Color Brave: Tracey Robertson
Tracey Robertson has dedicated her life to social justice and racial equity. She works tirelessly toward a goal that, quite frankly, she has seen very little progress on. That type of wheel-spinning can really wear a person down. But not an activist like Robertson.
“The word ‘no’ mobilizes me,” Robertson said. “I am a creator.”
When Robertson moved to Oshkosh in 2011 from Chicago’s south side, she didn’t see her family reflected in her new community. While Robertson struggled to find her place in a white-washed city, she began initiating open and honest discussions about race and racial oppression at local churches. What eventually became known as “color-brave community conversations” was a first step toward 2014 when Robertson launched Fit Oshkosh Inc., a company that specializes in customized training for organizations and businesses while focusing on education, advocacy and research with a goal of race equity and justice in the community.
It’s an objective that means the world to Robertson – not just for her own future, but for the futures of her three grown children and 5-year-old grandson, Kenyon.
“My hope for him is pretty simple. I want him to be as successful as he chooses to be,” Robertson said. “I feel like our current attitudes about race nationally make it virtually impossible for him. I want to be a part of the change necessary for him to reach for the stars if he chooses. I’m ready to take the world on so he can have the life he deserves. One of the things that research has made very clear for me is that lots of people of color are showing up in spaces but can’t be their full self. I want a world where Kenyon can show up as his authentic self and still be rewarded for that.”
Fit Oshkosh was launched to kickstart the conversations in the Fox Valley. Robertson’s training programs caught on quickly. Part of the services include Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) assessments, which rely on a series of questions for corporate clients to measure their intercultural competence.
“It measures how they believe they’re showing up in their intercultural engagements,” Robertson said. “It shows them how they are actually showing up in their intercultural engagements and it gives them a plan that we encourage them to complete within 3-6 months.”
Today, Robertson and her staff of three paid employees travel across the nation and into Canada to provide customized training programs on racial literacy, implicit bias, recruitment and retention of people of color and more advanced training for people who are already engaged in race equity.
“It’s either amazing or incredibly insane. I do everything from taking out the dishes to marketing and planning,” Robertson said. “We have a little over 70 volunteers that help us in a number of capacities.”
Despite all her effort, Robertson still feels people of color are woefully underrepresented. “I see no noticeable change,” she admitted. “You
can tell what people prioritize by looking where they spend their money. When I look at the economic development and schools here ... They say they care about diversity and inclusiveness. But there’s no plan to include and prioritize people of color’s faces.”
The trouble, as Robertson sees it, is at the legislative level. “People of color are opening business and succeeding in the business industry,” she said. But the success they achieve is without many of the assistance mechanisms that are more readily available for their Caucasian colleagues.
“A lot of the data we have found supports the idea that people of color are doing really well in the business industry, but they’re using social capital,” she said. “They’re not partnering with the typical business connections that our white counterparts can.”
To Robertson, there’s a difference between noticing inequities and working to resolve them. So about a year ago she started the Regional People of Color Business Association, “It’s essentially a chamber of commerce for black and brown people,” she said.
The association partnered with the UW Extension in Fond du Lac to connect people of color with local partners to help them succeed in business. They meet once a month throughout the Fox Valley and bring in guest speakers to talk about resources and tools like marketing and finances – traditional chamber of commerce topics with an emphasis on needs unique to people of color.
LETTING GO OF COLOR BLIND
The thing about interacting with people outside of one’s own race is that there is a tendency to pretend no difference exists. It’s often referred to as being “color blind.” And it’s an obstacle that Robertson is trying to tackle. “One of the things we talk about a lot at Fit Oshkosh
about race is that we pretend we don’t see it,” Robertson said. “We know for certain that that hasn’t worked. It actually accomplishes the opposite and makes black and brown people feel unseen.”
Her solution? Confront differences head-on and be prepared to stumble.
“To be color brave is to think about race and study race. It’s easy to pretend these issues don’t exist,” Robertson said. “But ask questions and listen to the answers. You’re going to step out and make mistakes. When people correct you, apologize and start again. We like to think we’re helping people have more critical analysis around their intercultural competence. It’s all about being brave in their engagements.”
Just like when Robertson arrived in Oshkosh and realized she didn’t see herself among her neighbors, she also didn’t hear her traditional Sunday church services here.
“In Chicago, where I’m from, we have very lively church experiences,” Robertson said. “Here in the valley, church experience is more intellectual, versus spirit-led in Chicago. I missed my black church experience – the outrageous praise and worship experience.”
So Robertson did something about it: She launched her own gospel radio show.
Airing live on Sundays at 7 p.m. and re-broadcast on Wednesdays at 1 p.m., Real Gospel Radio Oshkosh 101.9 plays spirited praise songs and also hosts poignant in-studio guest interviews conducted by Robertson.
“It has really become a way I can authentically express my faith. It fuels my spirit and has been a real joy for me,” Robertson said of the two-year-old show that has become one of the more popular shows on the public radio station.
Robertson could fill her time with work. But she has her daughter Andrea Toms and grandson in Oshkosh, as well as two other adult sons in Chicago and Decatur, Illinois.
She reads, exercises with Jazzercise and enjoys cooking and dining in the Fox Valley. But perhaps the highlight of her free time pairs with her work. Robertson organizes the Kids & Cops Basketball Game, held at Albee Hall on the UW-Oshkosh campus. It is free for kids in 6th through 12th grade and is intended to provide a platform for open conversations between youths of color and law enforcement. In its fourth year, the
event was held at the beginning of March. w