"Teach us to Sit Still": Coming Home after the Undoing Racism Workshop

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by Phyllis B. Frank and Gail Golden

"Teach us to Sit Still": * Coming Home after the Undoing Racism Workshop**

by Phyllis B. Frank and Gail Golden

Many of us fortunate enough to take the Undoing Racism Workshop have described it as a transformative, life changing experience. For many participants, it gave us the first true understanding of systemic racism and its deep roots in our society. As a result, lots of us returned to our lives asking 'what can we, as white people, do to address racism in our homes, offices and communities?' We absolutely wanted to DO something. Those of us who are white took more notice of the lack of people of color in our offices, our boards of directors, our neighborhoods, and our house parties. We began to notice that policies and procedures, once thought of as benign, carried serious racist implications. Some of us made very premature and clumsy efforts to change what we saw around us.

The efforts were premature because we had not laid the foundation for our work. Although we had heard an incredible expose of the history and currency of racial injustice in our country, we were in no position to fully understand the implications of this perspective. We had not, and could not have fully integrated the material we were learning in the workshop. In our well-intended zeal, we were not taking the time to deepen our understanding, to develop allies and build the critical mass needed to advocate for change. We had not figured out that there would have to be many small steps in our journey. Our commitment to social justice overpowered strategic thinking about change. Some of us moved so quickly and clumsily, that we caused havoc in our organizations as we returned from the workshop and demanded instant change.

Looking back on these experiences, we now have some good counsel for new workshop graduates who also feel they have found a mission that cannot be ignored. Sit still. Do nothing big. Keep learning. Read more history and articles about racism. Watch DVD’s. Join with allies who have already taken the Undoing Racism Workshop and reach out and encourage potential allies to take the next workshop you can locate. This will begin to create a community of like-minded people. If several of you in your area took the workshop, keep talking to each other about what you are experiencing and review the Undoing Racism principles. Pay attention to the way people of color are portrayed on TV, in magazines and newspapers. If anyone around you expresses interest, tell them what you see. Do not begin by trying to influence people who express ideas that are polar opposites from yours. If possible, take the workshop again . . . and again. Each time will reveal another level of understanding. Stay in touch with people from your workshop. Listen when people of color speak. Really listen. Listen to black radio stations, and hear what issues are important to people of color. Don't wait for people of color to come to you. Go to community meetings, NAACP events and listen more. Try to create relationships with potential anti-racist allies.

If you are persistent in taking small beginning steps, you will change. You will embody the change you want to see. You will see things differently, listen differently, perhaps have new kinds of associations. You will keep learning and keep understanding more and more. You may find yourself attending different kinds of meetings and thinking different kinds of thoughts. If you are in a position of leadership, you may hire different kinds of staff, design programs differently, develop policies differently. You will develop relationships and check in with people of color. Aspiring to be an ally to people of color in the work to end racism will inform your interactions. Done right, colleagues of color may begin to support you in your efforts, assuring that you are on the right track.

In time, you will be different. Some of us are angry that it took so long to understand the history of racial injustice in the United States and the reverberations that are so deeply felt even today. From high school graduates to those with postgraduate degrees – our ignorance on this subject is pervasive. The result has been a literal “free for all” in terms of solutions. With their incisive definitions and expose of history, The Undoing Racism Workshop is like getting good corrective lenses after having very blurred vision. We see more clearly.

As a result, we negotiate the world from a very different perspective. White people learn to stop focusing on people of color and start focusing on ourselves and what white people need to do. Our job is to engage other white people in learning more about racism and how to undo it.

In time, we were able to make concrete changes in our own agency. We send all staff members to Undoing Racism Workshops. Our agency, VCS, gives the time and pays the fee. All volunteers in the agency are given ongoing training about racism and strongly encouraged to take the Undoing Racism Workshop. We recruit people of color to apply when a staff position opens up. A Racial Justice Coordinator position was created. The agency hosts monthly meetings for Undoing Racism Workshop graduates and others, to continue talking about all aspects of racism. The goal is to utilize the tenets of the Workshop in our organizations, our communities and our lives. We started an Immigration Coalition founded on Undoing Racism principles. It is now in its twelfth year. We advocate for all immigrants. The largest number of immigrants in our county are people of color.

As we were making these changes, more people of color were drawn to our agency both as clients and as service providers. We changed our tag line to read: 'A family service agency with a social justice mission'. We developed a reputation in the community for our willingness to grow as an anti-racist organization. Some of us developed greater capacity to articulate what we were learning. We spoke out at committees and community groups. We provide training and workshops to other organizations with the goal of convincing them to commit staff time to taking the Undoing Racism Workshop. We have now sponsored the workshop in our county for fifteen years.

As a result there are almost 1000 people throughout the county, agency directors, line staff, educators, community organizers, and so many more, who have been trained. The Health Department adopted racial disparity as a primary issue to address. The Child Welfare division of the Department of Social Services adopted racial disparity in foster home placements as a primary concern. We helped defund a federally qualified health clinic that was discriminating against people of color. We began a hate crimes task force when a Latino male was badly beaten by a white male wearing a shirt with white supremacist slogans. We are attempting to address hate speech and hateful behavior as well as formal hate crimes.

There were indeed concrete changes but they have developed so far over a fifteen-year period. Some of us keep taking the workshop whenever possible. We keep deepening our understanding. The co-founder of the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, Ron Chisom, says that the work is hard, but the work gives life because racism dehumanizes and anti-racist work humanizes. Those of us who continue on this journey feel grateful. We are no longer ignorant of the racial injustice around us. We learned that there is no such thing as a quick fix for centuries of racial oppression, that our efforts must be ongoing, and that the work of social transformation is a journey for a lifetime.

* from T.S.Eliot, The Four Quartets.

** PISAB is a national and international collective of anti-racist, multicultural community organizers and educators dedicated to building an effective movement for social transformation. Their two and a half day workshop, Undoing Racism, is a powerful and effective introduction to anti-racist thinking and organizing.

Phyllis B. Frank, M.A., (pbfrank@aol.com) is Assistant Executive Director of VCS Inc., Director, Social Justice Programs.

Gail K. Golden, MSW, Ed.D, (peacepoet@aol.com) is Clinical Director of VCS Inc., Co-chair of the Rockland Immigration Coalition and a founding member of the Anti-Racist Alliance. VCS Inc. is an alternative agency providing counseling and social justice programs to the community. It is located in Rockland County, NY