Category Archives: Culture Repair

Welcoming the Stranger in Rural America: Nurturing Cultures of Connection

What does racial justice look like in predominantly white, rural communities?

(Co-authored by Samantha Gupta and AJ Bush)

From the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, to the contentious presidential election of 2016, the legacy and present day realities of race and racism in the USA have reached an even broader, national focus.

While there have been organized responses to these issues in many urban areas, rural communities have been disconnected from such movements. For many — including community activists, pastors, scholars, and concerned citizens — 2016 was a “wake up call” to this reality as brightly colored electoral maps created visual representations of a “rural”/”urban” divide.

Yet, we know that these electoral maps oversimplify the complexity of the people and the lives in every community– and in every state– and know that rural and working class white people have an important role in organizing for more just, more safe, and more inclusive communities. Informed by this belief, the following questions have emerged in dialogue between pastors and organizers in urban and rural communities:

What do inclusive and just movements look like in rural communities– across history and today?

How do white folks in rural and working class communities understand their lives and struggles as related to racial justice?

What kinds of spaces and shared experiences can be created that help support the consciousness, dialogue, and action of white community in building a more just, more safe, more inclusive world in partnership with people of color in their towns– supporting the power, health, and well-being of all?

experience
“Welcoming the Stranger” featured contemplative practices, group activities, and testimonies from community members of color.

Rural Race Dialogues: “Welcoming the Stranger”

Engaged by these questions, AJ Bush, a United Methodist Pastor in Gillette, WY invited colleague Samantha Gupta, a Unitarian Universalist community organizer and scholar of white identity from Los Angeles, California, to imagine what might be possible in her rural church.

During her time as pastor in a rural Wyoming congregation, Bush personally saw a need to engage church members and people in the community in conversations about “difference” and “otherness” — whether that be immigration, race, or religion. Sensing a disconnect from experiences and language of difference in rural contexts and many racial justice curriculums, Bush became interested in finding ways to create space for dialogue around these issues.

Combining their passions, Bush and Gupta held the first “Rural Race Dialogue” event on Dec. 4th, 2016 in Gillette, Wyoming.

The event was a public event, hosted by Bush’s church and entitled “Welcoming the Stranger: The Stories We Share.” The short, initial program was designed to nurture skills for openness and curiosity through the practices of self-reflexivity, self-compassion, and direct experience with difference. Self-compassion for one’s own experiences and identities, Bush and Gupta sense, is a bridge to compassionate curiosity, dialogue, and risk-taking for the “Other.” The audience focused on “regular folks in the pews” who sense the issues of exclusion and disconnection in their community, but feel unfamiliar (and even uncomfortable) with how to engage racial justice issues and take next steps.

There were three key movements during this introductory event:

  • Contemplative, compassion practices that centered people on their natural capacity for care and curiosity (informed by Gupta’s experience as a facilitator in The Center for Engaged Compassion at Claremont School of Theology ).
  • Group activity that simulated the experience of white ethnic European immigration and assimilation to the United States in the 1800 and 1900’s. In this simulation, each participant was assigned to family groups, given information about the prejudice their family faced upon arriving in the US due to their ethnic identities, and the difficult choices they are forced to make (and identity they are forced to give up) to survive. The activity was designed by Clare Fox as part of the Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere-Los Angeles (AWARE-LA) as part of their annual “Unmasking Whiteness Institute” offered in California each summer.  Bush and Gupta adapted the activity to include specific histories and testimonies of European immigrant experiences in the Wyoming context.
  • A facilitated dialogue and reflection on the simulation experience, bridging white ethnic European histories of immigration to current, local and state-based stories of immigration by people of color. This component featured videos and testimonies of neighbors in their community who have recently immigrated or who represent a different racial/ethnic identity.

 

Nearly 30 participants joined the first "Rural Race Dialogue" event in Gillette, WY
Nearly 30 participants joined the first “Rural Race Dialogue” event in Gillette, WY

Feedback

Through this experience, participants were able to connect with their own family history and the experience of their family as “the other” as a bridge of empathy and curiosity with the experience of immigrants and those “Othered” in their community today. It also built empathy for such experiences, as participants could now relate to the loss and struggle of assimilation in their own family. In the words of one participant, “I begin to see that (our) identity had to be given up to avoid prejudice.”

In feedback, participants described renewed curiosity for the experiences of their own families (“This event made me wonder more about my grandparent’s experience when they came to the United States”), as well as for immigrant families in their town– reporting that they wished they had “more time” to hear more stories of local issues and imagine “possible action plans.”

Other participants appreciated the time to be in community with other people in their town who are also willing to engage difficult issues in new ways: “I appreciated getting people together face-to-face in a safe, respectful environment and being guided through a non-judgmental exercise,” one participant wrote. “This helped us focus on loss(es) as a way of feeling empathy for the stranger.”

Bush and Gupta imagine this series of activities to be supportive to church leaders who would like to engage their congregations on racial justice and identity, and need ways to begin the conversation with congregants. For Bush, her congregation plans to facilitate a book study on race and identity development as a next step to mobilizing more congregants in local organizing efforts in partnership with communities impacted by local hate crimes.

gupta-bush
Chaplain Samantha Gupta and Rev. AJ Bush

Next Steps

Cultivating curiosity and compassion for self and other are important skills for healing/bridging the divide between and within rural and urban experiences of difference, race, immigration. For Gupta and Bush, this work is important as we strive to establish justice, mercy, and beloved community within our world. The two plan to continue doing this work in rural areas, and are interested in engaging with other churches/communities in the Midwest on these kinds of conversations/events. They are willing to travel and consult.

If you are interested in more information about these types of dialogues in your community, email ruralracedialogue [at] gmail [dot] com. 

RELATED PRESS and LINKS:

Special thanks to AWARE-LA, Dara Silverman, and J. Audrey for their support of this project, mentorship, and encouragement.

Gratitude is good medicine.

(Image: Gratitude Practice at Quail Springs Permaculture Farm’s Sustainable Vocations 2012)

Jaipur, India – January 9, 2014

Daniel and I were scheduled to lead a workshop this week at a Jain conference on nonviolence and sustainability.  Our workshop would be held on the second full day of the conference, after long and exhausting hours of podium and panel-based lectures and presentations.

The night of our workshop, we located our small room in the basement of the center, loaded our short Powerpoint of photos, and began moving the conference-style seating into a circle– much to the alarm of the audio visual assistants. As people entered, we smiled, introduced ourselves and welcomed them. Even a Tibetan monk came to attend, a man who had once served alongside His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. We knew we had done something right.

The powerpoint no one would ever see.
The powerpoint no one would ever see.

As a result of last-minute planning and a desire for all workshops to be represented, another organization walked in—we were now supposed to share the one-and-a-half hour time slot with new partners. Their presentation would be on Oki do Yoga and Meiso Shiatsu. Ours on authentic youth leadership for culture repair. To make matters more complicated, our shiatsu friends spoke predominantly Italian—a whole group had come (25+ people) from Italy in support of their Master teacher, Yahiro, who had a long-established relationship with this Jain community.

It quickly appeared our room would not be large enough to accommodate.

“We need to lay down…” said the leader of the workshop, in broken Italian, “… this is a practice-oriented workshop.” Of course, Daniel and I felt the same way about ours. Maybe this could be resolved after all.

However, we noted the 25+ concerned and disappointed looks on the faces of the Italians that had followed him to the workshop space and quickly discerned that it was unfit for their workshop plans.

The organizers of the conference soon appeared. We were to shift to a new space. Daniel and I grabbed our belongings and our power point and made the announcement.

As we arrived in the new space, we were informed we needed to shift to another new space. We gathered our belongings again, making our way through an uncovered dirt lot to a large, drafty room in the basement where sounds of construction made their way in from overhead.

This room satisfied the Italian group, many of whom quickly laid out mats and invited the workshop attendees, approximately 45+ people at this point, to lay down on their backs. Their workshop would be an experiential one, with Italian therapists and students of Shiatsu Yoga offering short treatments to conference-goers. People giddily laid down—including Daniel—to receive a treatment from a number of the kind, Italian faces that sat waiting on the ground.

Twenty minutes in to the workshop time and the organizers pulled me aside whispering, “Would you like to go back to the other room for your workshop and just split the two up?”

Of course not.

I was steaming. The monk took a chair in the corner to watch. So did I. I was frustrated by the moving and going, the re-arranging, the Powerpoint that would go unseen by poor planning. I felt my frustration gurgle within me, wishing I didn’t feel angry, wanting to push it away. I didn’t want to be touched.

I sat and watched near the monk and other individuals unable to lay on the ground. With gentle kindness, people began holding the hand and head and backs of those on the ground before them, listening to the Italian instructions from their leader. Instructed to feel for the beat of the heart and imagine with loving kindness the life that they now held, the room became relaxed, despite the ever-constant sound of construction just beyond the concrete wall.

In the kind, healing stillness, one person fell asleep, gently snoring. I was gestured at by the therapist-student, Pradeep, to take her place for the final five minutes.

I reluctantly lay down, hesitant to give up my stiffness.  With deep intentionality, Pradeep holds my head, placing pressure on my forehead with warm hands. The Italian instructor asks the students to imagine each of us with a radiating light. I feel that intention from Pradeep. The pressure from my forehead, releases. I felt grateful to be released from it, despite my reluctance.

Upon completion of their session, the instructor and the translator (his fellow practitioner and wife), looked to Daniel and I to use the remaining twenty minutes of the allotted time to proceed with our workshop.

Daniel and I knew: this was no time for a workshop on culture repair. This was a time for culture repair.

At our request, the 45+ people circled up, seated on the ground. With assistance in translation to Italian, we spoke briefly on the way of Gratitude Practice in our work in the USA—that it was not about credentials, leadership role or obligation—but about feeling deeply what one was grateful for in that moment. That was all. Nothing to prove, nothing to impress, no one you are obligated to “thank”—just what authentically brings us gratitude in that moment.  And—most importantly—there is always time for it: this is the one thing that does not not get sacrificed on the altar of our rush, limitations or time restrictions.

Around the circle we went. One by one, people offering gratitude. It was the first time in the entire conference that each voice was asked to speak. Beyond podiums or workshop leaders, professional credentials or critical questions—it was simply people saying their name and offering up what was making them grateful in the moment.

Some cried. Some laughed. Some spoke Italian, Hindi or English. No one needed to translate.

The Tibetan monk, previously perched on a chair in the back of the room observing, now inched his chair to the circle, just before it was time for him to speak. He offered his gratitude for the seen and unseen people involved in this moment, for the unknowable “phenomenon” of this life.

Other people were grateful their daughters were with them on this trip to India. To be around like-minded or like-visioned folk. Some were grateful to say what they were grateful for.  At the end, people hugged one another, having shared a session of both—intentional, embodied touch and heartfelt gratitude, there was an authentic sense of having connected through experience. We didn’t need to “talk” about what Gratitude means or what it can do for building connection, we simply needed to practice it.

Hear this: Gratitude is a good practice, and a deceptively simple one: every voice is heard and every voice is from the heart. And it is always worth the time.

Story of (de)Centered.

When one initiates a blog, it is important to put some context around where the words are coming from– who is this person, why is this topic important to them and where do they locate themselves in the conversation? While no blog aiming to be less than 1000 words (already too much) could cover a human story, this is a start. Future blogs will fill in the rest.

My name is Samantha. I’m from Moreno Valley, CA.

I first became interested in ministry during high school. As a youth I attended leadership development camps and summer/winter camps at our local Unitarian Universalist camp, deBenneville Pines. My activism was formed by an alchemy of mentors, make-shift leadership positions, our high school “Anti-Hate” Club and 9-11. I was a freshman in high school when the twin towers fell, and I was awakened to how little I knew of the world outside of Moreno Valley—particularly about my Muslim brothers and sisters.

When I announced my desire to become a minister, my mentor at the time was less than thrilled; “The church is too small for you,” he said, “you need to be in the world.”

I attended my undergrad at UC Riverside and committed myself to Religious Studies and Global Studies. My college sweetheart and I ultimately went off to India together to study abroad and India had much to teach us—I was medically evacuated with an unknown illness that mimicked malaria, lived in a beautiful city (Hyderabad) that had experienced a terrorist attack and ultimately broke up with my partner. India kicked me out.

Rightfully so. Ivan Illich has something say about privileged folks using volun-tourism, no matter the “good intention,” only to realize their own powerlessness. Although I was a student, my ultimate realization was how little I knew, how fragile I was and how ultimately unprepared young people my age were to be in transnational dialogue that did not perpetuate the same oppressive frameworks as our colonial  ancestors. These are lessons anti-racism communities have already formed, but have yet been taken to the transnational context– where nationality, mobility and history matters in different and similar ways.

It was not a matter of “stop doing global work” (as some local activists told me), because the choice of having global impacts on other lives is the ultimate illusion—our choices do have an impact. And if we were not talking to each other to care for our world then evangelist missionaries, corporations and governments would do the talking for us—we had to dialogue, but we had to do it in a better way.

I applied for funding upon my return to start what was supposed to be a small, one-year project—a transnational youth leadership experiment that named leadership as acting in ways relevant to local communities and in dialogue with global peers, inspired by Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The Child Leader Project (CLP) organically grew into its own non-profit, becoming one of my primary learning spaces of spirituality, community and connection over the next five years. In 2013 I stepped down from leadership into a support role to the USA- and Indian-based leaders who continue to this day in youth organizing that creates the container to hold young people in reflecting, connecting, dialoguing and acting in the world.

For me, this was how we “know” something—we live into it. In collaboration with the Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education, I drafted a proposal for a community-based participatory action research office at the University of California-Riverside to institutionalize this way of “knowing”. The goal was to mentor undergraduate students to connect with community organizations on projects that matter to the non-profits and their community members. The best education was praxis (reflection-action) oriented: requiring a reflective mind and curious intellect, but ultimately a body that was willing to show up, listen deeply, speak from the heart and be changed.

Two years at a research university quickly reminded me of the message from my high school mentor. Was this enough? I was negotiating the tensions of the “hard sciences” with a community- and student-centered model of research as uncovering new knowledge(s) through honoring the experience of the individual or the community. I knew I needed to be learning, teaching and practicing in communities where the words “love” and “justice” were taken as seriously as “qualitative” and “quantitative”—and where does one do that? Was that at the public university as a professor, in the parish as a minister, on the street as an activist, in the home as a member of a family or community or environment?

By then, at age 24, I applied to and was accepted at Claremont School of Theology for my Master of Divinity. I wasn’t sure if ordained UU ministry was the specific calling, but I knew it pointed to something— it named my hunger to be in the world as a thoughtful, action-oriented and healing presence.

At 26, I find myself writing this blog. Having worked within multiple non-profits—from faith-based to social service-oriented—as well as directing my own, I know the struggle and the joy of organizing around a mission, meeting some goals and missing the mark on others. Having served in parishes, youth ministry, preaching as a guest or developing curriculum on spiritual activism, I know the desire for faith movements to be relevant and yet deeply rooted to their past, to provide a framework of meaning-making in an awesome and awful world. Having worked in the university as a student, researcher and director—I know the joys of learning and the necessity for access to knowledge but the dangers of knowledge narrowly defined, definitions codified and truth canonized to exclude. As a new with my incredible husband, I am learning what it means to be in relationship, to craft a kin of intention, negotiate in-laws or family members who disapprove of me as well as reclaim those relationships that are life-giving and need tending.

This is where I am learning what it means to minister, to attend to the world—beginning with my own, and spiraling outward. I learn in my skin, centered. I learn from others, decentered beyond my own experience, my own ancestors, my own context.

This blog is a reflection of what I have learned, what I am learning and all the things I do not know about what it means to be a de-centered activist hungry for wholeness. I look forward to sharing, dialoguing and being changed with you!

When are we more alive in our work?

My colleague, Daniel and I will be going to India in January 2014 to present at a Jain Concerence in Rajasthan. The conference is the 8th International Conference on Peace and Nonviolent Action (ICPNA). This year’s theme is “Towards a Nonviolent Future: Seeking Realistic Models of Peaceful Co-existence and Sustainability.” It is hosted by the Anuvrat Global Organization.

This year’s theme looks at the intersection of sustainability and non-violence. Daniel and I are looking towards sharing what youth mentoring, leadership and organizing has meant in the context of nature connection and the Cultural Repair Movement in California.

I’m new to this concept– but I think I’ve been part of the movement for awhile, especially among those who see activism as wholeness, as living out lives that, in the words of Ivan Illich, are “alive enough to be shared.”  Even in creating this blog, inspired from my Public Scholar Activism course at Claremont School of Theology, my professor was assisting me in making more concrete what it exactly I wanted to speak to. Her suggestion has grown on me: it is about people learning to put the oxygen mask on themselves first, before they try to “help” someone else. 

Cultural repair isn’t about self-centered people getting high on their own oxygen masks, but it is about remembering what it was like when we were living more grounded lives– the culture itself was the greatest source of oxygen, our communities, work, families weren’t places to escape from or left us depleted but places that nourished us.

Cultural repair speaks to that aching hunger to return to … something. Something that feels like it is in our memories, something that we catch glimpses of at pot lucks of compassionate friends, circles of allies or sweet moments when our work feels like a creative process that brings more life to ourselves and the world. It reminds us that there are natural cycles that pattern the natural world, and we, as part of that, have cycles, processes and ways of being that we have neglected– the importance of inspiration, the role of focused work, the rejuvenation of timeless siestas and playfulness, nourishing food and the role of story-telling around the fire under a night sky. These things are not luxuries, these are spiritual necessities– deep within us we are aching to return to this memory of well-being.

This movement, most often associated with the work of Jon Young and the Eight Shields Model, is not just about deep ecology and nature-connection– it is also about personal transformation and social justice. In the words of Young, it is about “optimizing the human operating system.”

Can you imagine an organization or faith community or campaign that leaves you feeling more alive than when you joined it? Where the process of gathering is as important as the potential “products”– the voting rights maintained, land conserved, unjust laws repealed are enhanced by the community of intention and care that worked towards them? Where we paid attention to the design of our gatherings, our meeting spaces, our meals, our personal lives and yearnings? Where we started and ended in gratitude?

That is cultural repair. It is about repairing our culture to be naturally healing, sustaining and life giving.

So, Daniel and I are off to India with these questions: what does this movement mean in social justice? What does social justice have to teach this movement? What does this say of the spirit? Further– how does the movement frame itself in a way that includes or excludes different communities of people? When this knowledge is recognized as coming from brown and black bodies (much emphasis is placed on the wisdom from the bushmen communities of the Kalahari to the wisdom of council in indigenous North and South America), yet few folks of color are present at workshops, what does this say of the need to re-design, re-learn and listen more deeply ahead as we acknowledge the classism, racism and exclusion of our environmental movements?

The Jain community of North India will be dynamic conversation partners in this effort. Jainism is well-recognized for its emphatic focus on the life of all beings and the inherent, explicit interconnectedness of all life– physically and karmically. Furthermore, the Jain concept of anekantavada  or “non-onesidedness”/”many-sidedness”, has much to say to the adversarial antagonism of movements for justice that claim absolute truth or prescriptive answers to complex realities.

Our proposals are below– and we are hungry for feedback: what does a movement like this raise for you? Where have you experienced work and life that is “alive enough to be shared” and what made it that way? 

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Presentation Title: “Bird Song and the Listening Spirit: Growing the Movement for Cultural Repair”

Summary: In the United States, fragmented movements for ecological and social justice face language of scarce resources and adversarial needs—as social justice movements work diligently for the rights of human beings, ecological justice movements give voice to the inherent aliveness of nature and warning to our self-destruction. Both models, however, often lack the spiritual tools and self-reflection to sustain themselves in the midst of financial, social and political strains and embedded injustice in our society. An inclusive approach to the Cultural Repair movement is a response to this hunger for what sustains us by including earth- and human-connection and fueling (through living) in regenerative ecological communities of care. This paper will examine these philosophical foundations, current manifestations, opportunities and challenges for growing the movement to repair our world.

Workshop/Experiential Learning Segment: “Children and Youth: Our Radical Teachers in the Movement for Cultural Repair”

Summary: In Southern California, social and ecological justice activists have come together in common movements to provide learning spaces for diverse youth to reflect, connect, dialogue and take action in healing their community, ecologically and socially. These best practices are part of larger movements, returning to indigenous and ancient wisdom, that engage people in reconnecting to the earth, to themselves and to their own spirits through outdoor activities and community living. This workshop will share (and practice) some of these best methods in case studies from California in which youth and children serve as leaders and teachers in re-discovering what keeps them, and us, alive.