and one council member, Arriola and I, we wrote a policy proposal that was just recently adopted, called the Equity and Empowerment Initiative. And the purpose of that was to do an assessment of our community. One, we need to acknowledge that everyone’s experience in our community is not the same, acknowledge some past things that have happened and then make a commitment of value statement that says, “We value equity and diversity here in our community.”

Our staff did an awesome job. We said, “You need to come back with a value statement, a resolution.” And we gave them the key points and they actually came back with a very comprehensive resolution for Black Lives Matter, which a year ago, you could never get anyone to say that in the city council chambers, let alone get five people to vote yes on adopting that policy. And it was important, especially after listening to a lot of the Hispanic community here to include them in this initiative. So we put that in there.

And then myself and Councilman Arriola, we wrote the empowerment initiative to look at our budget and how we’re spending money and how we can actually make sure that when our police are out there doing work, they’ve already told us, “Hey, it’s not my job to solve homelessness. I am not a social worker. Don’t make me go and arrest homeless people and violate their rights.” Right? So we looked at this initiative as a way to not just make a value statement, but to make sure that when it comes to race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, and we have women working in our city and they need to be able to know that, Hey, they have the same opportunities as men. And black people need to know they have the same opportunities as white people.

So we need to make sure that our departments, not just the city departments, but people we give money to, through MOU and contracts and vendors, if you’re going to work with our city, you’re going to value equity and diversity because it’s required before we’re going to work with you. But basically my point is that we don’t want to just talk about equity and empowerment, we want to make sure that when it comes to the policies in our community, the systems that people can know that we mean business when we say that we’re a place that values equity and that we value justice and that you can be safe with us.

Our police department, they actually agreed. Even before we even had the conversation, our police chief was on top of it. He had already made some moves to take out one of the chokeholds I can’t pronounce their chokehold, but he’d already making a move to take it out. We talked about they’re going to increase their training, to make sure that there is a professional courage. There’s already a duty to intercede for our police department, but we want to give them the support in the proper training and knowing that this is how you intervene with your coworker and they should feel safe doing that with one another. So there’s training that they’re going to go through. There’s actually a history of policing that new recruits are going to learn about like the history of policing and where it started and where it should go, at least in our city. So that’s how…

Melyssa Barrett: That’s a lot of work.

Rhodesia Ransom: That’s a lot of work in a short amount of time. And I’ll be honest with you, I’m probably making it sound really easy, but believe it or not, there are people who are opposed and they just don’t see that you can value justice, you can be anti-racist and you can still support and work with your police department, for some reason and I think it’s very divisive. People want to pretend, or they articulate that the two don’t go together. They’re not mutually exclusive concepts, so.

Melyssa Barrett: Right. Right. Exactly. Well, and I think it’s interesting because specifically there has been a lot of effort to try to bring the community into alignment with the police over several years. This has been an area where the police want to hear and connect with the community. So I want to say, I think in the city, there’s a Community Action Committee or something like that.

Rhodesia Ransom: Yeah. The police department, the chief’s committee is called the CAC, but yes, you’re absolutely right. And so it was started with a couple of chiefs ago, but it’s really a great opportunity for them to bring people in from the community and share, “This is how our department’s keeping you safe. These are some activities that we’re doing so that when neighbors and young people interact with the police are not afraid. They’re basically building rapport.” And so that committee was started several years ago. That’s one effort.

There’s also a leadership program that includes public safety and teaching people how those types of things work. But sometimes those things, they look all nice and shiny and pretty, but then people still don’t feel in the community that what they’re seeing is what they’re getting. And that’s the thing that we want to get to. A lot of the stories we hear start in school and they kind of work their way into other little areas in the community.

Melyssa Barrett: So in terms of diversity and inclusion, from a city perspective for city employees, do you all have to make changes? Are you doing things differently in terms of how the city manager [inaudible 00:24:38] things of how they employ and look for and kind of expand their reach?

Rhodesia Ransom: So it’s really funny because we just passed this last Tuesday. And so now there’s a couple of cities who’ve done this, Seattle as being one of them. And so now we’re going to be employing this assessment tool to try and figure out like how things look. And it’s not about just counting numbers, it’s not about just saying, “Well, now we have enough black faces.” Or, “Now we have enough brown faces.” But it’s really about making sure that people are not being passed over that implicit biases and things that they don’t even know that they carry with them, “Hey, I think this is a man’s job.” We need to make sure that our biases for our team and our hiring committees are checked at the door and that everyone has equal footing and equal opportunity.

So that assessment is going to kind of tell us where we need to go, but that’s the next step is investing in that assessment and being able to figure out where we need to go to make sure that we are accountable, and then there’s going to be some reporting and outcomes that are part of that as well.

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah. And that’s great. Because I think even a lot of corporations, businesses, some of the merchants that are around and I’m not just talking locally, but nationally and even abroad, I think the movement to really focus on inclusion and diversity, I have actually seen, now we talk more about inclusion, but you can’t actually talk about inclusion without talking about diversity, because you first have to know that you are open for business for everyone who wants to experience it.

So that’s great to hear that we’re doing such positive things in the community. Are there things that, from a business perspective in this county location that maybe they can add to what they’re doing as they’re focusing on diversity and inclusion. Are there things that you think other businesses should focus on?

Rhodesia Ransom: I don’t know that I’ve thought that far down. For me, it’s like a non-negotiable that people need to just acknowledge what’s happening in the world and do better. I think one of the biggest issues is that people are super uncomfortable and they’re uncomfortable having these conversations about even racism, even racism in their own family, right? And then you have people, there’s some things that people do and they’ll say, they’ll come to me. “Oh, Mrs. Ransom, I can’t believe they did that to you. That was racist.” Well, that’s not how you call it out, you don’t whisper to me, you should… So it’s one [crosstalk 00:27:43], because we have some other layers we have to work on first. [Crosstalk 00:27:50].

Melyssa Barrett: Well, and that’s a great point because I think one of the things that with allies, that is the one thing that allies can actually do, is call things out like that. And I think sometimes they just are silent.

Rhodesia Ransom: Right. And that’s what’s happened. So some of the things that we experience, me as a black woman maneuvering through a place like Tracy and being in leadership and some people thinking, people that look like me shouldn’t be there. If you say something about it, then it’s like, “Oh, you’re playing the race card.” And that’s really just a way of saying, “We don’t want to hear what you’re saying. And we don’t want to acknowledge the role that we have in this thing that you’re talking about.”

And so it’s so important that our allies are in tune to those situations, and helpful in calling it out because it’s one of those things that we can’t just solve this on our own. And I don’t care how much education you have, how much willpower you have, it’s just not something you can not go unwrite decades, hundreds of years, centuries, I should say, worth of codes and policies that even the people that are working with today didn’t even realize they were perpetuating the same policies and codes, they didn’t write it. So they’re not accountable to it, but we need to teach them so that they can help undo some of those systems.

So when it comes to private business, I think it’s really a personal choice. And it’s a personal accountability and responsibility that I will be happy, I’ve been proud of a lot of people that have reached out to me and said, “You know what? I’m not going to be quiet anymore.” “You know what we’re going to…” There’s been some boards that have contacted me and says, “Can you meet with us? We want to learn how to diversify our board.”

So think that’s a step in the right direction is looking at your board and seeing what, “Do you look like the people you serve? Do you have the experiences to speak to the need, to solving the needs of your community that you’re trying to serve.” So we’ve seen some of that, I’ve had some people call and say, “What books should I read?”

So actually, there was a bookstore here locally that I don’t know if you saw that, but there are the bookstore locally, that they’re like, “Hey, we’re struggling right now.” And I said, “Look, a lot of you have reached out to me about what book to read, why don’t we start a book club to read these books and support this bookstore?” So we all bought this book. Actually, I thought I’d start real soft on them. We started with Just Mercy [inaudible 00:30:24], we bought a book from the bookstore. Because people are genuinely going, “You know what, I’m sorry that I’m late, but at least I’m here now and I want to do better.” And that’s what I think is going to take.

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah. And I think that’s great if that’s where you start, that’s where you start, but at least you’re starting. I think that’s the biggest point. I think I certainly have talked to a lot of people that are just surprised at the depth of the challenges. So education is always a great equalizer, so to the extent that we can incorporate business into that social impact, I am all for that. So can you talk a little bit about some of the goals that you all have for Sow A Seed and how that may proliferate and diversity and inclusion, are there connections to other positions and jobs and I’m excited about young people and what they have to offer.

Rhodesia Ransom: Yes. So one of the things, I will say that as an organization, we’ve always been focusing, our mentoring and mental health and social justice was part of that. But we decided that we need to be more explicit about that. Because we work with young people, traditionally the young people that come through our organization are young people who’ve had out of home placement, meaning they’ve been in foster care, or maybe they had to live with another relative while their family or their parents went through something, or they’ve been in touch with the juvenile justice system. So we just said, we got to be more direct and intentional about what it means to be an organization that’s committed to social justice. And part of that is educating the community, educating our young people that work in our program.

So we have a couple, we have young leaders in action program, which is really more like a sort of fun, kind of a youth leadership program. But now we’re going to pay some of those young people to be youth organizers and to really go out and help educate other young people about how to be part of a positive movement that it really is like taking back your self esteem, taking back your place in the community, because things like racism and things that happen to you, they really beat down your self esteem and your self worth and kind of really push you away from the success you could have as an individual. So we’re just looking at, we haven’t figured out everything we’re going to do, but we definitely have said, “What can we do to be more intentional about that social action piece, social justice?” Yeah.

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah. Oh, that’s fabulous. Especially as we think about all the things related to public service, voting, the ability to help people get out and do what they need to do, that the self-esteem is something we sometimes forget about, what type of impact that has on whether I get up and go outside or do anything today. So it’s important as we mirror what we want to see in the community.

Rhodesia Ransom: Yeah. And it’s also important to give our young people an opportunity to experience success. So one of the things that we did is myself, some of the sorority sisters that I talked about here in Tracy, we have the Tracy Area Alumnae Chapter, we put together a town hall and we let the young people really, when I say, we asked them, “What are your demands? What do you want?” And what came out of that conversation, which included the police chief, the sheriff, someone from the school board, myself from the city, they wanted to work with us. And so our police chief and the school board said, “You know what, we’re going to start a youth advisory commission where you all will tell us what we need to do better in social justice.” And so that’s in the works. So letting those young people see that they can get that seat at the table and have some input into decision-making.

And some of the demands that they had were actually put into that equity and empowerment initiative, they were the ones who said, “Do the police even understand the history of policing?” So we took it to the police chief and it goes, “Well, our department doesn’t do that, but some other departments do that. And I think that’s very important.” So that was having the young people express their demands and giving them some wins and letting them see that their voices do matter.

Melyssa Barrett: That’s fabulous. I am so excited about all the work that is being done in the community. I hope it is just a needle in the haystack of one location around the country and around the world. So I just really appreciate you taking the time to tell us about all of the things that are on and the social impact that we’re making on the community. So thank you for the work that you’re doing and thank you for the work that you have done already. And we are looking forward to hearing more from you, Rhodesia Ransom. Thanks for being here.

Rhodesia Ransom: Thank you so much. I really appreciate this opportunity and I thank you for allowing me the space to uplift our community and our young people.

Melyssa Barrett: Absolutely, absolutely. Congratulations and good luck.

Rhodesia Ransom: All right. Thank you so much. Take care.

Melyssa Barrett: All right. Take care.

Thanks for joining me on the Jali podcast. Please subscribe. So you won’t miss an episode. See you next week.