By David M. Greewald
Davis, CA – It was November 2019, and the community didn’t know it at the time but their lives were about to dramatically change in just a few months. But more than 200 people packed into the Davis Community Church to hear Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law—a book on the manner in which the American government deliberately imposed racial segregation on housing—discuss the history of housing discrimination.
For Ellen Kolarik and Vera Sandronsky it would be a life changing experience.
A member of the audience asked, “How can we maintain that small town feel and still deal with our housing issues?”
Rothstein responded, “That small town feel is a euphemism for a segregated community.”
As Kolarik and Sandronsky explained to the Vanguard, Interfaith Housing Justice Davis (IHJD) formed as a response to Rothstein’s call to action. IHJD is a loose coalition of faith organizations in Davis who advocate for changes in city policy to encourage more affordable housing, the first step in desegregating a community.
Next month, the group will partner with the Davis League of Women Voters to present an evening with Leah Rothstein. Leah, the daughter of Richard, has co-authored with her father the book Just Action (release spring 2023).
Just Action describes what we can do now, in our own communities, to undo racial segregation and begin to repair the harms it has caused us all.
For Kolarik, a retired ophthalmologist from Kaiser, who did not go to the 2019 event, her friends told her, “You have to read this book. And I did. It was kind of an epiphany about understanding why we have, why whites are so damn rich and blacks and other minorities are so darn poor.”
Kolarik recognized, along with other people at the church, “this was a really valuable topic to study in depth.”
Sandronsky in the meantime was going through a parallel process. “I was at the event in 2019. I didn’t know the history, but I was very taken by it, it was a memorable evening.”
At the same time, she said, “I didn’t then think, Okay, I’m going to launch into activism. I was still working. My daughter was starting her senior year. My life felt very busy.”
But having gotten more active at the end of her law career with the election of Trump in 2016, she said, “I felt like I needed to do something.” I wanted to have some kind of local political engagement that felt tangible and sort of more knowable than just working on these long structural issues at the national level.”
Kolarik explained, “When I read The Color of Law, I was guilty. I read already a number of books on white privilege.” It was when she retired from Kaiser five years ago, “At that point, I suddenly had enough time to lift my nose off the grindstone and look at the larger world, there was no time before.”
She said reading the book Waking Up White was her “first epiphany about white privilege.”
But she said, “When I read Color of Law, it was like well, okay, now I can see concretely how my own family has benefited from this. It was against the law or it should have been. And it was so unfair. The unfairness of it just deeply troubles me.”
Sandronsky , an attorney who retired in 2020, became more active politically following the Trump election, but came from a very politically active family. She said that she started getting active, using the skills she had as an attorney, but when she did some work for a national nonprofit, “I never got an acknowledgement of the work I did. I did a substantial amount. I felt like I made a really important contribution, but it pulled me that, for my activism, at least some of it I need to pair with some social nexus with the people I’m active with.”
That caused her to focus more locally on housing issues.
“Richard Rothstein’s book, in the thesis it’s memorable. I believe it,” she explained.
Kolarik described themselves as a group of “novitiates.” They had no experience with this sort of work. “We’re beginning to understand the cultural aspect of this, which is so key to moving forward. And I’m beginning to appreciate that many of the reasons I came to Davis are the reasons others came to Davis. And some of them are actually rather shallow. But here I am.”
Kollarik explained, “A lot of the things that I liked are not necessarily healthy or good for a long term community. And I would like to help others understand what I’ve learned, that we need a culture shift if we want to have a community that is truly diversified. If we want a community that truly cares for the unsheltered, which is part of this housing issue, one spectrum. I want to wake people up.”
Sandronsky explained that there are policy and structural changes needed. But she said, “Yes, there are policy decisions, but there also is a need for greater revenues to work with for the continuum of housing needs.”
She said, “So my hope is that the group can be part of a discussion about a culture shift, but also looking for real solutions for our community, or at least the solutions that were within our grounds.”
One idea would be a tax or a funding stream for an affordable housing trust fund.
Kolarik added, “We need a revenue stream because the things that need to happen are big and big things need money. And part of the culture shift is, I’m hoping, encouraging people to understand that there’s some sacrifice involved if we’re going to create a better community.”
One of those sacrifices is paying more taxes.
She acknowledged, “That’s a hard sell, that’s a big culture change when people already feel they’re being overtaxed. But to me, it’s one of the things I’m hoping that we can work on.”
At the same time, while Davis may be a fairly progressive community, it is also an upper middle class, heavily white community that often doesn’t recognize its own privilege.
Sandronsky explained, “They don’t realize the context that they’re in and what goes along with it.”
She added, “People don’t understand how they’re part of the story. Like they think passively if they just have these values that they’re okay, but they don’t see how these values get applied or that they need to support decisions that will make our community a more diverse, equitable place.”
She said she does think that Davis has a strong faith community.
“I think we can help encourage these conversations, be part of them,” she said.
Kolarik added, “I think the issue is that a lot of folks like us who live in Davis, and I’m using us as more like the Davis community, we don’t recognize our privilege. And when we do think about our values, we don’t recognize that to carry those values out to real fruition, it requires some level of sacrifice.”
For her, “As soon as the sacrifice piece hits, we step away because we really weren’t prepared for that.”
The event in November happened when they approached Rothstein and were somewhat surprised to find him a warm and engaging person.
The event will be on November 17 at 6:30 pm at Bet Haverim (http://bit.ly/justactionhousing)