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October

 2016  

Reflections  on  Keti  Koti  Tafel  experience  at  the  Urban  Institute  

On  September  19,  2016  a  group  of  colleagues  at  the  Urban  Institute  were  able  to  hear  about  and  
engage  in  a  ceremony  that  helped  us  all  find  new  meaning  around  how  we  can  remember  and  
actively  discuss  the  history  of  slavery  in  the  United  States  in  a  safe  and  non-­‐judgmental  
environment.  As  a  large  national  research  organization  with  a  commitment  to  working  in  a  
diverse  and  inclusive  setting  and  using  that  diversity  to  shape  and  inform  our  research,  we  were  
interested  in  both  highlighting  the  Keti  Koti  Tafel  as  an  example  of  an  important  social  change  
effort  and  to  learn  about  how  it  can  inform  how  we  work  and  engage  with  each  other.      

The  opportunity  that  we  had  to  meet  with  Mercedes  Zandwijken  and  Machiel  Keestra  and  learn  
about  how  they  have  developed  and  persisted  to  shape  the  Keti  Koti  Tafel  was  insightful  and  
inspiring.  It  is  impressive  that  they  were  able  to  take  their  personal  experiences  and  create  such  
an  incredible  public  good.  One  of  the  attendees  at  the  event  noted,  “I  am  so  impressed  by  these  
change  makers  and  the  passion  they  bring  to  this  work,  it  gives  me  confidence  that  I  can  lead  
change  in  my  own  community  and  fight  against  things  that  I  don’t  think  are  fair  and  just.”  
Another  attendee  expressed  just  how  much  the  personal  story  behind  the  creation  of  the  Keti  
Koti  Tafel  brings  power  to  the  experience,  she  said  “it  would  have  been  one  thing  to  read  the  
book  and  I  think  I  would  have  found  that  valuable,  but  it  is  an  honor  to  have  Mercedes  and  
Machiel  here  to  lead  and  discuss  this,  they  bring  the  right  mix  of  passion  and  peace  that  take  the  
fear  out  of  the  situation.  They  are  trusted  guides.”  It  was  great  to  learn  about  the  Dutch  
experience  from  them  and  we  were  delighted  to  be  joined  by  an  official  from  the  Embassy  of  the  
Kingdom  of  the  Netherlands  which  demonstrated  how  important  the  commemoration  of  the  
abolition  of  slavery  is  to  the  Dutch  government  and  its  public  leaders.    

Together,  colleagues  of  different  ages  and  backgrounds  formed  into  pairs  to  engage  in  a  portion  
of  the  ceremony.  We  were  provided  with  bitter  wood  to  remind  us  of  the  bitterness  of  slavery  
and  its  lasting  effects  followed  by  sweet  popcorn  to  relish  in  the  sweetness  of  freedom  and  
shared  understanding.  As  we  rubbed  each  other’s  wrist  with  coconut  oil  we  discussed  how  we  
are  each  affected  by  norms,  practices,  or  privileges  that  still  linger  from  the  experiences  of  the  
Shena R. Ashley, PhD Direct Dial: 202-261-5725
Director Email: SAshley@urban.org
Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy

2100 M Street NW
Washington DC 20037
urban.org
enslaved  and  the  slave-­‐owners.  This  moment  brought  all  of  us  together  in  a  way  that  we  have  
never  experiences  before.  At  first,  it  seemed  quite  unusual  for  co-­‐workers  to  engage  in  such  an  
intimate  and  personal  dialogue  and  quite  outside  the  norms  of  the  office  to  physically  touch  each  
other.  But  once  we  all  moved  beyond  these  barriers  and  began  to  speak  freely  and  openly  while  
being  soothed  and  comforted  by  the  oil,  we  experienced  a  breakthrough  moment.  For  me  
personally,  as  a  leader  in  the  organization,  it  was  initially  a  very  vulnerable  experience  and  I  was  
concerned  that  maybe  I  was  pushing  the  group  too  far.  However,  once  I  looked  around  the  room  
and  saw  how  much  each  of  the  pairs  were  deeply  engaged  in  conversation  and  I  felt  with  my  own  
partner  how  refreshing  it  was  to  see,  feel  and  hear  the  humanity  of  a  person  I  might  see  in  the  
hallways  but  never  have  a  chance  to  speak  with,  it  made  me  realize  that  this  kind  of  interaction  
can  bring  great  benefit  to  the  workplace.    I  received  many  comments  from  attendees  with  similar  
reflections  on  the  ceremony.  One  young  man  said,  “wow,  I’ve  never  worked  at  a  place  where  
people  did  more  than  just  talk  about  diversity  and  inclusion,  this  showed  me  that  this  is  the  kind  
of  place  where  people  are  willing  to  do  the  hard  and  uncomfortable  work  to  live  those  values.”  
Another  young  woman  noted  that  she  wanted  to  do  this  with  everyone  in  her  life  because  she  
wanted  to  rub  away  their  pain  and  free  them  from  the  past.  I  received  several  emails  from  
attendees  thanking  me  for  pushing  them  past  their  initial  discomfort  and  questioning  and  they  
all  ended  with  a  note  on  how  much  they  really  enjoyed  the  experience  and  wished  we  could  have  
done  a  full  ceremony.    

For  weeks  following  the  dialogue,  I  have  continued  to  receive  notes  from  attendees  wanting  to  
have  a  follow-­‐up  meeting  or  forming  a  group  to  continue  the  conversation.  The  time  that  we  
spent  learning  about  and  experiencing  the  Keti  Koti  Tafel  created  an  opening  for  us  to  continue  
to  explore  what  it  means  for  us  to  be  an  anti-­‐racist  and  inclusive  organization.  Through  this  
experience  we  found  it  possible  to  remember  slavery  without  blame  and  victimization.  That  was  
a  new  experience  for  all  of  us  that  attended  the  meeting  and  I  think  it  sets  a  good  foundation  for  
us  to  continue  to  discuss  and  celebrate  our  different  and  shared  histories.      

With  Gratitude,  

Shena  Ashley  

Shena R. Ashley, PhD Direct Dial: 202-261-5725


Director Email: SAshley@urban.org
Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy

2100 M Street NW
Washington DC 20037
urban.org