damali ayo promises humor, stories and love in her Race Ambassador Awards keynote

Race talk in America still at the fifth-grade level

damali ayo
damali ayo

damali ayo will keynote the Saint Paul Foundation’s ninth annual Facing Race Ambassador Awards on April 28. The event highlights and honors racial equity advocates, with each award recipient designating a grant of $10,000 from the Saint Paul Foundation to go to an organization working to end racial disparity.

This year’s event honors the racial equity work of Nekima Levy-Pounds, law professor and civil rights activist, and Lucila Dominguez of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL) — in English, Center of Workers United.

The honorable mentions this year are: Russel and Sarah Balenger of Circle of Peace movement; Delores Henderson, Ph.D., principal of Hazel Park Preparatory Academy; and Chaun Webster of Ancestry Books and Free Poet’s Press.

Speaking to the MSR by phone, keynote speaker ayo said her address will encourage attendees to “shift from a mindset of fear to a mindset of love…love for ourselves and others.” ayo, an activist, conceptual artist, and author of satirical books How to Rent a Negro and Obamistan!, said she was taught and trained from an early age to be an activist by her activist mother. “I often refer to myself as her first foot soldier,” ayo said with a laugh.

ayo takes on the challenging topic of race with humor and stories. “Stories help teach lessons and build commonality…and people remember them. People like repeating funny stories.”

Finding humor in painful truths is something ayo said she shares with her family, whom she candidly referred to as “majorly dysfunctional” but rich with laughter. She learned to utilize humor, self-care techniques, and a support system to combat burnout after her early activist work in Portland, Oregon took a toll on her health and spirit.

When asked whose anti-racism work she admires, ayo cited Dr. Jennifer Richeson, an African American social psychologist at Northwestern University who explores racial identity and interracial interactions from a psychological perspective.

ayo also gave high marks to showrunner, screenwriter and director Shonda Rhimes, for pushing the boundaries of diversity on TV with the shows Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, and Grey’s Anatomy. “TV is a great barometer of culture,” said ayo, pointing out how far we’ve come from the days of groundbreaking interracial kisses on primetime TV.

“Now I see interracial couples all the time on TV… I’m almost tired of seeing it!” joked ayo, who is of African American, English, Italian and Native American descent.

One racial dialogue initiative that got a thumbs down from ayo was Starbucks’ short-lived “Race Together” campaign. “I heard a…comedian talking about it. I was stoked at first! I thought Starbucks was going to send their staff to diversity training or something. Then I learned that it was about some weird race s#*t on coffee cups!”

Ayo said progress has been made with regards to our national dialogue about race, but we’ve got a way to go. “We’re at a fifth-grade level when it comes to how we talk about race. We no longer whisper about it. We have the language to talk about it now, but it’s still awkward and uncomfortable,” she said.

Using the proper frame to talk about race is key, said ayo. “Too often we use the passive tense when discussing racism. You’re not getting shot because your skin is brown. You’re getting shot because people are shooting you,” ayo stressed.

“So, yeah, Black Lives Matter is great…but how about a ‘White People Change’ movement? How about we place the emphasis on [who] needs to change? You can’t change the passive tense, you can only change the active tense. It’s important to use language and place the burden where it belongs,” said ayo.

ayo said she plans to touch on how we frame issues and use language at the Facing Race Ambassadors Awards, but ultimately her keynote will be centered on love. “Any time I’m in a room full of activists, I like to love on them. I like to stress self-love and self-preservation and remind them to honor their journey.

“What good is a world where those of us who have worked so hard for it are too ill to enjoy it? We have to take care of ourselves; life is long, change is slow. We have to find ways to celebrate now and enjoy what is good in our lives each and every day.”

Tickets for the Facing Race Ambassador Awards are free but seating is limited. Call 651-325-4265 or visit www.saintpaulfoundation.org to see if seating is still available. For more info on damali ayo, go to http://damaliayo.com.

Paige Elliott welcomes reader responses to pelliott@spokesman-recorer.com.

Edited 4/22/2015 11:30 am