Category Archives: Race and Racism

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?

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“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.

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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.

Wading in the Waters at Standing Rock

Reflections on a journey in support of indigenous community action, after church call draws some 500 clergy as “protective witnesses”

Samantha-at-Standing-Rock_small.jpg11/13/16

Two weeks ago, I woke up in a tent in North Dakota.

At 6 a.m., the only light that visible poured in from across the Missouri River, a set of mega floodlights illuminating the ongoing construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

Less than a quarter mile away from me, a 70-year-old elder sat near the central fire and coaxed us awake into an amplified microphone that echoed through the fog and across the camp.

“Wake up… wake up! The Black Snake is creeping across the river! Sun Dancers! Pipe carriers, smudge your pipes! Christians, dust off your Bibles! The water is warm. We are here for a purpose!”

By 9 a.m., I was gathered alongside over 500 clergy from across the United States, representing over 20 different faith traditions. Surrounding us and continuing their day of work, recuperation, and prayer, people at the camp numbered in the thousands.

We circled around the fire in our sacred clothing—robes, stoles, albs, protest-prayer signs—and observed, as representatives of our faith traditions stood alongside several indigenous elders from the #NoDAPL camp. Each of the represented traditions had repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery in their denominations, and read aloud from those repudiations into the microphone ringing over the camp. (Written by Pope Alexander VI in 1493, the Doctrine of Discovery formalized into writing a set of patterns of domination that became the basis by which European monarchies claimed lands and resources of indigenous peoples. Ultimately, land was deemed “unoccupied” if it was not settled by Christians. The doctrine has been cited in court decisions as recently as 2005.)

After their statements, a copy of the Doctrine in the original Latin was given to the elders, and then burned in an abalone shell among the ring of people near the central fire.

Each of the 500 of us were smudged with sage by local community leaders as we made our way along the road to Backwater Bridge where police waited, in long lines inside cars, and watched us from roads and hilltops. The bridge was the location where, one week prior, 141 indigenous and ally Water Protectors were arrested by militarized police in riot gear.

We wept, we raged, we prayed, we sang as police helicopters flew overhead, snipers watched from hillsides, and the Missouri River wound its way over the horizon.

“Wade in the water!” we sang, each of us holding the other. “God’s gonna trouble the water!”

Sedona-Unitarian-image_small.jpgIt was only one week prior to that moment that Father John Floberg—a man who has served for 25 years as the supervising priest of the Episcopal churches of Standing Rock—put out an email to several clergy networks, calling upon clergy of all faith traditions to come to North Dakota and serve as “protective witnesses” with the Water Protectors.

He had only expected 100 of us to respond.

Father John was also clear: The actions of we 500 witnesses would reflect on the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies, long after we left. He and the elders who stood beside him asked for four things of all of us: “that you remain prayerful, peaceful, nonviolent, and lawful.” And most of all, that we return to our communities and call upon our people to join this protective resistance.

Standing near the fire in my stole that morning, an elder from the camp approached me and expressed that our presence was a welcome pause in the recent escalations of violence, a chance for the community to regroup. He shared that he hoped we would carry prayers that the community of leaders at Standing Rock maintain their spiritual structure as they are continually battered, instigated, and even infiltrated by DAPL security or police forces. As clergy wandered the camp, police presence was minimized for the day—with fewer helicopters, airplanes, and drones. Some expressed how this was a welcome pause in the ongoing assault of the senses and the spirit.

For others whom I didn’t speak to our presence, I suspect, was complicated, if not painful and enraging—particularly as representatives of religions that have undergirded, if not outright orchestrated, native genocide. Alongside the stories I’ve heard before arriving, I have personally experienced the ways white, non-native visitors occupy space at the microphones, or take up resources without return or regard. As white folks, we have so much work to do to “call each other in” as white people, to unlearn entitlement and domination, and to learn new patterns of relationship that generate life and honor the sovereignty of that life. This shows up in the ways we reach for microphones, to the ways we use policies to grab resources for profit. This is an urgent task.

It is urgent because Standing Rock is not only a specific struggle in North Dakota—Standing Rock is everywhere we are. It demands of us, particularly as community psychologists: Where do you come from? Whose land do you occupy, whose land do you call home? Who were your people? And who are your people now? Perhaps, in the time of Trump, we might add: What life and whose life experience have you disregarded, and what are your relational obligations for restoration?

It’s personal, it’s communal, it’s ecological, it’s economic, it’s political, it’s ancestral, and it is work that requires us to be where we are, right now. Be with one another, right now. Practice accountable relationship, particularly with the indigenous communities where we live, right now. Not as a task to complete, but as vocation—as in vocare, that sacred call—that we are responsive to for the rest of our lives.

As a community psychologist and a theologian, I understand that our role is to make visible that web of relationships and issues that connects each to all, such that this sacred web becomes actionable and our role within it becomes strategic, intentional, resilient, and restorative.

Will we take up our role?

Take Action

What is needed at Standing Rock: Please visit their websites to know what they are asking for. They need ongoing financial support as they prepare for winter (portable restrooms and trash services alone cost $1,500 per day), advocacy/direct action at local, state, national, and corporate levels, and bodies—especially humble bodies capable of listening and learning, with offerings for healing, feeding, building, and the ability to be arrested.

What is needed everywhere: knowing whose land we are on, honoring the treaties where we are (all treaties made with US government have been broken), anti-racism and public recognition of the positionalities we carry (especially for those of us who hold identities as white settlers, we can turn to national organizations such as SURJ to turn this idea into embodied practice), repatriation of land and resources, funding Indigenous-led movements, a move away from entitlement to deep and humble permission and learning, centering the voices of indigenous community psychologists in our field, and an actionable awareness and reverence of where the sources of our life come from (our food, water, power, people). For more on these ideas, visit the Standing Rock Solidarity Network resources.

As community psychologists in the field, in non-profits, and in academic institutions, we are uniquely positioned to bring embodied awareness to the patterns of “discovery” and colonization that have informed our lives and our field, to learn in community and model the life-generating alternatives, and to put our bodies on the line to bring that alternative into reality.

May we respond to such a sacred and necessary call.

This post has been featured in the following places:

  • Society for Community Research and Action “Personal Stories”
    Read more here.
  • UU Young Adults for Climate Justice. Read more here.

Tools for Allies: From “microagression” to “microresistance”

Wanted to share this incredible resource from Inside Higher Education, offered up by Kerry Ann Rockquemore, president of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity.

How do we show up when a hurtful situation so often lends itself to freezing? So much emerges: the feeling of the offense, the desire to say “the right” thing, the fear of relational or social fallout.

Not only is it hard to observe a microaggression– it is also hard to figure out how to respond in ways that both honor the target of the aggression and “call in” the aggressor into right relationship. This is difficult to do effectively without the conversation (1) forcing the target of the aggression to “teach” or “take on” the work of fixing the situation or (2) centering the group’s attention on the hurt feelings or defensiveness of the aggressor.

In light of that, I found this article and these materials (including a video of a panel on microaggressions and microresistance!) helpful. 

Some highlights from their post:

“Try Moving From Reacting to Resistance”

Learning about microaggressions has allowed you to see previously unrecognized hostility in your department’s environment. Right now, the way you understand your role in these interactions is “reacting to microaggressions.”

What would happen if you reframed your role? Instead of defensively reacting, what if you saw yourself as engaging in “microresistance”? In other words, instead of reacting to an individual’s bad behavior, what if you proactively worked toward an equitable environment for everyone in your department?

I don’t know how this sits with you, but I love this reframing of my own behavior. When I understand myself as actively engaging in microresistance, it has a different energy than reacting to microaggressions. It keeps me focused on the structural nature of the problem.

In other words, it’s not just one person acting like an asshole; what’s occurring in everyday interactions is a continual manifestation of privilege. As such, my words and actions matter to the higher-level goals of equity and inclusion. Microresistance empowers me and makes me feel that my daily choices contribute to the overall climate in which I’m embedded.

“Practice “Opening the Front Door””

Ganote, Cheung and Souza taught us a technique called “opening the front door” (OTFD) as a first step to engage in microresistance in the kinds of contexts you’ve described (such as faculty meetings, hallway conversations and informal gatherings). It’s quite simple:

  • Observe: Describe clearly and succinctly what you see happening.

  • Think: State what you think about it.

  • Feel: Express your feelings about the situation.

  • Desire: Assert what you would like to happen.