by Chris Casuccio
“White supremacy is an overwhelming crisis for humanity, one that is making it impossible for any human to evolve in right relationship with the planet and the species. It has not, and will not, be resolved merely by Black and other non-white people fighting for a change – it must be unlearned, relinquished by those who walk with the privileges of whiteness.” – adrienne maree brown
“We need you defecting from White supremacy and changing the narrative of White supremacy by breaking White silence.” – Alicia Garza
“White people will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this — which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never — the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.” – James Baldwin
At a time when everything feels like it is shifting around us, in rapid, terrifying and unpredictable ways, the words of James Baldwin, attracting new prominence with the powerful film “I Am Not Your Negro”, remind us that these shifts are not new, that the crisis of intersecting injustices we currently confront are the continuation of a long and painful history. As this crisis continues to unfold, and as the threats to our humanity (and most especially to communities of color) become more and more violent, how do we respond? How are we called to act now, in this moment?
Since I am white, I will speak for myself, and to other white folks:
adrienne maree brown and Alicia Garza clearly call upon us to unlearn, relinquish, defect from, change the narrative, and break the silence of White supremacy. As the world shifts, we need to shift along with it, and we are urgently called to shift away from White supremacy culture.
What does that look like?
For a start, we must admit that White supremacy culture is deeply embedded in our society. It insidiously finds its way into our hearts, our minds, our relationships, our institutions, into our very ways of being. So the shifts must start with ourselves, with deep introspection and reflection on our very sense of who we are.
We must make shifts within the institutions that structure our lives and perpetuate harmful imbalances of power, and within the organizations through which we work for change. It is only with honest and critical evaluation of how they operate that we can begin to do this. We must shift the distribution of leadership, power, and resources; shifting resources away from white and wealthy communities towards those from whom oppression has stolen so much. We must shift who and what is centered in racial justice work and in broader movements for social change. To do this, we must make shifts in the very ways in which we think about and carry out racial justice and anti-racist education.
Racial justice education, especially among white folks, has long been hampered by an inability to create spaces in which we can bravely be with and work through the emotional responses that often lead to defensiveness and paralysis: guilt, blame, shame. Once we open space for our emotional reactions, we can also get stuck in a place of endless processing that never leads to meaningful action. We can’t make shifts within ourselves when we’re clinging to our shame. Shifts occur when we are honest, when we name and accept our emotions, when we support one another, when we lovingly challenge one another, and are challenged, to be real, to be accountable, to be compassionate, and to heal from these toxic emotions and behaviors.
This healing can begin to occur when we acknowledge that we are all harmed, to differing extents, by White supremacy, when we acknowledge that our collective liberation is intimately bound together, when we acknowledge that none of us can be free and loving and fully thriving until we dismantle White supremacy.
These are the kinds of questions we’ll explore together as white folks in the Shift cohort at Grow Racial Justice.
“What is Grow Racial Justice?”, you may be asking, “and is there a cohort for people of color?”
Grow Racial Justice is a partnership between the UUA’s Thrive Leadership Program for Youth & Young Adults of Color, the UU College of Social Justice, Standing on the Side of Love and the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal. From June 17th-20th, in New Orleans, in the days leading up to UU General Assembly, we’ll gather in two companion programs, Thrive for young adults of color and Shift for white young adults, to explore our racial and ethnic identities, worship, and build transformative relationships. The cohorts will come together to learn community organizing skills from bold, grounded leaders, and to craft a strategic vision for our anti-racism work in the coming year. To get a sense of what we did together last year, click here for reflections from a participant in the Thrive cohort, and here for an article by UUCSJ.
We invite ALL young adults of faith and conscience to join us in this crucial work of shifting and thriving. Click here to register now and join us this summer! The deadline to register is April 1, 2017.
It had happened again. Another black man had been shot dead by police, another life lost to the brutality of racism, another painful reminder of the urgency of the Movement for Black Lives. News of Philando Castile’s death in Minnesota came less than a day after the police shot Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge. They weren’t the last to die; in recent weeks, other men, women, and transgender people of color have been killed just for being themselves – and not just by police. These tragedies, and the long-standing systems of oppression behind them, weigh heavily on all who seek to defy hate.
A few days later, 30 young adults gathered in the sanctuary of the First UU Church of New Orleans for the opening worship of Grow Racial Justice. They sat in a circle around the steady flame of a chalice, and to the rhythm of a beating drum, spoke their intentions in turn: Healing. Courage. Compassion. Humility. Rigor. Accountability. Resistance. Community. Clarity. Love.
For the next five days, Grow Racial Justice offered participants the tools, resources, and relationships to support their racial justice leadership. The UU College of Social Justice and the UUA’s Thrive Program for Youth & Young Adults of Color organized the retreat and training, in in collaboration with two other groups: Standing on the Side of Love, and the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal. As the struggle for racial justice lives on in our streets and courtrooms, congregations and communities, it was a timely opportunity for young activists to deepen their faith, lift their spirits, build community, and develop skills for organizing within and beyond Unitarian Universalism.
In two uniquely tailored, parallel programs, young adults of color and white young adults explored their racial and ethnic identities, reflected on the effects of internalized racism, and considered how their own experiences compel them to action. They shared stories, struggles, songs, and practices of resistance and resilience. The two groups then came together to learn skills in anti-racist facilitation and grassroots organizing from long-time movement leaders Aesha Rasheed and Caitlin Breedlove. They left with a shared commitment to lead the work required to advance racial justice in their home communities and within themselves.
Participants echoed one another in reflecting on the value of the program. One young adult of color shared, “My time at Grow helped me form a deep, action-oriented commitment to racial justice. I’ve been inspired to preach sermons that speak the truth about racial (in)justice and my own experiences, to volunteer with my local Black Lives Matter chapter, and to be public with my own actions, thoughts, and struggles in the fight for racial justice. I can do all of this because I know there is a community of support, helping me move forward.”
Another participant from the white cohort added, “I believe Grow transformed my work from ‘facebook activism’ into true action. I better understand how organizing for change means matching commitment with a plan for how to do it… If we truly want to show up for the world in the ways our principles commit us to, we need to do white-on-white work to dismantle white supremacy.”
A third, who participated in the Thrive cohort, said, “This was a life-changing experience – physically, mentally, and most important, spiritually. I can’t wait to create movements with these people.”
Shortly after Grow Racial Justice concluded, the UU College of Social Justice brought together 15 teenagers for Activate New Orleans: Racial Justice and the Beloved Community, also hosted by the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal. Like the participants in Grow, the youth left this training with new bonds of friendship, a deeper understanding of systemic racism, and a stronger commitment to taking the next steps in their social justice journeys.
Too much hateful rhetoric has filled the airwaves this year. Unrelenting acts of racist aggression continue to distress and dishearten us. Still, the voices of the young leaders who joined us at Grow and Activate Racial Justice offer hope. They remind us that joining together to defy hate through personal transformation and strengthened activism can help us undo racism and foster our collective liberation.
This article initially appeared in the Fall 2016 edition of Rights Now, published by UUSC
This post was written by Amelia Diehl and originally posted on Blue Boat.
I am so grateful to have been able to attend the Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice‘s Grounded and Resilient Organizer’s Workshop Climate Justice Training in Chicago, IL and feel connected again to a community and to a movement. I think I might have learned more about myself and climate change in that weekend at the GROW training than my few years or so of calling myself an environmentalist, and in ways I could never have predicted. The space created for group reflection allowed me to learn a lot about what it means for me to be involved in the movement, and also to forget about myself at times.
Earlier this summer, I interviewed a local climate activist who told me that according to one study, by 2030 we would know if we hit the two degree celsius temperature change, a crucial tipping point. That in fifteen years we would pretty much know how much we were screwed. While these types of doomsday scientific reports circulate regularly and the exact numbers are debatable, somehow hearing it in the context of his personal investment hit me deeper than before. Since that conversation, I’ve felt desperate, frantic and apocalyptic – but also revolutionary, that something big would have to change. I felt a renewed purpose and urgency in my climate work, which until then had felt distanced; I paid attention to news, read Naomi Klein and went to major protests, but didn’t really feel like I could commit as much to the movement as I’d wanted.
About a month later, one of my friends, a woman of color, said she didn’t like the environmental movement. When I asked why, she laughed and said because it’s so white. I agreed, but was frustrated, because even though I was white, I resented the reputation of whiteness in a movement that I know to be more intersectional and that I want to be more explicitly intersectional because it needs to be. I tried to argue that it’s more than protecting trees and water, and that climate change affects us all.
For now, it seems like my front-line is my campus. The brand of environmentalism at our campus – a small liberal arts college in the mid-west – is as white as a blizzard. Our environmental club, though popular, mainly goes on week-long backpacking trips during semester breaks, and lacks a divestment movement. The administration touts sustainability efforts just like the next college, but there is an overall lack of discourse around climate change, and especially around justice. People care about it, sure, but most people get too overwhelmed and feel like we couldn’t do anything about it, or that it isn’t relevant, and often get stuck in “save the Earth” thinking.
Looking back at when I started to care about environmentalism and climate change about ten years ago, I recognize that my early investment lacked a critical analysis of power systems. Like many Unitarian Universalists in climate work, I resonate deeply with the seventh principle, the interconnectedness of all things. I often envision our planet in space, and think about all of us sharing this home. In a social justice context, this also means that my liberation is tied up into yours. But I don’t think we – as a movement – are there yet, as someone at the training expressed.
One example, among many: a reasonable critique of vegans and vegetarians, many of whom are white (including me), is that they seem to care more about the health and safety of animals than for other people. Changing consumer choices in the context of capitalism is relatively easy compared to critically looking at how I am implicated in a white supremacist (capitalist, patriarchal) society.
I realized that my values of caring about climate change led me to critically look at systems of power and societal inequalities. In other words, I admit that while I cared about social justice in a very white middle class liberal way, it was climate change that got me to understand the complexity and depth of power systems, and my own privilege. To care about climate justice is to care about anti-racism, feminism, anti-capitalism, anti-injustice and anti-oppression, and to fight for liberation. Climate change is only the latest symptom of these oppressive systems. Of course, it is still a choice to engage in anti-oppressive work, and not all climate work means climate justice, and climate justice does not mean simply adding “justice” to the end of it.
It is important to remember and understand each of these anti-oppression movements have different histories and are not the same. Anti-racist work cannot always be lumped with climate justice work. Yet it is crucial to make the connections between the movements.
One of the most impactful parts of the training came after looking at different definitions of climate justice, and one of our facilitators asked us to reflect on how, or if, our goals dismantle the master’s house, and how, or if, our tactics are accountable to the environmental justice principles. I know that this question needs to be considered continuously throughout any work, and I know that the work being done on my campus is not there yet. After the GROW training, I understand more than ever the urgency to challenge this white, privileged environmentalism and bring in a climate justice framework, and, importantly, I feel more prepared to do so.
I am determined to bring this awareness and analysis back to my campus. We’ll still go backpacking, and I will make sure we talk about the master’s house in the context of climate justice principles. I suspect many a college campus are stuck in white environmentalism, though many have been struggling for divestment from fossil fuels. I also want to start a divestment campaign, though this feels like a lofty goal at this point for where my campus’s values lie.
I know that this awareness is not enough, that there must be action. Yet it is a concrete step forward, and I know I will keep learning. As a participant said, we are responsible for collective learning.
Along with organizing skills, the GROW training gave me a space to truly examine and express my despair over climate change, the deep kind I felt at the beginning of the summer. It is easy to become fixated on the dystopian projections of extinction – of other species and possibly our own – destruction, and loss of the life we are used to, and to focus on climate change as an urgent crisis. Yet the problem with this is that this apocalypse has been real and remains urgent for so many for centuries. It is not about oppression olympics, or a hierarchy of despair, but it is about urgency.
The face of the climate movement may still be very white. Yet the crucial part is making sure front-line communities take the lead, and that those with privilege take the time to critically examine their positionality, and remain accountable to climate justice principles. As a facilitator said, we need to struggle together and resist collapses, and it’s up to us if there’s to be justice on the other side.
Amelia studies Environmental Communication and Arts at Beloit College in Wisconsin. Originally Quaker, she joined her local UU congregation in high school. She’s interested in how art is used in social movements, and in particular writing and photography. In addition to her environmental activism, she leads an interfaith student group organized for incarceration justice.