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Group founded after 1967 uprising traces color line

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Fifty years after Detroit’s uprising, race, and the role it played in the civil standoff, is still being debated and confronted.

Shirley Stancato, president of New Detroit Inc., a social justice organization formed in response to the 1967 unrest, wants to take the conversation on race further than talk.

Starting with a spit of saliva into a container.

New Detroit is celebrating its 50th anniversary by embarking on what it calls a racial healing project that combines genealogy research and DNA testing with historical analysis and storytelling. The idea is to shine some light on who we thought we were, who we really are and what the differences mean, if anything.

It is one of several organizations founded in the wake of the 1967 civil unrest — along with Focus: HOPE and others — that continue working five decades later to take action to overcome racism, poverty and injustice.

At New Detroit, the Genealogy and Storytelling Racial Healing Project explores how and why race was created and used in society over hundreds of years around the world. New Detroit assembled a team that includes a historian, storyteller, evaluator, geneticist and genealogist to help volunteer participants who submit to DNA testing find and understand their family stories.

Participants, which include board members of New Detroit and volunteers, get their results, consult with the team to understand the results and are taught the art of storytelling.

They are then asked to tell their story at community events. Stancato said the goal is to equip people with the language and perspective to dismantle racism and its effects, within their own organization and in their communities.

“When you spit in a cup and it comes back and says to me, Irish, where did that come from?” Stancato said from her office in downtown Detroit. “What you really see is that race is made up. It is not real. Race is a social construct.

“So you begin to have these conversations. ...You really learn it isn’t real. Race was created to divide and subjugate us.”

Stancato, who was a teen in Detroit in 1967, said people divide around all kinds of lines.

“We basically self-select. We say, ‘This is what I am.’ We say it’s because it’s been handed down. But you are more than any one thing. You are a lot of things begin to have conversations with people about race that you would never have before,” Stancato said.

The two-year national project is funded by the Kellogg Foundation. It began in fall 2016 and is open to board members of New Detroit and the employees of organizations they represent.

Gordon Krater, a partner with Plante Moran and a board member with New Detroit, sent his saliva away to be tested last year.

“My ethnicity was different than I thought. I got to celebrate my first real St. Patrick’s Day this year,” Krater said.

Many of the people going into the test said they did not feel the need to heal and did not believe that race is a myth, he said.

“It told us we are so similar, but our histories are different. It opened another avenue for a dialogue,” he said.

At 59, Krater said in his lifetime Jim Crow laws were alive and President Lyndon Johnson signed landmark immigration reform.

“Race riots happened in my lifetime. If we think this is going away in one generation, we are kidding ourselves,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do and this kind of thing really helps.”

Stancato, who said her organizations has multiple programs that focus on identifying and eliminating racial disparities, said having the discussions with people “who look like you and don’t look like you, and sharing the results and then having the storytelling events, that’s what helps to deal” with our problems around race.

Was 1967 a riot, disturbance or rebellion?

“It is all those things based on your perspective ... Understanding those perspectives, that how you begin to move forward and change things and close the gap and work together,” Stancato said. “And we are doing that.”