Since first offering a one day racial equity workshop for white people in Vancouver, I’ve had a few inquiries from local folks asking more about who I am, what the impetus for the workshop was, why I’m offering it, and where the proceeds are going. I’ve done my best to answer those questions here. I also welcome further opportunities for dialogue about how to best advance racial equity locally, in this city that I love and call home.
Q: Who is Suzanne? I’m a white, heterosexual woman of mainly English, Scottish, and Irish descent. I grew up in a working class family in Vancouver’s West End, on the un-ceded Coast Salish territory of the sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh), and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) nations.
I worked in the non-profit sector for several years before becoming a freelance facilitator and leadership trainer, working across the US and Canada. Most of my work involves facilitating leadership development, strategic planning and organizational effectiveness, which I do either alone or in partnership with people of colour. Recently, I’ve begun co-facilitating local equity and inclusion trainings in partnership with a woman of colour who has done this work for many years locally and internationally. I’m also on a mixed-race team at InPartnership Consulting that co-facilitates the Racial Justice Learning Lab, a multi-day leadership training in the US.
In additional to my consulting work, I’m a trainer with the Rockwood Leadership Institute, where we lead retreats for diverse social justice leaders from across the US. There, I co-facilitate Rockwood’s flagship Art of Leadership trainings, plus fellowships for Women in Racial Justice, Racial and Gender Justice Leaders in HIV/AIDS movement, LGBTQ Advocacy, the Service Employees International Union, and the Pipeline Project’s Fellowship for LGBTQ Leaders of Colour. As a multi-racial training team deeply committed to equity, inclusion and working across difference, we are immersed in an exploration of ‘beloved community’ – reflecting, learning and strengthening our work together and with our participants.
Q: What is your background in racial equity work? I started learning about racial equity in a more concerted way about twenty years ago at the Institute for Media, Policy and Civil Society, through staff-led conversations and peer-to-peer education. My learning deepened through several trainings, including components of a year-long fellowship offered through what is now the Social Transformation Project. I continue to seek out even more focused learning opportunities. For example, several years ago I and other white trainers realized we needed to ‘up our game’ without burdening our co-trainers of colour with constantly having to be the ones to ‘handle’ race issues that come up in the room. So we organized our own intensive anti-racist facilitator’s training with a white trainer who works across the US with groups like ours, often at the behest of their colleagues of colour. Learning about privilege and power, especially when it comes to race, has been essential to my own development and capacity to support the leadership of others. And it is ongoing.
Q: Why offer a racial equity training in an all-white space? I’ve long been taught that it is essential for white people to do this work together, sometimes in all-white spaces. That’s where we can make mistakes, ask ‘dumb questions’, share our emotions and learn together, without perpetuating harm (eg. through ignorance, unwitting micro-aggressions or inappropriate space-taking), and without constantly putting the burden of our education on people of colour.
Q: Why here? Here in Vancouver, I’ve noticed that many people talk about the value of diversity and multiculturalism, but seem unfamiliar, if not outright uncomfortable with key concepts such as “white supremacy”, “white privilege” or even the simple act of naming whiteness – much less the multiple ways that structural racism, implicit bias and colonialism pervade every aspect of our lives. All too often, friends and colleagues of colour tell me they are called to educate white people about these concepts – and that it can be tiring.
I designed the workshop to help address this gap; to pay forward the teachings I’ve received from racial justice mentors over the years on both sides of the border. I’m not an ‘expert’. I am keenly aware that the process of unlearning racism and internalized privilege, and enlarging my deepest sense of “we”, will be a lifetime journey. My intention is to offer a supportive place for white people to learn some key concepts, practice getting comfortable with discomfort, and make commitments to advancing racial equity – without burdening people of colour and indigenous people with their education.
Q: What about fees? I’m offering this public training as a volunteer, and am taking no fees for it. Any net revenue (after hard costs such as venue rental, workbooks, etc.) is being donated to organizations focused on reconciliation and racial equity. Scholarships are also available on request. For the November offering, I asked the two participants that did request scholarships to simply ‘pay it forward’ as their means allow. I set the regular fees at $125. Some people said that was too high, even with the offer of scholarships. Others said that this was too low – that white people should commit to this work and value it appropriately. Going forward, I’m going to be more explicit about a sliding scale for fees.
Q: Why now? In the summer of 2016, I offered the workshop (at no charge) to the white caucus of the Health eQT2 Collaborative, which is focused on improving health outcomes for queer, trans and two spirit people across BC. Before that training, two Indigenous leaders from the collaborative’s Indigenous and People of Colour caucuses met with me to review and vet the curriculum. They approved it, and the workshop took place several weeks later. Feedback from the workshop was positive. I was recently asked to offer this workshop again for an arts organization, and we decided to open it up more widely since others were interested. I wasn’t sure there would be demand for the workshop, but to my surprise the workshop sold out in 4 days. There is a waiting list, so at this point, pending the schedule of my paid work, I’ll offer it again in the New Year.
Q: Who ‘vetted’ the curriculum, if anyone? Several other colleagues have offered feedback on this curriculum, or variations of it in other contexts, over several years. Since I only train and facilitate with leaders of colour, where the topic of racial equity is often part of the conversation, I’m lucky to have continuous opportunities to learn from others with lived experience and expertise on working across difference. At the same time, I have no doubt that each group of participants will have different needs and strengths, so I expect a continuously steep learning curve going forward.
But I don’t feel for one second that I have the right or the luxury to stop, delay or wait until I’ve got it ‘just right’. As I’m writing this I hear the words of my colleague Clarence Patton, founder of the Pipeline Project for LGBTQ leaders of colour, in the wake of the 2016 US Election:
“Right-thinking White folks need to sing lead on this if it’s ever going to get fixed. We can sing backup, shake a tambourine, or do the triangle, but White folks fucking sing lead for the foreseeable”
I stand by that and the truth – that will be hard for a lot of White folks to take – is that the folks that voted for Trump out of racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and yes, even economic anxiety or displacement are not going to be able to listen to me or people like me right now. And despite the empathy I can have for Whites I deal with in the work I do, I’m not sure I can have the same for the great red ocean of Whites out there.
There are simply conversations that Whites need to have with Whites.
The problem, the challenge, the real likelihood is that there aren’t enough right-thinking White people willing to do the work. I hope there are, but understand that it’s very hard to create even positive disruption when we hold our comfort too dear.