Sunday, August 8, 2010

Notes from my field

Update #1:

This is a story about how my anti-racism practice shows up in my work world.

A couple of years ago, upon the publication of my book - Witnessing Whiteness - a fellow faculty member (turned administrator) mentioned feeling that convening a book club of faculty/staff at the College to read my book would be a good idea. Fabulous! I thought. I wanted to be able to share my work with my colleagues, but was really worried about being seen as some type of self-perceived know-it-all about race.

This colleagues put out an invitation to the College and two book groups emerged, one on each of our campuses. I attended each session on both campus, and other members facilitated the conversations. After a year, about 12 individuals remained invested in the discussion (some inspired by the book's contents), and discussion revolved around how to keep it going.
Throughout, I tried to hold my tongue and allow the process to develop organically (again, anxious about being too much in control).

What emerged was a plan for two types of dialogue spaces to occur the following academic year. One would be for open, unstructured conversation. The other would be in a more "workshop" format". All faculty/staff would be invited, and we'd develop the conversation and structure as people convened.

In order to support the process, I volunteered to show up to the first dialogue with a workshop structure and provide facilitation. It was mostly centered around community building and sharing interests, concerns, and goals. In no way was I invested in being the primary facilitator over the long run.

Much to my surprise, 23 individuals responded to that first invitation (including the College President) to spend two hours on a Friday evening discussion race and culture. I acted as facilitator. Things went well...very well. I was asked to continue to provide leadership and continue providing facilitative support.

Deep down I knew that there was an emerging problem. Invitations and facilitation for these dialogues were being done exclusively by three white women (myself, the originally inspired administrator, and one other invested, senior colleague). I knew the basic message conveyed was not a good one. And I also knew that my work life felt overwhelming.

I call the building in which I work a vortex. Once I enter each day I am completely swept up in the impressive array of logistics and conversations that I am responsible to guide and resolve. Over the course of the year I knew the value and import of reaching out to the people of color colleagues on campus in order to seek collaboration. I knew that multi-racial collaboration was the only to allow the dialogues to become safe spaces for the diversity of our staff/faculty to show up.

Because I didn't get out of the vortex, last year's dialogues were primarily attended by white faculty. Honestly, really honestly, this worked for me. I understand white caucusing. I think the work with white faculty is extremely important, and I was actually a bit happy to start there...realizing that pain awaited a person of color attending and listening to well-intentioned, but troubling, remarks about race/culture from some of my white colleagues.

But I also knew that something needed to change.

This change finally occurred this summer. During my break, I finally made it over to the office of a colleague of color who I admire and respect and who I've had conversations with in previous years about race. I knew he understands issues of power, privilege, and diversity really well. He's also a veteran staff person on campus.

I told him my story, unsure of what I was asking, if anything. But, I knew I needed to explain my efforts and why they looked like they did.

The feedback offered was a bit different than I'd imagined --- and that's precisely why it was important to take the step to ask for it.

It's resulted in a new collaboration. I don't know what levels of commitment we have to one another. But, he and I will be co-facilitating a first dialogue after our College's convocation in a couple of weeks. We've planned together, and it felt really good.

So, what's my point in telling this story?

I'm not perfect, and neither has been the enactment of my anti-racist practice on campus. I know that. But, I also know that taking one step at a time, continuing to reflect, and continuing to try and rectify and challenge areas where I'm not as good I want to be is a powerful thing...and essential for those of us who need to stay motivated to keep stretching ourselves.

I'm hopeful about this upcoming academic year...and I'm also nervous...for two reasons.

1) I'm choosing to invest more in my home community. That has already led to some challenging conversations. More are surely on their way.

2) This means I must set aside moments to escape the vortex of my job in order to have the one-on-one conversations necessary to build trust with other colleagues and repair any damage that might have been done during last year's white led approach.

Wish me well! I'll need all the positive thoughts coming my way that I can get.


  1. Dear Shelly,
    Hello, there, Shelly! I do for sure for always wish you well, and so, so many blessings in all of your wonderful and progressive endeavors, in both your witnessing whiteness in your Radical White Community in white caucusing among white people, and in your reaching out as well to other people of color! I am so glad that you are doing these great and superb dialogues, I remember from an earlier blog post which you made several months ago that you had mentioned being involved in this outreach. I think it is very understanding that you and the other white people at first were mainly caucusing and dialoguing together, I do think that still does serve a purpose in terms of enacting witnessing whiteness and forming a white antiracist community, and finding support for this work among other white folks. I think that it is fantastic that you are broadening this endeavor, and that you reached out to your colleague of color, and that with these conversations and dialogues you are making a very strong, sensitive, and sincere effort to work more toward inclusion of people of color. I do still think it is marvelous and a good thing to enact witnessing whitness among Radical White Community among white folks in white caususing, this is a super endeavor and outreach as well, and it is very much necessary and vital. I like so much how there was open, unstructured conversation in the one dialogue, and more of a workshop format structure in the other dialogue, I think that both formats for sure served a really great purpose, and created great productivity.

    Shelly, I like how you are always so open and accessible to grow and to learn, and to make new steps and changes in both your witnessing whiteness in your Radical White Community among other white folks, and in your outreach to all people of color, and how you work so hard and valiantly to bridge the gap between the white community and white people and people of color and their communities! Shelly, you have such a refreshing honesty and openness, you even when it is hard initially to do you always try to take a look at things by getting away from white privilege and racism, this is truly great, I know that it is hard to do, but you are ready and willing to do the necessary work and to face those difficult challenges! I like how the groups in conversation were discussing together and learning from your marvelous books! I am rereading both books, your excellent books are such a fine learning tool for me, and helps in such a precious manner in my learning process, healing, and recovery as a black/African-American woman, also like how I am learning more about my dearest and special white women sisterfriends who I love so dearly and deeply, and who I am very, very close to, and to learn more to understand from their perspectives, and to understand white people in their humanity much better!

    True sister who you are, Shelly, to the witnessing whiteness movement and also toward racial justice, I am truly and deeply moved by you, and I am so inspired by you, and heartened toward faith, hope, and optimism, and by all of our other super white antiracist persons! Keep up the great and super work, Shelly! You and the others are doing just so great, I am truly uplifted and inspired so, so very much! Thank-you, thank-you so, so much so dearly, kindly, and deeply, Shelly! Blessings so, so much to you for always, Shelly!

    Sincerely always,

    Sherry Gordon

  2. Thank you, as usual, for your encouragement. It is more meaningful to me than you know.

    And, yes, I'm prompted to write and agree that the white caucus work is truly still important, and essential. What I've realized is that for it to be engaged as it should be, that caucusing work should be taken up consciously and intentionally, not as the de facto situation I'd helped to create.

    So, yes, in my perfect imagination we will begin to do more collective work and realize that there is ALSO room for that more race-specific work to happen as a parallel process.

    Thanks again for your consistent support!

  3. 獨居時,要反省自己的過錯;在社會大眾之間,則要忘卻別人的過失。..................................................

  4. It was such a blessing to read this post today, especially the "I'm not perfect" paragraph. I've been writing about spirituality and dialogue for the past few years, and some recent comments from a dear colleague made me realize--painfully--how blind I am to my own whiteness. For a brief moment I wondered how I could continue to write with this giant blind spot. But your comments about taking it one step at a time seem exactly the right attitude for me to take. Thank you for helping me out, however unintentionally!