Five Reminders and Reflections from the White Privilege Conference

Abbi Heimach has a B.A. from the College of Wooster in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Religious Studies. After a year teaching elementary special education, she worked in young adult related ministry at the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Currently, Abbi is working on her Masters of Divinity at McCormick Theological Seminary. She is an intern for Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, a member of the National Committee of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, and is pursuing ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In her free time, you can find her dancing and cooking vegan food.
Abbi Heimach has a B.A. from the College of Wooster in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Religious Studies. After a year teaching elementary special education, she worked in young adult related ministry at the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Currently, Abbi is working on her Masters of Divinity at McCormick Theological Seminary. She is an intern for Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, a member of the National Committee of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, and is pursuing ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In her free time, you can find her dancing and cooking vegan food.

At the end of March, I traveled to Madison, Wisconsin for the White Privilege Conference (WPC). If you’ve never been to WPC before or never heard of it, WPC is an annual conference that promotes racial equity and justice through educational plenaries and workshops, caucusing, and networking. As a first time attendee, it was refreshing to be surrounded by activists, scholars and students learning together for a common cause. I left the experience filled with hope and encouragement from the connections I made and tools I learned, but I also encountered frustrations and challenges. To continue on the journey for racial justice, here are some “reminders and reflections” that I learned from my experiences at WPC—all impacted by my own personal journey to better understand my white privilege and the ways white supremacy works to perpetuate our deeply racist world.

1) Despite our best intentions, white supremacy can still be present. My group arrived a little late, and as we settled in collecting our registration materials, we sat down to figure out which workshops we wanted to attend. There were so many interesting ones! By the time we decided where we wanted to go and walked to the assigned rooms, we discovered that most of the workshops were already filled. WPC had its most attendees yet, which is great, but what resulted was a competition to get to your top workshop choice. People were placing their belongings in rooms and leaving to save spots; people rushed from workshop to workshop with an unnecessary sense of urgency so they could win a limited seat. Even in a workshop, white participants continued to dominate the speaking space. Competition seemed to develop over who could be the most inclusive, or claim to know the most about how oppression works. I witnessed individuals responding harmfully to people who spoke up in the sessions. Although it is inevitable that each of us will make mistakes or find ourselves ignorant to someone’s experiences of oppression, responding with hate will not heal relationships and work for equity. Experiencing discomfort is an important way to learn, but humiliating someone can cause a scar that can prevent that person from learning and improving upon a mistake. Competition prevents us from collaborating. Rushing excessively inhibits our ability to notice who is excluded, and an unhealthy environment as such can contribute to perfectionism, which is unrealistic and over-burdening.

2) Equality is different from Equity. One of the workshops I attended had helpful teaching techniques for learning about individuals’ diverse contexts and identifying power roles. Throughout the 90-minute session, they had us frequently switching groups, sharing stories, finishing sentence prompts, and listening intentionally while not responding to our fellow group members (so as to allow a completely equal sharing atmosphere) all in a strictly calculated timeframe. In any group of people there are those who have a lot to say, and those who take their time to speak or aren’t as comfortable speaking. By setting a timer for an individual’s sharing time, each person can have an equal amount of time to share—stopping those who share too much and encouraging those who don’t speak much to share more. Although good in theory, there are a number of problematic consequences. This process failed to recognize how a community of people contribute to building an environment that helps people feel comfortable enough to share their stories. Also, people process information at different paces. Not everyone can quickly share a story or move on abruptly after someone exposed the depth of her soul. In fact, it can be harmful to force people to speak. What is equal is not always equitable. Because we all work differently and have a variety of experiences, we should prioritize fairness over equality in pursuing racial justice.

3). Brave space instead of safe space. I was in a workshop led by white antiracist activist Shelly Tochluk where a woman of color brought up that she cringes at the thought of creating “safe space”. This was eye-opening for me because I thought this is what we all should be striving for within group settings, educational environments, worship spaces, etc. She explained that “safe” means something different for everyone and often white people are the ones naming whether or not a space is safe. Shelly introduced that Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens write about working towards “brave space.” Whenever we are in environments that require us to build community, share stories, or become vulnerable, it requires courage and bravery. I find this to be an extremely helpful concept and reminder.

4). The importance of race-based caucusing. Since interning with Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, I’ve learned about the importance of caucusing. To caucus is to spend regular time from organizing work to reflect upon internalized racial inferiority and internalized racial superiority in separate groups for people of color and white people. These groups are a way of checking ourselves, reflecting and improving, forgiving and inviting. Later, coming together whole group with people of color and white people and sharing that we did our work is a way of holding each other accountable and moving forward. WPC reminded me how vital caucusing is to the movement. My white caucus exhibited the beautiful and painful journey justice is, how racism scars everyone, and how as white people who benefit from oppression, we have a responsibility to turn the trajectory, to break the pattern, to step up and work towards overturning the white supremacist foundations of our society.

5). And lastly, WPC reminded me that it’s not about me, but us. Caucusing is not just about the internal work that we do, but especially for the group work we need. As a white person I have to remember that even though realizing the ways I contribute to oppression is painful as an individual, working towards racial equity and justice requires me to set aside my personal desire for comfort and perfectionism (manifestations of white supremacy) and join in the collective movement. We all will make mistakes and that is part of the journey—of discerning difficult solutions, of loving each other despite our brokenness, of knowing that the world must not stay the way it is.

Engaging Our Humanity

Lillie Wolff is one of two Co-Executive Directors of ERAC/Ce (Eliminating Racism and Claiming/Celebrating Equality) and a Core Organizer/Trainer for Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training. Lillie is bilingual in English and Spanish and prior to working with ERAC/Ce and Crossroads spent seven years organizing around farmworker and immigrant rights and inclusion. Lillie is passionate about the intersections of social justice, ecological justice, and art, and has served on the Board of Directors of the Institute for Sustainable Living, Art, and Natural Design (ISLAND) since 2009. She earned a BA in Human Development and Social Relations from Kalamazoo College in 2004. Lillie enjoys dancing, biking, gardening, spending time in nature, and preparing and eating communal meals with her wonderful anti-oppressive community.
Lillie Wolff is one of two Co-Executive Directors of ERAC/Ce (Eliminating Racism and Claiming/Celebrating Equality) and a Core Organizer/Trainer for Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training. Lillie is bilingual in English and Spanish and prior to working with ERAC/Ce and Crossroads spent seven years organizing around farmworker and immigrant rights and inclusion. Lillie is passionate about the intersections of social justice, ecological justice, and art, and has served on the Board of Directors of the Institute for Sustainable Living, Art, and Natural Design (ISLAND) since 2009. She earned a BA in Human Development and Social Relations from Kalamazoo College in 2004. Lillie enjoys dancing, biking, gardening, spending time in nature, and preparing and eating communal meals with her wonderful anti-oppressive community.

As a white antiracist organizer and trainer, I am on a journey toward understanding my relationship with privilege and oppression. Privilege and oppression are two sides of the same coin. In Privilege, Power, and Difference, Allan Johnson explains that the “isms” – sexism, heterosexism, ableism, racism – affect more than women, LGBTQI people, people with disabilities, and people of color.  They affect everyone. It is impossible to live in a world that generates so much injustice and suffering without being inextricably linked to it. Everyone has a race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability status. We all figure in the differences that privilege and oppression are about.

Johnson suggests that the greatest barrier to change is that dominant groups don’t see the trouble of our society as their trouble, and as a result, don’t feel obligated to do something about it. This may be because we don’t even know the trouble exists, we don’t have to see it as our trouble, because we see it as a personal rather than systemic problem, because we’re reluctant to give up privilege, or afraid of what will happen if we acknowledge the reality of privilege and oppression.

Systems of privilege make privilege invisible and those who are part of the dominant white culture in the U.S. are taught to deny and minimize oppression. White people are taught to be “colorblind,” to believe that since Barak Obama is president we must be “post-racial.” Those of us who are white are socialized to blame the victim, call it something else, assume everyone prefers things the way they are. We mistake intentions with consequences, attribute oppression to others, and balance the oppression of others with our own (note: the goal is not to play the Oppression Olympics).  While it may feel good in an anesthetic kind of way to believe that we are “post-racial,” the truth is that we have all inherited a material reality based on 500 years of shared history.

What if we all started thinking about the trouble of systemic racism as everyone’s responsibility and nobody’s fault? What if we told each other and ourselves that it’s not about blame and that feeling guilty about racism is actually not helpful. It’s easy to fall into the trap of guilt, as many of us have been taught to see the world through an individualistic lens that reduces everything to individual good or bad intentions. We all want to be good people. A powerful and liberating alternative lies, however, in the fact that we’re all always participating in something larger than ourselves — social systems.

To understand our relationship to privilege and oppression, we have to look at what we’re participating in and how we participate in it. For example, if a white male professor takes the students in his class who look like him more seriously, he isn’t necessarily being intentionally sexist or racist, but may be participating in and perpetuating patterns of white and male privilege. He doesn’t have to be a bad person to participate in an education system that produces oppressive outcomes – it’s simply how the system is set up to function.

The only way to change oppressive outcomes is to change our systems and institutions. If we have a vision of what we want the world to be, we have to create paths that lead in that direction. We have to do more than just hope, dream and pray – certainly more than simply take the path of least resistance. We must become aware of our biases, which we all have, and we must understand that racism is about more than just prejudice. It’s about power and privilege – it’s about who gets access to and who has control of the systems and institutions that distribute the resources necessary for life.

If racism is not about individual actions or beliefs, and is about systems and structures, the solution must be systemic and structured. If privilege is rooted in systems like families, schools, places of worship and employment, change isn’t simply a matter of changing people. The solution also has to include entire systems whose paths of least resistance shape how we all feel, think, and behave as individuals, and how we see one another and ourselves.

Thankfully, there is a growing national movement in which people of color and white people are gaining an analysis, a language system, organizing tools, and a more complete understanding of history – the history of oppression and the corresponding acts of resistance.  Since racism isn’t just a trouble of the past, resistance, like that of the Underground Railroad, requires broad base participation here and now. We must resist the path of least resistance. We must find our way to the path of greatest resistance — the path of dismantling racism. It’s a big task, a generational one, which can feel overwhelming. But things can change, they have and will continue to change, and none of us are alone. There is room for everyone in this movement.

Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, along with its regional organizing partners like ERAC/Ce (Eliminating Racism and Claiming/Celebrating Equality) in Southwest Michigan, are facilitating trainings and building transformation teams to help people of color, white people, and entire institutions claim an anti-racist identity.  A growing number of people around the country are learning how to honestly and accurately name our troubles. We are learning new ways of being in relationship with each other and ourselves, which are grounded in anti-oppressive, life-giving values. We are committing to a life-long journey of reclaiming and engaging our full humanity in ways we never dreamed.

Antiracism and the Reparation of Community

Neurobiologists – and others – are suggesting that the human inclination to form relationships is an expression of our neuro-architecture. We have a deep cellular bias for forming relationships. Along with this bias is a capacity for empathy. We are human in the context of complex relationships. This is what makes us human. This deep inclination is the basis of human community. We are a communal species.  One helpful resource in exploring this topic further is a short RSA produced video called Empathic Civilization based on the work of and narrated by Jeremy RifkinAnother is Social Intelligence: the New Science of Human Relationships by Daniel Goleman.

The multigenerational impact of systemic racism in our nation’s history compromises this fundamental bias. Racism distorts our attempts to shape communities. It produces communities that are, in the final analysis, unsustainable. White supremacy (the social architecture that generations of racialization have produced) has not and cannot position us for survival in a time of dramatic climatic, ecological and social transition. It may well be the case that if our species is to make it, we need to be about the work of repairing the fabric of community. We need to shape human communities that are sustainable. We need communal fabric that can serve as our bridge into a dramatically different future. This is the work of antiracism. It is the strategic interventions in the processes of racialization that repair and restore community – whether geographically or institutionally defined.

Many organizers that focus on shaping sustainable communities suggest that the word resilient is a helpful way of thinking about the meaning of sustainable. When we explore the practical meaning of community resilience there are three features that especially stand out for me (there are many features and dimensions of sustainability). Sustainable, resilient communities are diverse, adaptive and regenerative.

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DIVERSE. When the FHA crafted a model restrictive covenant in 1938, it was presumed that racially homogenous communities were more stable and peaceful. This model was one of the tools that guided the shaping of the American suburbs. Such apartheid has always been one of the features of communities in the United States. The architecture of white supremacy requires living spaces divided by walls and barriers: railroad tracks, thoroughfares, canals, rivers and streams, etc. Entire sections are effectively reserved for particular racial, ethnic and income groups. Consequently, racial homogeneity has been our default in neighborhood and community development. This social default setting impedes the development of genuine multicultural/multiracial communities. Our history is a stumbling block! When we pay attention to natural ecosystems it becomes clear that diversity is a fundamental feature – and, is key to eco-resilience. Healthy, self-sustaining ecosystems are diverse. In similar fashion, a healthy, resilient community is diverse in every way we can imagine: demographically, economically, socially – even culturally.  Human communities are not distinct and apart from natural ecosystems. We are part of them. The insights of bio-mimicry suggest that we need to pay attention to the ways communities are constituted in the ecosystems around us.

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ADAPTIVE. Ecosystems that adapt to changes in their environment survive and thrive. Those that do not wither and die and are replaced by others. Similarly, human communities that are adaptive have moved beyond imposed insularity and change in response to their social and environmental context.  New immigrant groups are woven into the fabric of community. Economic distress in the larger society is met with new patterns of sharing and connecting.  Local viability and livability is directly related to a community’s adaptive capabilities. The pillar institutions of a community are key to its adaptive capacities. This includes churches, synagogues, mosques, community organizations, fraternal organizations, sororities, small businesses, etc. They are the connectors that anchor communities to the larger society. They can also gather information and interpret for the community the changes on the horizon that will impact community lifeways. Eventually, adaptive communities have to transcend the historic boundaries of community life and create new rules. White supremacy in all its social and spiritual expressions resists such change. It simply cannot countenance fundamental change.

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REGENERATIVE. Sustainable, resilient communities have inculcated deep regenerative capacities. They are marked by cycles of renewal. They recycle the necessities of life. Writing in the Permaculture Activist, Mark Morey points out that we live in a “broken culture;” “the culture of empire and the culture of the machine can never be regenerative.” “Healthy culture can trump the messages and patterns of modern life.” He envisions local communities as “a place of reclaimed and renewed culture.” [1] “Cultural repair has many aspects, but all involve remembering, restoring and reinventing the invisible fabric …permaculture derives its power from understanding the regenerative capacities and logic of nature.” [2] Like a plant that returns nitrogen to the soil – thus enriching it even as it takes its nourishment from the soil – regenerative communities create patterns of renewal that vitalize individuals, families, local institutions and the surrounding ecosystems. This assumes there can be a deep regenerative logic in human communities and their relation to the living systems around them.  White supremacy subverts this deep logic. These three features are sustained in a community skein of mutual accountability relationships. The synergy among them fosters a dynamic, ever changing equilibrium. The discussion of accountability must wait for another occasion. [1] Mentoring for the Earth, Mark Morey from the Permaculture Activist; reprinted in the Utne Reader, March-April, 2014. [2] Ibid

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About the R. James Addington

R. James Addington is a training and organizational development consultant with Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training. Previously, he was the co-director of the Minnesota Collaborative Anti-Racism Initiative (MCARI) – a long-time regional partner of Crossroads. He has 30 years experience in community development, leadership training, organizational development and strategic planning. He also serves as a service-learning consultant with the Institute of Cultural Affairs-USA. James spent ten years in a variety of international local and regional development projects including in Jamaica, Venezuela, India, the Philippines and Nigeria; he directed the Lutheran Coalition for Public Policy in Minnesota (an advocacy and public policy education arm of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) for nine years; and served as adjunct faculty at Luther Seminary.

What does Antiracism have to do with Racial Equity?

Joy Bailey has been the Director of Organizing and Training for Crossroads since 2011 and has been a Core/Organizer Trainer since 2008. She has her Bachelor’s degree in Spanish Education and her Master’s in Socio-cultural Studies in Education, both from Western Michigan University (WMU). Formerly, Joy taught high school Spanish for six years in Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS) and also taught courses on race and racism in education at WMU. Joy has been doing local antiracism organizing in Kalamazoo Public Schools since 2001. Although originally from North Dakota, Joy currently lives with her spouse in Kalamazoo, MI.

Joy Bailey has been the Director of Organizing and Training for Crossroads since 2011 and has been a Core/Organizer Trainer since 2008. Formerly, Joy taught high school Spanish for six years in Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS) and also taught courses on race and racism in education at WMU. Joy has been doing local antiracism organizing in Kalamazoo Public Schools since 2001.

I was recently asked what I thought the difference was between antiracism and racial equity.  Frankly, I often use these terms interchangeably and don’t see much difference.  If I had to parse them out, I would say racial equity is about creating policies, practices, and structures that deliver equitable, not necessarily equal, treatment to all. It means actualizing shared power and decision-making that is just and fair. The Center for Assessment and Policy Development defines racial equity this way:

Racial equity is the condition that would be achieved if one’s racial identity no longer predicted, in a statistical sense, how one fares. When we use the term, we are thinking about racial equity as one part of racial justice, and thus we also include work to address root causes of inequities not just their manifestation. This includes elimination of policies, practices, attitudes and cultural messages that reinforce differential outcomes by race or fail to eliminate them.[1]

I would say that racial equity is a component of antiracism.  The term antiracism encompasses a systemic analysis of racism that includes historical, sociological, economic and political frameworks.  It includes a response to racism that involves action and organizing strategically.  For us at Crossroads, it means applying a systemic analysis of racism to our institutions and then organizing collectively to transform them into more racially equitable and multicultural institutions.  We understand that for a single institution to be transformed, we will have to transform all other institutions and systems with which it is interconnected as well.  The interconnected web of institutions and systems producing racist outcomes is often called structural or systemic racism, which antiracism seeks to eliminate.  As defined by National Antiracism Council International Perspectives: Women and Global Solidarity, “Anti-racism is the active process of identifying and eliminating racism by changing systems, organizational structures, policies and practices and attitudes, so that power is redistributed and shared equitably.”[2]

Now, some people Crossroads organizers encounter will ask why we use the term antiracism when, “it is so negative.” We might hear, “It turns people off and sounds like you are blaming individuals, ” or, “Why not say what you are for rather than what you are against?” While it is true that we must say what we stand for, providing hope and vision, and not simply point out what is wrong and unjust in the world we do not think that the term antiracism is negative nor individualistic.

If we think about other uses of the prefix anti-, e.g. anti freeze; antibiotic; antiviral; antiparasitic; antifungal; antimalarial; antipsychotic; antidepressant; antiviolence; etc., we see that this prefix is especially common in the practice of medicine and that it points to an intervention aimed at curing or preventing systemic conditions.  This is a clue regarding the way Crossroads uses the term antiracism. It suggests activity that is curative and preventive in relation to the systemic damage wrought by racism.

Crossroads organizer James Addington likes to say, antiracism as an intervention includes the reparation of community. The term antiracism is especially relevant in reference to collective, collaborative action. While individuals can certainly be antiracist, their antiracism is especially relevant in common cause with others.  Antiracism in this sense is about the reparation of the fabric of community and the role that institutions can play in that process. It is about calling institutions into an accountable relationship with communities. It is about restoring and shaping sustainable community life; life that is diverse, resilient and regenerative. It is about healthy, life giving community.

Antiracism Intervention: Crossroads Contribution to the Racial Justice Movement

Joy Bailey has been the Director of Organizing and Training for Crossroads since 2011 and has been a Core/Organizer Trainer since 2008. She has her Bachelor’s degree in Spanish Education and her Master’s in Socio-cultural Studies in Education, both from Western Michigan University (WMU). Formerly, Joy taught high school Spanish for six years in Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS) and also taught courses on race and racism in education at WMU. Joy has been doing local antiracism organizing in Kalamazoo Public Schools since 2001. Although originally from North Dakota, Joy currently lives with her spouse in Kalamazoo, MI.

Joy Bailey has been the Director of Organizing and Training for Crossroads since 2011 and has been a Core/Organizer Trainer since 2008.  Formerly, Joy taught high school Spanish for six years in Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS) and also taught courses on race and racism in education at WMU. Joy has been doing local antiracism organizing in Kalamazoo Public Schools since 2001.

“A social movement that only moves people is merely a revolt. A movement that changes both people and institutions is a revolution.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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As we enter the month of February, Black History Month, which follows on the heels of MLK DAY, I have been reflecting on the accomplishments of Dr. King and others in the Civil Rights Movement.  This year we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, yet I am mindful of how far we still have to go towards racial justice. Racism continues to permeate every facet of our society.  It impacts individual People of Color struggling against racial micro-aggressions and individual White people who continue to reap the benefits of White privilege and White supremacy.  Racism also manifests in our society’s culture at large, imposing dominant White cultural ways of being on everyone and distorting, discrediting and destroying People of Color cultures while simultaneously appropriating them.  Finally, racism continues to get lived out in the policies, practices and structures of our institutions as evidenced by outcomes like the Achievement Gap in education (more aptly called the Opportunity Gap) and health disparities.

Crossroads organizer and trainer James Addington likens the ever-present and simultaneous manifestations of individual, cultural and institutional racism to an electromagnetic force field that is very difficult to penetrate.  He shares a story of a friend of his who found herself in a meeting where she was the only Person of Color and the only woman.  She, for the life of her, could not make herself heard.  No matter how hard she tried to bring her voice to the table, she was continually ignored and dismissed, or someone else got credit for her ideas.  She described the experience as similar to being surrounded by a force field from which she couldn’t break free.

The metaphor of racism as an electromagnetic force field is powerful because once the problem is identified then we can begin working toward a solution. Intervention Chart  Racism is a structural problem that requires a structural solution.  There needs to be an injection or intervention into the force field of racism that will weaken its power over us; that will heal us and restore community.  Since there are at least three ways racism manifests itself, individually, culturally and institutionally, there are at least three ways to apply an intervention.

Some racial justice activists and organizations utilize individual interventions.  Generative Somatics is an organization that makes a distinction between oppression and suffering, that the former is externally created and the latter is internal.  They argue that many organizers for social justice tend to focus on systemic oppression and neglect self-care. They argue that committing to practices that acknowledge and interrupt “conditioned tendencies” developed in response to stress and trauma, can open us up to more healthy and appropriate ways to respond to individual suffering and more effectively struggle to end racial and other oppressions.

Other organizations challenge cultural racism in our society.  For example, Race Forward does a tremendous job of shifting worldviews and language around race and racism in the media.  Their Drop The I-Word campaign is just one example of the many ways Race Forward strives to generate a cultural shift in the way our society thinks and talks about race and racism. Oyate is a Native organization that sells books and provides trainings and reviews in order to ensure that Native lives and histories are portrayed with honesty and integrity. 18 Million Rising is another organization that challenges cultural racism by exposing and debunking cultural stereotypes through focused campaigns like #NotYourAsianSidekick.

Crossroads applies our intervention into the force field of racism at the institutional level.  We don’t think that an institutional approach is the only or even the best way to eliminate racism, but it is a necessary component to racial justice.  It is what we, as Crossroads, offer to the movement.  Of course we also address individual and cultural racism, but we do so in the context of institutions and systemic racism. Part of the reason we choose to focus on an institutional intervention is because institutions are where individuals and culture come together.  Institutions are made up of people who make decisions and enforce policies and procedures and our society’s cultural values and practices get lived out in our institutions.  Our institutions also create, manage and distribute the resources necessary for life.  As Robette Dias, Crossroads’ Executive Director, likes to put it, we have replaced the life sustaining nature of the land with institutions.  Today, people in the U.S. gain access to the stuff of life through accessing institutions.  The problem is that our institutions don’t create, manage and distribute resources equitably to all people and all living beings.

The injection Crossroads offers to diffuse the force field of racism is an antiracism intervention.  Our method of intervening and disrupting uses a variety of organizing strategies, workshops and organizational development tools to transform institutions into antiracist multicultural institutions that are life giving for all.  To learn more about Crossroads’ antiracism intervention in institutions go to www.crossroadsantiracism.org or call us at 708-503-0804.

The Power of Our Shared Stories

Crossroads community gathers each summer at an Advanced Organizers Training to exchange ideas, to learn about new developments in Crossroads’ power analysis and methodology, and to build relationships. In 2013, Crossroads asked some members of its community to prepare 5-10 minute talks in the style of Ignite Talks. Crossroads core organizer and trainer, the Rev. Michael Russell shared this powerful talk about the power of the shared stories of People of Color in the United States. Watch this video and be inspired.

The Rev. Michael Russell is the pastor of the Jubilee Faith Community of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) in Country Club Hills, IL. Prior to that he did community organizing with Neighborhood Housing Services, Inc in Chicago’s West Englewood community. Michael has a Masters of Divinity from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and has completed post graduate studies at the Keller Graduate School of Business Management in Chicago IL. Michael is also an antiracism trainer and organizer with Crossroads. He co-authored “Lazarus at the Gate: Writings and Reflections on Poverty and Wealth,” a resource of the ELCA Poverty Ministries Networking program unit for Church in Society. He currently is vice president of SOUL, a grassroots coalition of faith based organizations focused on economic justice, leadership training and political responsibility in Chicago’s Southland. Most importantly though, he is a child of God, partner of Debra, father to Justin, Chandra, and Evan, and grandfather to Gabriel. They are inspiration for his antiracism work.

Let Us Not Stand Silent

Jessica Vazquez Torres, Core Organizer Trainer

A native of Puerto Rico, Jessica Vazquez Torres identifies as a “1.5 generation Queer ESL Latina of Puerto Rican descent.” She works as a consultant and core/organizer trainer for Crossroads. Jessica holds a BA in Criminal Justice and Masters degrees in Theological Studies and Divinity. She lives in GA with her spouse and two Shih-Tzu’s.

Bearing the weight of truth that challenges human assumptions is something Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did well.  If the photos and grainy videos show the whole story, he was a man who could stand in the face of great and difficult problems with aplomb, and speak with passionate certainty about grim reality and hope.

In the United States we have done Dr. King a great disservice by imprisoning him to one speech, a marvelous and uplifting speech about a dream, but nonetheless one that obfuscates his evolution as a nonviolent resister and thinker.

Exactly one year before his assassination, April 4, 1967, from the pulpit of Riverside Church in New York, Dr. King spoke at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam calling for an end to the war and articulating the implications of failing to take such a bold step. He titled his remarks, A Time to Break Silence.”

Dr. King’s journey to this powerful speech was a difficult one.  The movement he was leading appeared to be unraveling. There was tension and dissent among the ranks over whether or not the struggle for African-American civil and economic rights should be connected to the struggle to end U.S. military operations in Vietnam.

Close allies like Whitney Young were concerned that to take on Vietnam was to jeopardize all the work they had done on behalf of African-Americans.  Younger movement leaders like Stokely Carmichael were also challenging the core principles of the civil rights movement as articulated by King.  In their frustration at the slow pace of change, significant members of the younger generation of civil right organizers and revolutionaries were abandoning the idea that non-violence could bring change.  While chanting “Black Power,” Carmichael and other emerging civil rights leaders were calling for armed confrontation of racist Whites, the use of violence when necessary, and Black separatism.

Those concerned with preserving the focus of the civil rights movement of issues of race primarily and class secondarily, pleaded with Dr. King to remain silent.  Those concerned with the disproportionate drafting and loss of African-American men in the war and the U.S. efforts to disrupt the movement for self-determination in Vietnam pleaded with Dr. King to speak.

In between these two pulls Dr. King struggled until the harrowing images from Vietnam, the piled bodies of U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese women and children, and the obvious links between war, poverty, and racism could not be avoided anymore. Early in his speech at Riverside Church King offers this confession, “Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart.”[1] He then follows this acknowledgment with a powerful and urgent plea for the soul of his nation.

We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.  Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message — of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”[2]

No longer able to ignore the links between war, poverty and racism nor the movement of the Spirit of the God in whom he believed, King begins to push the civil rights movement in a radically different direction.  Resting in his conviction that the Creator desired a reordering of society, King challenged his nation and those gathered at Riverside Church to find the moral courage to make a choice: These are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.”[3]

Dr. King knew that when he linked the struggle for civil rights with the struggles against poverty and war, he would bring discomfort into his life.  He knew that when he began to name the unholy trinity of U.S. materialism, militarism, and systemic racism people would resist.  But he also knew there was no alternative.  He knew that for freedom to ring in every mountain, valley, and corner of his beloved nation, he had to link these social sins.  And so must we.

The dream of Dr. King we love to cite will remain an elusive fantasy until we too link systemic racism with corporate greed, militarism, and the rampant materialism of our times.  In the last month alone our congress has acted not to extend unemployment benefits for millions of Americans while also ensuring corporations can continue to profit as the poor and vulnerable struggle.  Homeless shelters are filled with women, children, and men.  Those seeking jobs have stopped searching, resigning themselves to permanent unemployed status which means they are of no account.  Our public school systems are failing to educate the poorest and criminalizing those who fail to conform to our common core curriculums.  Our prisons are filled to the brim with non-violent offenders who are not being rehabilitated while the companies that own the prisons revive de-facto forms of Jim Crow.   And all along the stock market thrives.

Bringing about, working toward, honoring the dream of Dr. King demands that we see the connections linking systemic forms of oppression.  It demands that we speak out when it is unpopular; that we take stands not just on matters of racial discrimination but against xenophobic and homophobic legislation as well as the military and prison industrial complexes that destroy life.

Do we have it in us to speak? Do we have it in us to protest? Do we have it in us to raise our collective voice to speak out against systemic forms of oppressions like racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism, just to name a few, especially when part of speaking out is naming our complicity in this social ills and oppressions?

Dr. King said toward the beginning of this powerful speech, “the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony[4] because “the human spirit [moves with] great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty.”[5]

Let us not be mesmerized by the conundrums we face.  At stake is the soul of this nation. Let us not stand silent.

[1] Martin Luther King and James Melvin Washington, I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches That Changed the World ([San Francisco]: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), page 136.

[2] Ibid, page 151.

[3] Ibid, page 153.

[4] Ibid, page 136.

[5] Ibid, page 136.