As a sign language interpreter Doug Bowen-Bailey builds bridges of communication between hearing and deaf people. This vocational commitment to building bridges grows from a lifelong passion for social justice.
Doug’s parents’ openness to people from around the world was critical in shaping
his sense of justice. His father was a Lutheran pastor and seminary professor in Ohio. The family planned to go to Nigeria to teach, so Doug learned some Hausa and spent
a lot of time around people from West Africa. Although their visa did not go through, and they ended up in Moorhead, Minnesota, his interest in Africa took root.
At the end of high school, Doug attended a workshop led by C.T. Vivian, a leader with Dr. King in the Southern Christian Leadership Council, where he first began questioning what it meant to be a white person living his life. While at Macalester College, he became involved in anti-apartheid work, and went to Zimbabwe. He returned committed to thinking about his place in the world, and the work that would make the most sense for him to do.
Another key event in Doug’s life was working at the Minnesota Conservation Corps, where he met deaf people, learned sign language, lived with youth from many backgrounds, and met Holly.
Doug notes that “as an interpreter, you need to deal with power dynamics. Community work is similar in scope and the two inform each other.” In his role as an interpreter, Doug has worked in many venues and made many connections. This has enriched his involvement in racial justice issues. He often works with white people to help unpack their own racial identity. In this work, Doug has learned many lessons:
- Changing systems requires a generational commitment, not just seeing it as an issue to address in the short-term;
- It is important to continue to show up for racial justice;
- As a white person, it is sometimes important for me to take a step back and be a follower.
As an example, Doug spent five years on the task force that lead to the creation of the Duluth Citizen Review Board. Tony Ladeaux, a leader in the Native community (and a member of Peace Church) who had the idea and initial energy to start the CRB asked Doug to be a part of this effort. At the time, Doug didn’t feel called to work on issues related to policing, but he respected the request and got involved. Because of this, he has been fortunate to participate in many important conversations about how the community and police interact, which has been a tremendous opportunity for him to learn and grow.
Doug has also been involved with many other local organizations and initiatives. He joined the Arrowhead Interfaith Council right before 9/11, a significant time to help promote interfaith dialogue and understanding.
He has been involved with the NAACP and the organizing of MLK events for over fifteen years. He currently serves on the board of the Cross-Cultural Alliance of Duluth. He has been working with Xavier Bell at Community Action Duluth delivering Race Awareness Workshops (RAW) throughout the community.
Doug has learned a lot from others in this journey. “Being involved in the work of social justice brings you to more humility and understanding of people.”
Social justice at this point in Doug’s life has become part of the fabric of his existence. The following is a not untypical day: Holly, Sylvie and he ran the Ode’min (Heart Berry) 5 K walk/run at Fond du Lac reservation. Then he went to St. Mark AME church for a ceremony honoring the winners of the Arthur Foy educational scholarship. And finally Doug worked with a deaf couple coming from diverse backgrounds.
When asked what keeps him going, Doug replied: “Ice cream. (And connections with the cool people I get to work with.)” He added that “being part of the long-term Christian tradition working toward justice—knowing that I am one among many doing this work—helps me to keep going on.”
As Doug sees it, the rich variety in his work is a gift of this community that he and his family are part of. He feels blessed by the opportunities. He recognizes that doing social justice work is a lifetime endeavor. “In this work, there are not always real clear victories: you win some, you lose some. And sometimes the most important thing is to just continue to show up.” Interviewed by Lisa Fitzpatrick