This is a story about how my anti-racism practice shows up in my work world.
A couple of years ago, upon the publication of my book – Witnessing Whiteness – a fellow faculty member (turned administrator) mentioned feeling that convening a book club of faculty/staff at the College to read my book would be a good idea. Fabulous! I thought. I wanted to be able to share my work with my colleagues, but was really worried about being seen as some type of self-perceived know-it-all about race.
This colleagues put out an invitation to the College and two book groups emerged, one on each of our campuses. I attended each session on both campus, and other members facilitated the conversations. After a year, about 12 individuals remained invested in the discussion (some inspired by the book’s contents), and discussion revolved around how to keep it going.
Throughout, I tried to hold my tongue and allow the process to develop organically (again, anxious about being too much in control).
What emerged was a plan for two types of dialogue spaces to occur the following academic year. One would be for open, unstructured conversation. The other would be in a more “workshop” format”. All faculty/staff would be invited, and we’d develop the conversation and structure as people convened.
In order to support the process, I volunteered to show up to the first dialogue with a workshop structure and provide facilitation. It was mostly centered around community building and sharing interests, concerns, and goals. In no way was I invested in being the primary facilitator over the long run.
Much to my surprise, 23 individuals responded to that first invitation (including the College President) to spend two hours on a Friday evening discussion race and culture. I acted as facilitator. Things went well…very well. I was asked to continue to provide leadership and continue providing facilitative support.
Deep down I knew that there was an emerging problem. Invitations and facilitation for these dialogues were being done exclusively by three white women (myself, the originally inspired administrator, and one other invested, senior colleague). I knew the basic message conveyed was not a good one. And I also knew that my work life felt overwhelming.
I call the building in which I work a vortex. Once I enter each day I am completely swept up in the impressive array of logistics and conversations that I am responsible to guide and resolve. Over the course of the year I knew the value and import of reaching out to the people of color colleagues on campus in order to seek collaboration. I knew that multi-racial collaboration was the only to allow the dialogues to become safe spaces for the diversity of our staff/faculty to show up.
Because I didn’t get out of the vortex, last year’s dialogues were primarily attended by white faculty. Honestly, really honestly, this worked for me. I understand white caucusing. I think the work with white faculty is extremely important, and I was actually a bit happy to start there…realizing that pain awaited a person of color attending and listening to well-intentioned, but troubling, remarks about race/culture from some of my white colleagues.
But I also knew that something needed to change.
This change finally occurred this summer. During my break, I finally made it over to the office of a colleague of color who I admire and respect and who I’ve had conversations with in previous years about race. I knew he understands issues of power, privilege, and diversity really well. He’s also a veteran staff person on campus.
I told him my story, unsure of what I was asking, if anything. But, I knew I needed to explain my efforts and why they looked like they did.
The feedback offered was a bit different than I’d imagined — and that’s precisely why it was important to take the step to ask for it.
It’s resulted in a new collaboration. I don’t know what levels of commitment we have to one another. But, he and I will be co-facilitating a first dialogue after our College’s convocation in a couple of weeks. We’ve planned together, and it felt really good.
So, what’s my point in telling this story?
I’m not perfect, and neither has been the enactment of my anti-racist practice on campus. I know that. But, I also know that taking one step at a time, continuing to reflect, and continuing to try and rectify and challenge areas where I’m not as good I want to be is a powerful thing…and essential for those of us who need to stay motivated to keep stretching ourselves.
I’m hopeful about this upcoming academic year…and I’m also nervous…for two reasons.
1) I’m choosing to invest more in my home community. That has already led to some challenging conversations. More are surely on their way.
2) This means I must set aside moments to escape the vortex of my job in order to have the one-on-one conversations necessary to build trust with other colleagues and repair any damage that might have been done during last year’s white led approach.
Wish me well! I’ll need all the positive thoughts coming my way that I can get.