Category Archives: Racial Justice

Be a Racial Justice Hero

As Martin Luther King day just passed, the team at Colorlines.org posted a great little article on how to be a ‘racial justice superhero’ all year long. Terry Keleher writes: “Racial Transformers don’t fixate on who’s a racist or whether someone intends animus. For they know that the deepest racism lies not just in the hearts and minds of individuals, but in the roles and rules of big institutions—like schools, courtrooms and corporations. That’s their primary focus of change—these familiar systems of power, churning out deep and deadly racial inequities by the day…. All it takes is a little drilling down into your daily routine—examining what’s going on and what you can do differently. Begin by thinking about the institutions you routinely interact with—stores, banks, media outlets, health facilities, schools, your workplace, community or religious organizations, city government and so on.” It’s a quick read full of terrific reminders of the kinds of individual practices and intentions that can add up to transformative change.

And check out their great infographic – a playful, but powerful checklist of sorts on doing the work:

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Filed under Leadership, Racial Justice, Tips & Tools, transformational leadership, white privilege

Facilitation, tricky language and racial justice

What does it mean to be a white facilitator wanting to actively support racial justice, and what Martin Luther King described as “Beloved Community”?  And specifically, how might that intention be reflected in the subtle use of language when facilitating or training? Looking back on two recent experiences as a facilitator working with diverse social justice participants in the U.S., this question has me flummoxed. Let me share two stories (actually, two stories-within-stories).

Tale of the Bus-Stop Crack Addict
Last February I was in the hills of California co-facilitating a leadership training with an incredibly inspiring multi-racial group of participants. We were teaching a skill called ‘meshing’ to help leaders stay centered and resourceful in the face of aggression or hostility from others.  To illustrate, I described an early evening last summer in Vancouver, when my two boys and I were waiting at a bus stop in the downtown east side – one of the lowest-income neighbourhoods in Canada.  A young, powerfully-built man walked up and started hassling my teenaged step-son. The man was high, red-eyed, agitated and extremely aggressive, jerkily swinging his fists as though he were about to strike. Like many of our street homeless, he was probably mentally ill. I stepped up between them, actively ‘meshing’, grounding my energy and  started calmly talking with him while the boys watched nervously. By the time our bus arrived, he’d calmed right down. As we stepped aboard, he clutched my shoulder and said in an almost pleading voice, “I’m not such a bad guy you know.”

Later on, a Vanessa*, a brilliant young African-American participant, shared that while the story was a good illustration of meshing, it also reinforced the stereotype of black men as violent and drug-addicted.

I was startled. Not for one second did it occur to me to mention his race. And, as I’d recounted the tale, I saw the man’s white face, curly reddish hair and blue eyes ringed with red as vividly in my mind’s eye as if he’d been standing right in front of me. To the extent I thought of it at all, I implicitly assumed that everyone saw the same thing.

Was I being naïve? Obtuse? ‘Colour-blind’?  Well, in a way, yes.  I was unaware of what author Drew Weston describes as the unconscious ‘networks of associations’ the story may have triggered for the participants. In Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, a neighbourhood I’d worked on the edge of for 12 years, the vast majority of street homeless and drug-addicted people are white or aboriginal. As a Western Canadian, I simply have not been inundated with the kind of relentless media portrayal of black men as violent criminals that Americans are subjected to every day. As a result, I don’t automatically picture black men when I hear stories about street crime. I picture white men.

My take-away from Vanessa’s feedback? Don’t risk leaving my participants to ‘fill in the blanks’ with their own racial stereotypes or unconscious networks of associations. Recognize that, as another African-American woman  noted in a training this past weekend, “it’s always in the room. Race is always the first thing people notice.”  So name it – use a quick adverb: “white”, “black” (especially in Canada), “African-American”, “woman of colour”,  and so on. In the last few months, mindful of this lesson, I’ve started doing exactly this, usually as a quick aside in the process of sharing longer stories. As part of this effort, I try to interrupt the often unconscious assumption that ‘whiteness’ is normal (and everything else is exotic).

Tale of Two Hunky Candidates
But wait – is this always the way to go? Consider Story Number Two. This past weekend I was facilitating a fantastic group of multi-racial, progressive political and policy leaders in Philadelphia. At one point we were talking about the classic “message box” used in most political campaigns to clarify the central message and differentiate between two candidates. I was recounting an electoral race I’d been involved in where the two candidates were seen by the media as being virtually identical in several ways. “They both rode their bikes everywhere and advocated for sustainable transportation,” I explained. “They were both successful business leaders, middle-upper class, and both were athletic, environmentally progressive, white and good-looking.”

Afterward, Joan*, one of the participants asked if we could speak privately in a break. “Suzanne,” she said, “I’m curious. Why did you mention their race at all? And why did you describe them as ‘good-looking whites’?” There was a lot to unpack in those two simple questions, as we discovered.  First, from her perspective – and she was a white woman married to an African-American – it was klunky and unnecessary of me to mention that they were white at all. Secondly, she felt I was playing into racial bias by implying that white men were generally better-looking. Whoah! How did I imply that?  Who even thinks that? Again, I found myself blind to the automatic assumptions or networks of associations of at least some of my participants might have.

Once gain, I found myself back squarely in the “flummoxed” box.

After I’d explained the crack-addict story that had led me to start noting race, Joan suggested that next time I might consider separating adjectives like “white” and “good-looking” in time and space – maybe slip another adjective in between them – to ensure the people don’t fill-in-the-associations. It’s another idea I’ll add to my growing ‘language toolbox’ when it feels appropriate.

But is the ‘answer’ clear to me? Not at all. It’s an ongoing dance between being skillful on all the levels any facilitator has to track (agenda, timing, participation, group energy levels) while also being mindful of the subtleties of language and other dynamics connected to racism and privilege. There is often no “right” answer in how to frame issues or use language. But that’s the work, isn’t it? As a facilitator, my goal is to help provide the most supportive, safe space possible for participants to learn and collaborate.  As a woman committed to social justice, I see my job as being awake to the dynamics of power and privilege – to be an effective ally in the collective journey toward beloved community. And I am so damned lucky to be surrounded by generous participants like Vanessa and Joan, and so many of my fellow facilitators and trainers, as I stumble along that path.

(* not their real names)

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Filed under Facilitation, Ideas, Racial Justice

Training the next generation of progressive political leaders

Training the next generation of progressive political leaders is the focus of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Progressive Leadership. Their particular focus is on under-represented candidates and leaders, including women, people of colour, and GBLTQ folks, in 5 key US states.  I’m thrilled to be on the team of trainers for CPL’s upcoming training in Philadelphia this weekend (April 10-11, 2010), focusing on message development, story-telling, public speaking and mainstream media tools.  This will be my first training with CPL, and the second of five intensive weekend retreats for their 54 participants, as part of a year-long fellowship for leaders in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia, friends tell me, is “the quintessential American city” – diverse, blue-collar, crammed with classic diners and home to the Liberty Bell.  I haven’t seen much yet – the training starts tomorrow – but I CAN say Philly has fantastic restaurants, tons of snappy energy and the CPL team is really, really smart. It’s intoxicating to be hanging out with people who regularly refer to “message boxes” and “progressive narratives” in the same breath!

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Filed under Campaign Strategy, Communications, Events & Trainings, Ideas, Leadership, Media, Racial Justice

Leveraging white privilege for racial justice

The 11th Annual White Privilege conference is this week in Wisconsin April 7-10th: http://www.uccs.edu/~wpc/.

And I just came across this beautiful little article on white ally-ship, trauma and somatics (embodied, ‘whole-person’ approaches to change) from the Oakland-based Seminary of the Street: http://www.seminaryofthestreet.org/id28.html. She talks about the way racism causes trauma for each of us – people of colour and whites alike – and points to a path of integrated healing.

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Filed under Events & Trainings, Ideas, Racial Justice

The Engineer-Cabbie: messaging workshop for skilled immigrants

Met any brilliant engineers masquerading as cab drivers these days? I’ve met far too many, and that’s why I’m so excited about the 2010 Allies Learning Exchange conference in gorgeous Halifax. May 6 and 7th. I and my co-trainer Marco Campana will lead a 2 hour workshop on message development and social media for New Canadians, particularly focused on issues affecting internationally trained professionals. Allies draws hundreds of people from across Canada to learn about issues and strategies to promote the employment of skilled immigrants. If you live in BC, Canada, and want to get involved locally, contact one of my past clients, the BC-Internationally Trained Professionals Network.

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Filed under Events & Trainings, Racial Justice