At the University of Ottawa, Canada, June 2017 for the Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA) biennial conference, Siva Mathiyazhagan (PhD) and Samantha Gupta (MA, M.Div) discuss their process of uncovering a “grounded ethic” from their experiences working together translocally as youth community organizers and friends from India and the USA since 2009.
[Publication of “Poittu Varen! Ethics for Translocal Partnerships” forthcoming.]
This presentation was at the University of Ottawa, Canada, June 2017 for the Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA) biennial conference. The original filming was from the conference via Facebook Live.
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.
Although this was a “wake up call” for some, this was a clear, present, lived, ongoing reality for so many, many others– including people of color, undocumented community members, LGTBQ community members, and Muslim community members.
We know that electoral maps oversimplify the complexity of the people and the lives in every community– and in every state– and knowthat we need rural and working class white people to organize 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, and led by, 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:
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.
In late May, I was a participant in the 2016 International Conference on Community Psychology in Durban, South Africa. This year’s theme was “Global Dialogues on Critical Knowledges, Liberation and Community.” I will be publishing a few blogs on the experience, this one highlighting my presentations at the conference. Future posts will highlight other contributing scholar-activists and notes from presentations I attended.
Interested folks can also check out the video made by the conference organizers, highlighting the keynotes and key themes that emerged:
I made three presentations at the conference. I give BIG thanks to the mentors, professors, family, friends, colleagues, and cosmos– all of whom have initiated, contributed to and helped further these ideas. Heartfelt thanks.
Decolonizing Reconciliation Processes for Historical Harms: A Dialogue for Action
This presentation emerged from my experience as part of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR-USA) delegation to Japan at the invitation of the Japanese Fellowship of Reconciliation (JFOR) in recognition of the 70th commemorations of the use of atomic weapons. The question being asked here is, “how do we mobilize across racial, ethnic, and class communities to create consensus around processes of reconciliation… especially if those events happened before our lifetime?” As intergenerational communities seek to do repair for historical wrongdoing, psychological cultural-workers must also negotiate their current diverse positionality in contemporary and historical webs of violence as the basis for reconciliation.
In other words, when a hibakusha (Japanese term for “bomb survivor”) begins their testimony of the bombing by imagining their place and their ancestor’s place in relationship to the harms cause by Japanese imperialism on Korean, Chinese, Pilipino… even USA… citizens, they are locating themselves in a web of relationships. Many Hibakusha use this awareness as the beginning of their testimony.
In the case of our FOR delegation, we realized that if we were to do similarly—if each of our delegation members “located themselves” in the web of relationships (positionality) as racialized, gendered, economically-informed beings, particularly around issues of racialized militarization in the USA, we would each be led to different ways of responding to the people in front of us, even if our intention (reconciliation and healing) was the same and our sense of wrongdoing about the use of nuclear weapons was the same.
Social location—naming and claiming our relationships and differences—matters in reconciliatory work.
Why is this important?
It challenges the belief that reconciliation requires a coherent consensus of a history, an individual or an organization. In fact, it relies on us emphasizing the differences, contradictions and complexities in order to and as part of really get to the interconnectedness.
It also decenters the overemphasis that can occur to “find the similarities” when doing difficult relational work.
In our experience in dialogue with Japanese activists, the most impactful experience was our willingness to share our ancestral and present locations and speak from that experience.
Reconciliation is not about a fantasy future of unity or an imaginary past “before” the rupture—rather, it involves standing in our particularity in order to accurately imagine and/or re-member the threads that connect us. In the words of Watkins and Lorenz (2001), it is about gathering around the “rupture” to see what new possibilities may be emerging.
II. Life in the Rupture: Towards an Eco-Psychological Sense of Community (EPSOC)
My second presentation focuses on some of the ideas within the field of community psychology itself.
“Psychological Sense of Community (PSOC)” is a model of measurement that has been described as a “lynch-pin” that holds the field of community psychology together. It has been used as a tool by community psychologists to determine the aspects of community that create the feeling of community, roughly grouped into (1) membership, (2) influence, (3) integration and fulfillment of needs, and (4) shared emotional connection (McMillan and Chavis 1986).
While PSOC has led to innovations in analysis and measurement in efforts to replicate what exactly makes community “work,” there have also been critics that name that the ways PSOC breaks down component parts of community might not capture the essential quality of an experience of community that we are all working hard to identify and move towards. For example, communities with a higher level of homogeneity (for example, the KKK), will likely score higher on PSOC than a community with more racial and ethnic diversity (which may be labeled a “disordered” community by these measurements and by some measurers). In response to these kinds of critiques, McMillan acknowledged that PSOC will never quite capture the “spirit” of what the we are really talking about—and, further, that PSOC “is a theory to describe reality, not a theory to prescribe reality” (2011).
However, for community psychologists who value interrupting and disrupting systems of power and domination that are part of our described reality, we may be seeking to measure and move towards a different kind of PSOC—something that does guide us towards nourishing and sustaining communities that honor and engage differences and interrupt oppressive power dynamics.
I think Hughey and Speer (2002) move us closer to the “spirit” in their use of network and systems analysis to demonstrate that actually healthy environments require “individuals and groups to develop and exercise features of social networks that function to position themselves at the boundaries of networks” (p.74). Here, boundaries and edges are opportunities—opportunities to access different kinds of resources, build resilience, and generate the changes that allow for communities to survive. By bringing their language into dialogue with PSOC, we can challenge metaphors and models that value or prioritize “orderly,” linear, homogenous, progressive and cohesive patterns—we can create measurements that value the seemingly disordered, the diverse, the creative and the boundary-crossings that make life evolutionary. This is a language often used to describe aspects of ecological systems—a system that requires the edges, the chaotic and the adaptive in order to survive and thrive.
With guidance from these critiques and some support from depth and liberation psychology (Watkins and Lorenz 2001), here is where we might imagine an “Eco-Psychological Sense of Community (EPSOC).” These contributions to the language of PSOC suggest that there is something beyond the component parts of being an individual as part of a cohesive system—even hinting that the fantasy of a cohesive system (and “orderly” communities) is not a universal reality at all, nor would its measurement and duplication make meaning out of the diverse locations and experiences where healthy community happens.
Perhaps “E” stands for “Eco” or perhaps “E” stands of “Edge”—no matter what, it means we engage the way our measurements maintain rather than interrupt systems of power and domination.
Why is this important?
PSOC as a measurement model may not go far enough in (a) the decolonial project of deconstructing the fantasy of a unified, progressive self or community nor (b) sufficiently valuing the rupture of that fantasy (and the role of conflict) as a sign of life within a social system as an ecological system.
We need to acknowledge the implicit values of our “measurement tools” in our field—and re-imagine what we are really looking for as signs of health and vitality that support us in interrupting status quo power dynamics.
Community psychologists should be looking for edges as a sign of health and well-being—edges are where our vitality, creativity, and resilience emerge.
III. Eve, Adam, Snake and the Garden of the Global North: Decolonizing Theologies Through Theatre
This presentation was an “Innovative Presentation”—a part of the conference that allotted me a ninety-minute session to use theatre, story and movement to engage issues of coloniality in theology.
This presentation might be captured in a pseudo-mathematical equation:
(Scriptural exegesis of Genesis II) + (Anti-Racism) + (Bibliodrama) + (Academic and faith-based interrogation of borders, walls, and border-crossing) + (Theatre of the Oppressed techniques) = The Real Story of Eve, Adam, Snake and Tree
I relied on writing from Rev. Rebecca Parker’s essay, “Not Somewhere Else But Here: The Struggle for Racial Justice as a Struggle to Inhabit My Country” from Soul Work: Anti-Racist Theologies in Dialogue. Parker imagines the ways that the story of “The Fall” in Genesis II acts in support of white privilege in that it describes a relationship with God where to know one’s self as capable of both “good” and “evil” is to lose one’s relationship with God—to stay obedient, innocent and pure is to stay in relationship with God. Yet, in the work of anti-racism, we need white people who are able to see ourselves and our history more clearly and more honestly.
Parker’s writings are supported by Chicana scholar-activist Gloria Anzaldua’s work on the seven stages of conocimiento from “Now let us shift… the path of conocimiento… inner work, public acts”—a coming into consciousness that requires the bridge-builders, the in-between walkers, that are willing to have reality torn apart and brought back together in new, more life-giving and more generative ways. She writes, “According to Jung, if you hold opposites long enough without taking sides a new identity emerges. As you make your way through life, nepantla itself becomes the place you live in most of the time— home” (p. 548). We need the tearing apart of what isn’t working as part of creating something new.
Anzaldua’s imagining of the border as something to bridge makes for an interesting dialogue partner with Wendy Brown’s Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. The wall around Eden and the wall through the southwest deserts of the USA are a form of “psychic insulation,” maintaining USA fantasies of purity, innocence and goodness—keeping the privileged and abundant lives of those within it without a horizon worth questioning and the people beyond it as invading, marauding, evil force to be stopped (Brown, p. 120-121). This, embodied in the Judeo-Christian story of Adam and Eve, becomes a theological value. While Brown does not go so far to make the theological connection that Anzaldua makes in her first movement towards consciousness, both are seeking a bridge over the wall—and Parker’s Eve is alongside them.
Bibliodrama and Theatre of the Oppressed techniques (Peter Pitzele 1997 and Augusto Boal 1993) give us a way to engage this story as both problematic and potentially generative.
Methodologies: Sharing a new version of the story generated from my time in seminary that imagines Eve, Snake and Adam as escaping the garden to go beyond the wall—with the possibility that there had been people on the other side of the wall along—is the starting point for our embodied play using character embodiment, followed by character interviewing in dyads, and an “empty chair” technique to imagine the characters who are part of our story. Each person in the workshop takes an empty chair, embodying the character with a pose. We then imagine the internal longings associated with that character to understand more clearly what they may be trying to tell us and make those statements to one another out loud.
Having told this new version of the story in different contexts, sharing it in the South African/international community psychology context led to important conclusions and realizations:
It was an important revelation to interrogate the wall in the Garden of Eden: what is this wall? Who is outside the wall? Who built the wall? Who does the wall serve? What would the wall say to us now as we deal with issues of borders and walls in our communities?
Workshop participants longed for a more equitable relationship between Eve and Adam—even in my own re-telling, my story chooses to center the story on Eve as agent of social change as an anti-dote to the dominant narrative that tends to degrade her being. Still, what would be a more satisfying relationship between the two?
One workshop participant who expressed a “resistance” to changing the story, acknowledged that in his role as “the fruit,” he felt a strange and unexpected longing to be eaten. How might we activate and animate the “non-human” creatures and beings in the garden and what might they tell us? What voices have been left out by our over-emphasis on human voice?
I look forward to bringing this story and workshop methodology to other communities as dialogue partners in re-imagining this story—clearly, there is much more to be said by many more of us.
The next ICCP conference will be held in Chile in 2018.