The 15th annual YWCA Racial Justice Summit, titled “Changing the Narrative,” will be held Sept. 29-30 at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center and will feature some the leading voices in the racial justice movement from Madison and around the nation.

Colleen Butler, racial justice director at YWCA Madison, has helped to organize 12 of the 15 YWCA Racial Justice Summits here in Madison. “My daughter was born on the first summit so I just have to remember how old she turns this year,” Butler tells Madison365. “That’s how I know how many I’ve been involved in.”

The annual Racial Justice Summit is one of the YWCA’s signature events, although they focus on racial justice issues all year long. Looking at culture through the lens of race, the YWCA offers educational training to broaden intercultural and interracial awareness and to improve intercultural and interracial communication through their Racial Justice Workshops.

Each year, the YWCA Madison hosts a racial justice summit that brings together community stakeholders to work on eliminating barriers that foster racism in the Madison community. The Summit focuses on institutional racism and involves nationally known keynote speakers and researchers, as well as local experts and advocates. The conference has definitely changed and grown over the 12 years that Butler has been helping to organize it.

Colleen Butler, Racial Justice Director at YWCA Madison
Colleen Butler, Racial Justice Director at YWCA Madison

“I think the biggest change is that when we first started offering it that it was more like a conference and it was a little bit more focused on people’s individual and interpersonal learning,” Butler says. “We were looking at people’s own personal biases or how racism plays out in interpersonal relationships. I’d say since 2007 especially, we’ve been focused more on institutions and structures and some of the bigger-picture things and larger issues.”

In 2013, the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families released its “Race to Equity” report at the YWCA Racial Justice Summit. “I’d say that since then, it’s changed who comes to the conference,” Butler says. “Up until that point, we had a lot of people from human services and educational institutions. Since Race to Equity has come out, I feel like the business community has gotten much more involved in the Summit.”

This year’s “Changing the Narrative” theme is referring to moving from a charity model to an equity/justice model around racial justice.

“From the last couple of years there has just been this growing sense of urgency on how we do actually move forward to make change,” Butler says. “One of the things that came out of last year’s summit was: How do we change the way we are thinking about solving problems in our communities from a narrative that has been a charity focus to an equity focus? It’s more about justice and how we ensure that this is a community for everybody.”
The fight for racial justice, Butler adds, must be more than just programs. “When we are providing basic-needs services, it almost assumes that the problem is in the people and not that there is a structural problem that needs attention and needs a certain level of focus if we’re going to actually not need charitable services anymore,” Butler says. “How do we get people to start really thinking about what the root causes are to actually create solutions that get at the deep-down problems?”

When the whole political season started up and it became clear to the YWCA that the whole concept of changing the narrative and changing the way we talk about race in this country was even more important. “As we’ve been witnessing the narrative in the current presidential race, we felt that it was very important for us to be asking how were are framing issues around race in our community,” Butler says.

The audience has grown for the Racial Justice Summit over the years, too, as have the amount of workshops and sessions being offered by advocates, practitioners, and national experts around the awareness of institutional racism. “We have all sorts of different sessions this year. We will have a couple of sessions on the first day that will be focusing on the ‘Road Map to Equity’ which is something that Race to Equity put out this year to try and do a little bit more of a call to action and figuring out how we can move together toward some common goals,” Butler says.

Centro Hispano Executive Director Karen Menendez Coller will lead a breakout session on "Immigration and Dane County: Understanding the State of Latinos in Wisconsin."
Centro Hispano Executive Director Karen Menendez Coller will lead a breakout session on “Immigration and Dane County: Understanding the State of Latinos in Wisconsin.”

All told, there will be about 36 sessions and workshops. “One of the things that I think is exciting about the Summit is that we have amazing people from Madison who are presenting and doing some excellent work but we also have some national speakers who come back every year who have been outstanding,” Butler says.

Intellectual Ratchet will be partnering with the YWCA and doing the reception for the first night of the Summit. This year’s keynotes will feature two leading voices in the racial justice movement, Rinku Sen and Vernā Myers.

Sen is the president and executive director of Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation and the Publisher of the award-winning news site ColorLines. Through her leadership at Race Forward, she is transforming the way we talk about racism, from something that is individual, intentional, and overt to something that is systemic, unconscious, and hidden.

“Rinku Sen will be giving the keynote on the first day and talking about the notion of how we move from the narrative that’s really focused on charity to a narrative that’s really focused on justice and equity,” Butler says. “We are really excited to have her at the event.”

Rinku Sen
Rinku Sen

Myers is on a personal mission to disrupt the status quo and she knows how to: she’s lived it. She rose out of Baltimore’s working class to become a Harvard-trained lawyer, entrepreneur, author, and cultural innovator. She has helped eradicate barriers of race, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation at elite international law firms, Wall Street powerhouses, and the 10,000 member Fire Department of New York, with the aim of establishing a new, more productive and just status quo.

“Verna Myers has a TED talk that is really outstanding and she will be looking at implicit bias and the notion of how do we change our own internal narrative. When you have these unconscious and implicit biases, what do you do to overcome those biases?” Butler asks.

Attendees will be equipped with resources to help discover ways to affect systemic change and will leave empowered to carry out that work in their respective ways. It’s an intense couple of days of racial justice. How does the YWCA keep that energy going on throughout the year?

“What often happens with the Summit is that people come, they’re engaged, they’re excited and a couple days go by really fast but if you haven’t built some relationships or put some accountability structures in place, it’s easy to go back and pick up your life where you were before you come,” Butler says. “We’re trying to create some different spaces this year where people can connect with others and make some commitments to people outside of the event and keep it going througout the year.”

For more information, click here or contact Colleen Butler at