Sunday, March 15, 2015

Saturday at WPC16 - Mab Segrest, Heather Hackman, hanging out with SURJ folks, Fourth Street Live! protest

The day started with a keynote by Mab Segrest, feminist antiracist activist and author. I was enormously impressed with her candor and her analysis. She combined an account of her own radicalization as a young person in Alabama during tbe days of forced integration of the schools. Poignantly, she watched as her own school was surrounded by marshals as they escorted in the first valiant Black children; subsequently, her father worked with other white parents to organize segregated white private schools for their children, where she ended up finishing her high school years. Other events led to the inner conviction that the system she was living in was insane (insights captured in her 1999 book, Memoir of a Race Traitor, that also includes a succinct history of race relations in the United States).

In her keynote address, in addition to a summary of her own history of radicalization, Mab summarized some critical work that she is engaged in now, looking at the social history of mental health care through a critical anti-racist lens, in a study of the history Milledgeville, an enormous mental asylum in Georgia, a study she has been involved in over the past twelve years. As someone long interested in psychological and psychiatric theory, the clarity she brought to understanding mental health in the context of racial justice was stunning. What was "insanity" - the behaviors that got people locked up for their (abbreviated) lives, or the systems of power and privilege that caused their suffering? Is mental illness something that is happening to an individual because of a disordered brain, in need of chemical alteration by powerful drugs, or something happening in the context of social systems subjecting individuals, communities, and families to trauma (including slavery, lynching, discrimination), with little opportunity for redress?

I am eager for this book to be published, as the speech she gave has given me a lot to think about.

Next, we went to the half-day institute by Heather Hackman, "Climate - Change - Mind - Set: The Necessity of Replacing Whte Liberalism with Racial Justice As We Courageously Act in Response to Climate Change." Heather is a captivating speaker, and had put together a lot of information for us. It would have been good to have more time, but she shared quite a number of resources that I am going to follow up on. The core point is that climate change will require major changes in what privileged people believe they are entitled to in consuming resources (white Americans and other largely white privileged populations around the world). This sense of entitlement comes from white privilege, which leads people to feel they both need and have earned all of their "stuff." She included a sobering amount of information about the science of global warming and the rate we are proceding toward a point of no return in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. We are already far beyond what would be a truly sustainable population level for everyone in the world to have plenty. Current wars around the world are caused in large part because of diminishing resources - such as the situation in Syria, where the government siphoned off the water to the cities, leaving the farm areas drying up and impossible to farm. The farmers reluctantly took up arms. (This issue of "who owns the water under the ground" is going to continue to be critical.)

For this workshop, the task we had was to really grasp the connection between systemic injustice, white perception of entitlement, and the ticking clock of climate change that gives us very little time to make adjustments. Heather is taking this message to environmental groups as well as to social change groups. She left her academic position a couple of years ago to concentrate on this work.

Here are a couple of resources she particularly recommends: Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, and A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency.

At the institute, we met a woman from Louisville (Loo'vl), who invited us to a supper that night being held at Central Presbyterian, an inner-city church with a strong social justice tradition. What we didn't realize until getting there (she and her gentleman friend drove us and then back to the hotel), was that this dinner was being put on by the Louisville SURJ group especially for SURJ members from around the country and others who had attended WPC16 and were still in town.

The church basement was full of anti-racist movement people from Louisville and from the WPC conference (I saw Chris Cross and Mab Segrest among others). We had opportunities to learn about each others' work and what keeps people going over the long haul. At the end of the evening, local organizers from the Black Lives Matter group invited individuals who were able to join in a protest at Fourth Street Live, where a young black man had been arrested last summer for refusing to leave after being told he didn't meet the dress code. The young man (I didn't get his name) was there at the dinner as well, and explained that he hadn't even been violating the dress code, but had refused to stand down when confronted, so he was arrested and subsequently lost his job over this - a job of counseling and guiding individuals leaving prison.

Diane and I weren't able to go to this, as we had to catch an early plane, but I did a search to see if the event had gotten any response. Here is a link to a very brief news item about this event published a few hours ago, and a picture of the protest - I know that some of the people I met at the dinner were there:

The news item mentions that there is controversy about the dress code of Fourth Street Live,  "Louisville's Premier Dining, Entertainment, and Retail Destination," being racist. They didn't detail the entire dress code itself, which (to my mind) speaks for itself:


Yes. Please know the Fourth Street Live! outdoor area has a code of conduct at times when the street is operating as an entertainment venue with alcohol being consumed in the common areas:

During these times Patrons must be 21 years of age or older and possess a valid ID. Smart casual attire recommended: clothing that is fitted, neat and appropriate. The following is NOT permitted under the Fourth Street Live! code of conduct: profanity on clothing, sleeveless shirts on men, excessively torn clothing, exposed undergarments on men, full sweat suits, sweat pants, excessively long shirts (when standing upright with arms at your side, the bottom of your shirt cannot extend below the tip of your fingers), sunglasses (after 9pm), shorts or pants worn below the hips, and athletic shorts.

Security reserves the right to deny entry or remove any individual who does not comply with the code of conduct. Please note that the code of conducts of individual venues may vary. For any questions or concerns, please ask to speak to a supervisor or please call Fourth Street Live! Customer Service at 888-576-2588. 

One more thing: I was curious about SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice), which had been a sponsor of the WPC16, and had such wonderful people as members, so I looked up more information. It turns out the Minneapolis contact for SURJ is my colleague Lisa Albrecht, who was also at WPC16. This is an anti-racist activist group for white people. There is helpful information on the SURJ Web site about why an an anti-racist organization for white people makes sense, and links to different groups around the country.

One of the things people try to do at WPC is give each other an opportunity to be accountable. My next steps: to do some reading of the books I've linked here. I'll post summary comments as I go. I'm also going to talk with Diggett about sharing some of the information from the Saturday institute on racial justice and climate change with my TCFM Meeting. This brings together work that different groups and individuals are doing in the Meeting, and making these connections may be helpful.

I am also committing to follow up with a young woman who was one of the FGC organizers, Sonali, who had been part of the Quaker Voluntary Service to talk more with her about that program, which might be something we can bring to the area.

I'm not sure what next steps make sense to share information with my colleagues in CEHD Student Services - I'll talk this over with Diane and Hans. One good idea might be to do a book club and pick a book in common from among the many that were referenced over the conference - maybe Memoir of a Race Traitor would appeal to others as well as myself.

Stay tuned!

Second day of WPC16

This post covers Friday, which opened with an energetic presentation by Chris Crass, who told his own story of becoming a social justice activist, starting with his high school and community college years in Orange County. His story and his critique were encouraging and hopeful, and at the end, he was joined by a group of young people (Lost Voices) from Ferguson to speak and lead us in some of the chants they had led from the streets there.

Chris described being inspired by many past leaders, especially by courageous women, and he has very consciously worked to become feminist in his work as well as anti-racist and anti-oppression in all he does. He showed us this picture of Anne Braden (Louisville antiracist activist) and Ella Baker leaving the Highlander Center, perhaps in the 1950s. He described them as striding out to do their work after the reflective time at Highlander, while still in dialogue. It's a great image of alliance and community providing the strength for these two women's life-long work.

Another feminist scholar/activist who has inspired Chris is bell hooks - I didn't write down the specific book he cited, but I know her work is about working both with heart and critical consciousness. (I have been particularly attracted to her use of mindfulness as a key component of activism. She has written about how important it was for her to meet Thich Nhat Hahn in her early career; this dialogue with Pema Chodron something I enjoyed reading: "Cultivating Openness When Things Fall Apart.")

Chris suggests that we use a positive approach: focus on what we can do, rather than what we oppose. He said it is important to take steps that are right for where we are in our development, and learn from the experience, in doing social justice work. An insight from late in his presentation was about the need to create a counter-weight to the "gravitational pull" toward white supremacy/racism, by creating social supports that provide a pull toward liberation. That means that we need to build community.

I took a break for a bit to buy his book (Toward Collective Liberation) and sit by myself in the Quaker space until lunch, then participated in an action planning session with fellow Quakes from all over the country.

Some ideas from our Action Planning (which was held in the Quaker group): story telling (self and others); publish about the White Privilege Conference or anti-racist work in local press publications; discussion groups on classic anti-racist texts like The New Jim Crow or the June 2014 Atlantic article by Ta-Nehisi Coates, "The Case for Reparations"; learn from elders on the margins (don't reinvent the wheel - others have done this work for a long time); join in with interfaith dialogues; learn to listen deeply across difference; focus attention on local historical issues, like the Sand Creek massacre for the Boulder Meeting - as local history is not generally taught in schools; create affinity groups, which could be internet-based, to include people from different areas (like the group of us in attendance at this WPC).

Next was the second keynote, with Gyasi Ross: "Native Rules of Racial Standing: Derrick Bell Revisited."

Gyasi summarized the invisible rules for legal standing for African Americans from a classic work, Faces At the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism. Then Gyasi presented a parallel case for the treatment of Native people in law, media, and society in general, which revealed even starker conditions, including the shocking lack of redress at a recent event where a group of Native children attending a sports event were racially harassed by some white hooligans, and only one individual was charged - and that was with disorderly conduct. The mainstream media didn't pay any attention to the event, which was traumatic in the extreme to these grade-school aged children.

A key point in this presentation was that Native people are frequently not asked to speak for themselves in the media, but have white people speak for them. He also pointed to the assumption that any Native person represents the views of the whole population. Native issues are not of interest to the media; violence against Native people by law enforcement doesn't create the outrage that Black Lives Matter represents; and crimes against Native people are disproportionately caused by non-Natives, compared to similar rates of violent crimes commited against people in other racial groups by those not of their group. These issues are invisible to the mainstream press, and even largely invisible in the social justice movement.

The day ended up with a celebratory dinner, where I was able to hear the story of how Demi and Diggett, friends from my Meeting, met as children and reconnected recently. We also had the presenter from Thursday's afternoon session, Pem Davidson Buck, and a couple of UU activists who had a lively conversation with Diggett about the UU.

Take aways? - the emphasis of the morning's keynote on intersectionality. I am getting a better sense of this concept, and especially how it is the legacy of Black feminists (womanists, in Alice Walker's term). My challenge is making connections between the ideas, my own experience, and work that's needed in the world. I'm not an organizer! I have been calling myself, somewhat disparagingly, an "armchair activist," and of course that includes reflection and writing. That is partly what I'm trying to do here, at least to get started.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Back at the WPC - Number 16 (Louisville, KY)

I'm at the White Privilege Conference #16 in Louisville - the fourth for me. It's exhausting and invigorating at the same time. There is a good-sized group of Quakers here from all over the U.S., and I am also sharing the experience with an old friend and colleague from my workplace as well as with my newest workplace colleague, who is also my supervisor.

The conference opening ceremony was a drum song blessing and then brief opening statement by a Native American elder. I was moved by this, though feeling, as I often do with these ceremonial openings by Native American leaders, that I'm not sure where to take it - I recognize the spiritual power, but I don't know how much I'm invited in, and how much I'm an onlooker. The fact that the audience applauds at the end of these is jarring to me.

The opening plenary speaker was Loretta Ross, a full-force dynamo with a history of activism and leadership in the women's movement and as program director for an anti-KKK group (Center for Democratic Renewal, which closed down in 2008). I was impressed enough to go to her session later in the day.

Ross's plenary session talk included comments about the construction of white consciousness as connected to a white supremacist agenda which serves only the smallest minority (1%) even of white people. Loretta explained that the ideology holding this worldview together includes rigid categories of identity around gender and sexual expression, and negatively impacts almost everyone in many ways. The main point of her plenary, though, was to provide pointers on how to work and live in a world where the kind of critical consciousness fostered by the WPC is not shared. Where possible, we were enjoined to operate from a loving mode of "calling people in" rather than "calling people out." Her example: don't use the family Thanksgiving dinner to drop an "identity bomb." Also helpful is finding definitions that people can agree to share as a basis of conversation, such as differentiating between prejudice and racism. (We are all prejudiced in many ways, she explained - but racism requires a system of power and privilege.)

Having conversations about racism and white privilege is difficult for white people, she explained, because they don't feel that they are privileged as individuals, or the conversations make them feel stupid, or they feel they will get called out.

The next session was quite lovely, though rather emotional: "Having the Hard Conversation" - which involved a frank and somewhat personal conversation between three WPC veterans and well-known figures in anti-racist work, Heather Hackman, Jamie Washington, and Shakti Butler. I thought my colleague Diane would get a good sense of the passion behind this conference by hearing these three, who did indeed have a hard conversation among the three of them, with the rest of us listening in. We also had a period of small group conversation ourselves, which included the two of us and a Quaker friend from my Meeting, Demi Miller. At the end, two young persons of color shared some very painful stories about recent experiences that were radicalizing for them.

After lunch, we followed up with Loretta Ross's "Manipulating White Anger," which took us through different aspects of a far right agenda for maintaining power through fostering racial and other divides in the country. Much disturbing to me in this session were comments about legislative efforts to push back abortion rights, some that I had no clue were going on - such as a particularly chilling effort to characterize Black women having abortions as perpetuating racial genocide. After an exhausting tour of many forms of bad news, we got to what Ross proposes as a way forward - which is to fully embrace human rights in all their dimensions, which she listed and explained (nine of them). As she talked through these, I recognized how very far we are in our society right now from providing even the most basic of human rights to all people in the country, and I believe this is truly is a matter of priorities - because we are a wealthy enough society that we could afford to do so (including providing a college education for all wthout having students walk out the door 40-90 thousand dollars in debt).

The last session, "So What's Race For, Anyway?" by Pem Davidson Buck, was a fairly formal presentation on the creation of race as a category of human division, covering some of the same historical ground as a keynote and session I went to last year, but adding some information from the field of anthropology. We chose a more academic session as the earlier ones were pretty emotional and draining. Some book titles to follow up with: American Nations by Colin Woodard, and Worked To The Bone: Race, Class, Power and Privilege in Kentucky, by Pem Davidson Buck.

We ate at a Persian restaurant, then were too tired to go to a movie preview, but if I had been able, I would have gone to Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Ruskin. Ruskin worked with Martin Luther King Jr., and organized the march on Washington in 1963. Ruskin was a gay man who was marginalized in the civil rights movement and in the public eye because of his sexual preference. He was also a Quaker, though I don't know if this came up in the film.

I don't know where all of this exposure will take me. Will I start distancing myself from the pain and fear that some of the material raises in me, and start seeking for weaknesses in the analysis? I have a tug back to unconsciousness, as in some ways, it is a particularly painful time: some of the politics going on right now feels like we are turning back the clock on civil rights - voter suppression, erosion of the public good in many areas, education becomng corporatized, thus even more unequal. But one of the hopeful thing about the WPC is that it brings together a fresh crop of young activists, not just the old warriers of my generation. Also, the emphasis is on compassion, not hatred, as fundamental for social change. It's also reassuring to be in the company of the old warriors, who remain vital and full of humor, expressing righteous outrage but not bitterness. We're not done yet, my generation, radicalized in the 1960's and 1970's. It's just a much harder, longer slog than we imagined.