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?
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.
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.
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:
- For more information on the event in Gillette entitled: “Welcoming the Stranger: The Stories we Share.” Read this article from the Planet Jackson Hole, Wyoming Newspaper.
- Learn more about AWARE-LA’s annual “Unmasking Whiteness Institute” happening in July 2017.
Special thanks to AWARE-LA, Dara Silverman, and J. Audrey for their support of this project, mentorship, and encouragement.