This blog post is originally posted at The Black Revolution Blog.
As the thick summer heat of August 2018 bids us farewell, I reflect on the highlight of my month, the Undoing Racism workshop held by The People’s Institute and hosted by Living Cities. An assortment of strong leaders from a range of non-profit/philanthropic organizations united for 2.5 grueling days of analysis, reflection and most importantly, healing.
For a group of 50-odd people who were already deeply involved in racial equity work of various forms, we had no idea that there was still so much that we needed to learn- or rather, unlearn. The three workshop facilitators were full of wisdom and confidence. They shared life-changing nuggets of truth and led us down paths of critical thinking, without the slightest hint of smugness or arrogance. Instead, every word they uttered came from a place of love, and their sincerity was palpable and disarming.
I came in hoping to see white people overwhelmed by white guilt, breaking down in tears or stubbornly refuting the workshop’s points, for my own selfish enjoyment. I wasn’t prepared for the moment Kimberly looked me dead in the eye and asked, “Are you not making money off poor people? I didn’t see your hands raised.” Without having been there, it may be hard to understand the weight of that statement , how it challenged my self-perception and made me face the reality of being at best privileged by my job and association to an organization, at worst complicit in maintaining oppressive white supremacist systems.
“Are you not making money off poor people? I didn’t see your hands raised.”
If we truly think about it, many non-profits merely circulate wealth among each other, scratching each other’s’ backs and pandering to funders, while touting the badge of being super progressive, caring about the “less fortunate” and doing everything in their power to “level the playing field”. But are we telling ourselves what we want to hear?
This was one of the notions that the workshop challenged. It questioned how much value and emphasis we place on truly addressing the needs of the community. Are we literally listening to these individuals who fall squarely into the categories we have all this polite liberal jargon for – marginalized, target population, under-served, oppressed? The facilitators embodied this idea of hearing everyone, valuing every voice, by speaking to each person individually and giving everyone opportunity to speak. On the first day, when I realized I had to sharpen my listening skills and attention span by 150% in order to participate in our introductory discussion, I was mildly uncomfortable. I tend to zone out when people are speaking. I also determine very quickly who is “worth” listening to.
If we truly think about it, many non-profits merely circulate wealth among each other, scratching each other’s’ backs and pandering to funders.
I realized how detrimental to the cause those attitudes and habits were, day after day of sitting mostly silent in the workshop, re-training myself to listen keenly, intently, to every human being present. We cannot say we are serving the community without caring about other perspectives, especially from those we see as less well-off or less educated than ourselves. My workshop colleagues were articulate, knowledgeable and were doing so much more than I to advance the cause of racial justice at their various workplaces. I was honored to glimpse into the inner workings of their minds, inspired by their frankness and sincerity.
I hope to never forget the flavor and poise of Milta’s delivery, or the adorable sight of Ronald dancing and singing to Hambone, an old Louisiana classic, or the gentle command of Kimberly’s voice and soul-piercing gaze. We recreated our own version of the motherland in that workshop, absorbing the wisdom of the elders through orality, an ancient method of education and storytelling. Who needs PowerPoints when you’ve got the power of minds sharing revolutionary ideas?