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Reflections on Power: In the Role of a Facilitator & the Body of a White Woman

john-dewey-reflection-quote-16vbfv9I recently facilitated a session where someone shared in the closing reflections that they felt dehumanized. For anyone to feel dehumanized by my actions is, for me, a fail. When I mess up, it’s imperative for me to own it, learn from the experience, act differently in the future, and make amends as best as I am able. My hope is that this public reflection will help me integrate what I am learning and potentially be valuable for people reading this (as I know I am one of many who carries the identities of a facilitator and a white woman). I am committed to facilitating with integrity and humility. Reflecting in depth on the feedback I receive is an essential part of my commitment. What follows is my perceptions and analysis. I’m sure that there is more to see from the perspective of other people who were present.

Perceptions About Power that I had Walking into this Session

When I am facilitating a group, I always hold power in the room. I guide where a group goes or doesn’t go. I hold the actual or symbolic microphone, making decisions about whose voices are heard or not heard. I take up space. I am the center of attention at times. I have influence over what is or isn’t happening in the room. Sometimes I use my power in ways that are contrary to how a person in the room would like the time to be spent. I take very seriously this facilitator’s position of power and influence and strive to use it to make equitable spaces where people are respected and able learn from each other.

problem-of-whitenessI am a white person and a White Woman. I share these identities with many other people that have historically and still currently hold social power simply because we are white. We act in all kinds of ways, intentionally or unknowingly, that hold us as superior and others as inferior. We have and still do cause trauma and harm towards people of color. Historically (and currently), white folks and White Women had the power of being listened to and believed, our word would be taken as the true word when in relationship with people who did not have as much social power as someone who looks like me. I would be listened to while others weren’t. And many, many folks who looked like me used that power to not only get what we wanted and control other people, but to actually harm other people. When I show up in a room, I am showing up as myself in that moment, and I am also showing up in the image of other people who looked like me and were allowed to be abusive, harmful, and inconsiderate, to name just a few things, towards people who did not look like me.

When I’m facilitating (and in life), sometimes people will be responding to my direct actions. Sometimes people will be responding to my actions that resemble those of people who looked like me in the past.

Another identity that I can embody is that of a White School Teacher, an archetype that has historically been abusive with its power (along with the education system at large). 80% of teachers in public schools in the United States are white and it is well researched that white teachers and the education system that white folks have created have not been fair, kind, honest, or effective in educating students of color (and some might argue all students).

As a white facilitator, particularly when working in a multi-racial setting, I must be hyper aware of my whiteness and all the ways that I am using or releasing my power and even the ways that those who looked like me have used and abused our power in the past.

What I learned in the Experience I Facilitated

  • Knowing all of that above — There was a 15-minute section of time where I forgot that I was white. I was centered on the task of facilitating a process and learning experience. I slipped into the role of a teacher. I used my power as the facilitator to teach the group something that I thought was important for them to learn. I did not realize that when I was the facilitator interrupting participants (an act that felt appropriate for what I was teaching in the moment), I was also a white woman, perhaps a white teacher, interrupting and shutting down people of color — a behavior that is very common for white people to do. In hindsight, I think if I had been holding in my awareness that I was white in that tense moment, I would have used my facilitator power in a way that did not replicate patterns of white folks using our power to oppress and silence people of color. But I forgot that I was white (a privilege and pattern that happens often for us white folks). It was a harsh reminder about how much diligence it takes to consciously disrupt habits of whiteness that are alive in me. I’ve grown up in a world that allows me to not know what it means to be white, but to just exist as “a person.” That ignorance is unacceptable if I am facilitating multi-racial groups and working towards racial justice and healing.
  • As a facilitation team, we were teaching something that the group did not give us consent to teach. This is contrary to how I like to operate, how I believe education is effective, and to my own sense of respect for learners. But I did not realize I was living that until it was too late.
  • I am reflecting on the wounds people carry from up to 25 years of schooling with white teachers that were abusive with their power. When I am facilitating and “teaching” something, how often might I be summoning up past experiences of trauma or mistrust from the white teachers of someone’s childhood?
  • I am also reflecting on — what could it have looked like for someone to interrupt and name the ways my whiteness was showing up and influencing the moment?

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What Happened — The Facilitated Experience

A social justice fellowship hired 3 consultants (a multi-racial team) to guide the Fellows (majority people of color) in a process to co-design the rest of their programming and curriculum with an allocated amount of money to work with. We facilitated:

  • Pre-session: 1-on-1 interviews
  • Session 1: Connecting, understanding the mission, the kind of learning environment that they want to experience and create
  • Session 2: Relationships with money, capitalism and collectively shaping a power analysis of what they want to amplify, interrupt and innovate
  • Session 3: Collective Decision-making process and begin designing

Session 3 is the session I’m reflecting on here. Our goal was to give the Fellows an overview of a collective decision-making process and then facilitate them through the process, highlighting the process in action along the way so that they could take over the facilitation and facilitate themselves as our contract ended after session 3. In session 1 we asked if anyone had experience with a collective decision-making process. No one raised their hand so we proceeded with the assumption that we would be offering them a process that would be new to them, something for them to experience first hand and then they could choose to use or not use it. We chose a consent-based decision-making process as the tool that we would offer.

Some mistakes that I and we made:

  • We did not explicitly get consent from the Fellows to teach them and guide them through the particular consent decision-making process.
  • Before we began practicing and using the process, I was assigned the role of explaining the process. We had created a handout and I explained the elements of the handout. My approach was very didactic teaching. In session 1, the majority of the Fellows indicated that they did not like learning in a lecture type environment. At least one Fellow indicated that they did like more traditional teaching styles sometimes. I was not listening to their request to learn by doing, but was instead taking 45 minutes to teach and explain.
  • I used my power as the facilitator and the assumptions that I had made that they were open to receiving the process and forced them to participate in the process, at times interrupting an organic flow so that I could fit their organic reactions into the process and highlight for them how to follow the steps. While I knew why I was making those choices, they did not and I think it felt like me inserting my power to control the process in the way I wanted it to go, disregarding their wishes and efforts towards shared leadership.
  • When I was using my power as a facilitator to interrupt people while they were talking and connect what they were saying to the process, not only was I forcing participation into something they didn’t consent to, I was also wearing my white skin, in a position of power, and interrupting people of color and exerting my power over people of color.

Some comments made in the closing reflections that particularly stood out to me:

  • Over-explaining is a form of Anti-Blackness
  • To point out process feels dehumanizing
  • Trust us that the work you’ve done is effective and we’ve got this
  • It felt like we were being blocked by the facilitation

I apologized for the mistakes I could see in the closing circle and I will continue to listen for ways that I can make amends for any harm that I caused. And, I think the best way for me to repair from these mistakes is to be diligent in myself about not replicating the same mistakes. I know as a white woman, my whiteness will continue to be revealed to me, and my inability to see how I am part of the problem or perpetuating problems will be illuminated. My prayers are that I keep learning, unlearning and embodying my growth and that I cause as little harm as possible. I know that I am on this journey of racial healing and racial justice for the long haul and I pray that I show up with humility and integrity, contributing in places where my presence is of value and is not a disruption to healing and justice.

P.s. This article was shared with me as a follow-up to this group: Consensus is a means, not an end.

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Staying Engaged in Local Politics

Black_Lives_Matter_And_Occupy_Wall_StreetI’m at fault. For the majority of my 8 years of living in Asheville, I was not involved in government politics. I was absorbed in my own life and work and field of perceptions and not paying attention to the laws and policies being passed, enforced or not enforced locally. I paid my taxes, but paid little attention to how city officials voted or how city staff performed their jobs. I trusted that other people were paying attention while I was paying attention to other things. And here we are.

Now I wake up at 5am imagining how hotels could be transformed into affordable housing and staffed with the healers so prolific in asheville, folks providing services to those living in financial poverty instead of just financial wealth. I think about all these hotels that don’t pay a living wage. I think about the rapidly decreasing numbers of people of color in the city and the rapidly increasing numbers of white folks flooding in. And reading an article like this one, how our city manager and police chief wouldn’t step in to help when their help was requested, I have to reckon with the fact that I, and people like me, are at fault. We who are comfortable enough in our life bubbles rationalize not paying attention. That said, while I will take some of the blame. I won’t stop there. I won’t get stuck in my emotions, feel ashamed of my inaction, overwhelmed by the truth, and thus continue not to act, not pay attention, or not be involved.

I invite you to join me in paying attention and placing our hearts upon these issues in our city, if you aren’t already. We could really be a remarkable, model city for innovative solutions to some of the toughest challenges cities across the country are facing. Or we can be a beer, tourist city for white folks while increasing the numbers of children living in poverty and families living on the streets and move from the #2 most gentrified city into first place. The choice is made in each of our actions and inactions. My vote is for innovative, radical change that is rooted in moral actions that further the wellbeing of all humans, that looks at the nuances of our history and makes decisions about the future that take into consideration that history… and much more to this vision of what could be, but this post is long enough.

Article that inspired some of this sharing and reflection: Mt. Zion says hotel encroaching on church property

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May we place our hearts with you…

Awake in the darkness of the night… I’m feeling… my heart traveling the terrain of trauma and love erupting fiercely on this globe, erupting fiercely in the hearts of so many dear souls.

“In Hebrew, “pay attention” is literally translated as, “place your heart”. Placing our hearts requires effort. It requires us to focus beyond the chaotic white noise that fills so much of our lives… Placing our hearts means imagining a world where we see people for who they really are, where we seek to understand the lived experience of those around us, from their perspective. Not with judgement, but with compassion.” ~ Rabbi Will Berkovitz

Under the gaze of this new moon, I feel the grief and warrior-ship of my trans and non-binary community after the loss of Scout Schultz this week and Derricka Banner last week. May we place our hearts with you. May we see you as you are, whole and beautiful. May we love you as you are, courageous truth tellers.

I feel the dark and confusing places that the human mind can travel to, those moments when purpose and peace and connection feel stripped away, when we are struggling with our mental and emotional and physical health. May we place our hearts with those of you who are in this struggle. May love seep into the cracks, overshadowing the pain, and illuminating the light of your own precious soul, igniting the places where you can feel the divine breathing through you, where you can feel lightness and see how incredibly valuable your presence here on this earth is.

I feel the fear and trauma as storm meets earthquake meets fire meets flood. As people?’s lives are uprooted, loved ones lost, homes demolished. May we place our hearts with you. May we continue to turn to one another and extend a helping hand. May we build home together. May we see beyond our differences and awaken to our abilities to help make this world safer for one another… in times of crisis and also in the ordinary moments.

I feel the weight of exhaustion, the personal toll taxed upon those who daily are impacted by forces of oppression — systems that are trying to hold you down, trying to keep you from fully expressing the profound aliveness of who you really are, dampening the opportunities for your genius and gifts to be contributed to this world. May we place our hearts with you and tell the truth about these systems of destruction. May the fierceness of our gaze cause these systems to incinerate. May the power of our imagination and our commitment to one another grow brilliant webs of relations grounded in love, justice and equality. May we all know freedom and liberation. May we cultivate a more loving and compassionate world for our children to grow up in.

Thank you for traveling with me into these feelings and prayers. Thank you for being willing to sit with the dark and the light. Thank you for placing your heart and gifting your attention. Thank you for dreaming into the power of our togetherness… May it be so. <3

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Please Share Your Visions of an Inspiring Future

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I believe that another world is possible.
I believe that humans have the capacity to be more humane.
We are living in a time of profound injustice,
where human lives are constantly violated, and hate and violence is being amplified.
And yet, I still believe in the goodness in people’s hearts.

How do we tap into more of that goodness?
What are the anchors that help us stay centered in these times of chaos and destruction?

We’re all in this together.
Perhaps our radical imagination is an essential tool
to help us keep moving forward towards a more loving, humane and just world.

What do you see when you imagine a future that is inspiring and worth working towards?

Tomorrow I turn 40. To celebrate my birthday, I would love to receive some inspiration. Please leave a comment, send me a private message, a text, an email, or a phone call that offers a glimpse of a vision of the future that inspires you? Or share an image of how you and your community are already living a future now that inspires you? It could be one sentence or a few. It doesn’t have to be wise words, any image will be so appreciated… and perhaps will provide some inspiration for others. We must maintain the ability to dream beyond fear and divisiveness.

adrienne maree brown in her book Emergent Strategy is an inspiration to me in this realm and here are some of her words on this topic (with some slight edits/additions from me):

“How do we cultivate the muscle of radical imagination needed to dream together beyond fear?

In order to create a world that works for more people, for more life, we have to collaborate on the process of dreaming and visioning and implementing that world. We must imagine new worlds, a world beyond enemies, finding ways to coexist, celebrating our polycultural world, transforming the conditions that make injustice possible, growing an economy of relationships, a society of care and respect. The more people who cocreate the future, the more people whose concerns will be addressed from the foundational level in this world.

I suspect that is what many of you are up to, practicing futures together, practicing justice together, living into new stories. It is our right and responsibility to create a new world.”

What visions and images of a compassionate and just world do you see? What does liberation for all of us look like to you? How do we take care of one another? What does it look like when we see, learn from and appreciate one another? What are your images of how we share resources, how we make decisions together, how we care for children, the elderly, and other folks who are vulnerable? How do you see justice being centered? What art do you imagine that gives us visions for new life and new ways of being together? What are you already experiencing that is an expression of a future you’d like to see more of?

Thank you so much for sharing any of your images or visions. Together we are capable of magic.

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I’m Learning About Being a White Woman

I am devoted to creating a more loving and equitable world.
Navigating this commitment can be challenging. The purpose of this post is to share some things I am learning as a White, middle-class, cis-gendered, able-bodied woman saying yes to the challenges, staying committed to running this marathon, and making every effort to keep my heart open and to keep learning.
 
ChallengeStaying involved amidst the challenges means I am willing to face the realities of injustice and violence that folks who have been marginalized face daily and for centuries. It means recognizing when my actions play into those patterns of behavior and being humble when I make mistakes, growing beyond my sheltered life experiences, learning from my mis-steps and from others, showing up to the best of my capacity even when it’s hard and uncomfortable, bearing the emotional weight of keeping my eyes and heart open, staying active, listening deeply for what is being called of me, and remembering that the challenges I feel are nothing compared to what people of color and other marginalized folks face all the time. Lately I’ve been called out and called in for my mistakes, I’ve been mucking through the messiness of equity and justice work in a small community, and I’ve been struggling to get clear about where is ‘my place’ as a White woman committed to racial equity.

As Glenn Singleton said, “We have never lived a day without White supremacy. This will not come easily.” None of us know for sure how to create a more equitable and just world. Some have more relevant experience than others. And, as Marisol Jimenez said in a recent conversation (something to the effect of), at some level, we’re all bumbling around trying to figure this out.

Lessons I’m learning/ things becoming clearer:

  • It will get personal. Don’t stop because it’s uncomfortable. Sometimes I mess up and that sucks. People are mad or upset or frustrated with me. Relationships get strained. Some folks want to address the conflict. Some folks don’t want to address the tension and the issues don’t have closure. Sometimes I see a mistake I made and feel remorse. Sometimes I feel that I am being misunderstood. And yet, to be in the work I must accept that it will get personal, it will be uncomfortable and don’t give up when that happens.
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  • Screen Shot 2017-06-30 at 2.10.41 PMAll levels all the time. My mentor and friend, Tuesday Ryan-Hart, stresses that when working together across differences, we must pay attention to and recognize that “all levels all the time” are operating and influencing one another — the personal, interpersonal, organizational, systemic, and structural. Sometimes people are upset about something that I, Ashley, did. Sometimes they are upset that I did something that “White people often do.” If I am part of a group or in a relationship with someone, I might think we are interacting strictly as people who are friends or colleagues with history to our relationship (personal/interpersonal) and I lose sight that my Whiteness is playing into the interaction (systemic or structural). As a White woman, I can forget that systemic oppression, a long history of discrimination, ignorance, defensiveness and denial can be effecting my interactions with people of color. It’s not just the intentions that I, Ashley, have when I do something. My actions also carry the baggage that comes from a long legacy of systemic ways that White people have been given access and ease, have used and abused our power, have taken advantage of other people, and the list goes on. And I am seeped in the socialization and point of view afforded me by my White skin and so there are things that I do that are hurtful and I am unaware. Sometimes I act in ways that are hurtful or harmful to another person or larger equity goals. Sometimes I take action and another person sees my actions as what White women do. The lines between what is personal and what is systemic can get blurred. And… The systemic is personal. The personal is systemic.
     
    What I have learned through many of these experiences is that when this happens, the primary thing I need to do is sit with the discomfort and keep listening. Allow it to be personal – to be about Ashley. Listen for where there is something for me to learn, where perhaps there is something that I am missing, where I am perpetuating patterns of inequity. And also to recognize in my core (and not necessarily out loud) and discern when it is about “White women” or “White people” and not necessarily just about Ashley.
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  • History matters, whether it’s history from centuries ago or from a few days ago. historypic2
    I can’t run away from the fact that the ways my skinfolk acted in the past deeply influences the way someone perceives my actions in the present. Even if I have a relationship or friendship with someone, that will not necessarily be at the forefront when I take actions that are similar to or actually are ways of oppressing other people. It is extremely unhelpful to my longterm goals if I am defensive or surprised when I am called out because my actions resemble the actions of other people with light skin who made efforts to keep power and maintain dominance. Part of being in this work is that I want to short circuit some of the entrenched historical patterns of power, money, and influence remaining in the hands of people of European descent. This means I must be keenly aware of how history is playing into the present.
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  • My view of social change is becoming clearer. I believe it will take all of us.
    My perspective is that for humans to experience freedom from oppressive systems and biased beliefs that tare apart the heart and soul of humanity, change must involve liberation for those most oppressed. And the process of getting there involves all of us working together. I am devoted to doing all that I can to cultivate a world that works for all, to bring about societies/communities/groups that operate with more equity, justice, love and compassion. When it comes to changing the dominating and destructive systems that society is currently built upon, I believe that those who have been the most marginalized and have found ways to survive and even thrive — those people are the leaders to follow. They have had to navigate outside of the dominant culture and thus their wisdom is tested and proven. Often these are folks of color. My path forward is deeply guided by the wisdom of these people. That said, I also feel that I have gifts to contribute. I am called and trust the calling that there is a place for me in liberation work.
     
    HandsMyceliumFacing my Whiteness and its implications is a mandatory first – and never ending – step in this work. Showing up with humility is a close second step. This is the pre-work required for me to be part of inter-racial, equity and justice work that has any depth and hope for developing trusting working relationships. (What else is necessary pre-work?) Sometimes it will be essential for people to gather in closed groups like all Black folks together and all White folks together or queer folks together and straight folks together. Other times it is most valuable for us to work together across our differences. In order for us to work across differences and not replicate patterns of White Supremacy and Whiteness, there is a lot of experimenting that we must do — trying out different ways of being in meetings, getting work done, making progress, listening to one another, addressing conflict, being in relationship and so much more. We haven’t done this before and it will not be easy. Marisol Jimenez caught my heart when she said “Where does mercy meet accountability meet grace meet growth?” I feel that we are all in this together and it will take all of us to see change. I am drawn to grow and build with other people who are devoted to finding those places where mercy meets accountability, meets grace, meets growth… the places where we might actually experience living as Beloved Community.

So… in this time of learning lots of lessons, I am also seeing some reactive patterns that I’m not proud of but are real. I have to learn how to navigate these urges inside of me. I’m not proud of them because I feel weak and fragile. I look at the constant onslaught of discrimination, racism, threat to personal safety, and injustice that people of color face all the time and I feel the contrast of my daily privilege. It illuminates for me how fragile I can be when things get hard. And, I have to be real that I am a sensitive human being, these are some responses that come up for me, and it is my journey to learn ways to navigate these responses.

  • Sometimes I feel paralyzed by overwhelm. I am flooded by emotional responses and reactions – both personal and systemic. I feel overwhelmed by too much stimulation from staying attuned to all that is happening for individual people and society at large. The weight of the grief and loss is crushing. I feel intimidated by the height of the mountain we are trying to climb, shook at my core by anger and sadness for the unjust and cruel systems that have so much power and control and impact on people’s lives. And I feel discouraged when I make mistakes, folks are angered by my actions, or when I can’t discern where to invest my energy and efforts.
  • Sometimes I want to shut off. Go back to my White, middle-class, the-world-generally-works-for-me bubble. I want to reconnect with my (White) friends who I feel estranged from that seem to be living such happy and joyful lives. I want to find a way to pretend, for even a moment, that the horrors and traumas aren’t happening. I want to pretend to be in a place where I don’t know how bad it really is.
  • Sometimes it just hurts and I have to sit with the discomfort. Embarrassment. Regret. Confusion. I make mistakes. My actions or presence causes pain, mistrust, agitation, or anger for someone else. My intention was ultimately to create a more loving and equitable world, but I act in ways that cause others to feel harmed or triggered. It pains me to know that I am the cause for another person’s suffering or anger. I don’t like getting it “wrong”. Perfectionism. Saving face. Being seen in a positive light. My ego gets hurt. My feelings get hurt. And I can loop in my mind. Worry.

Here’s the thing. All of this is worth it to me, because I believe that another world is possible. 2010 Tee Shirt art id 8287412
I believe that we have the power to see one another as humans and create a world that works for all of us — or at least more of us. And, I know that in order for us to get there, it will take facing these dark realities, allowing our minds and cells to be unsettled and disturbed, and being bold enough to try new things and genuinely connect across our differences. In order for us to actually embody new ways of being with each other, seeing each other, and creating social systems that are rooted in love, equity and fairness — we must see and walk away from the cultural and behavioral patterns of White Supremacy (patriarchy, colonialism, capitalism, etc.). We must be unsettled by the challenges in order to truly shake off these vicious and deceptive ways of acting and perceiving. And then we must be vulnerable and courageous to experiment with new ways of showing up, interacting, and taking action.

As I continue to take steps forward, I am currently wondering — Where do my gifts fit? Some feel there is no place for White folks in racial justice work. I know that I am called to contribute to seeing change in this unjust and inequitable local community and world I am living in. In addition to continuing to work on myself, I wonder –

  • Should I focus on working with other White folks, creating spaces for education, learning, practice?
  • Should I focus on using my light skin advantage to navigate the systems of power and influence, to encourage change in institutions through working with local government, business owners, people in positions of power in our local institutions?
  • Should I focus on trying to create more economical opportunities for people of color? More equitable and fair learning opportunities for youth of color?
  • Should I be more of a worker bee, following the leadership of people of color in organizations and efforts they are leading?
  • Do I keep trying to find and build with others who are also committed to living the vision of Beloved Community, learning and practicing together, discovering what can translate into other environments?
  • Where do my skills fit? Where are my contributions valuable and where are they harmful because they are delivered through my White skin?
  • How can there be more financial support for this work, particularly for people of color, and also for folks like myself who would make this their full time job if it also covered costs of living?
  • What combination of all of the above is sustainable for me and allows me to live in ways that are healthy for my body, heart, nervous system, and quality of life?

Thank you for reading my reflections and thus being on this journey with me. Putting the content of my inner world and the complexity of what I’m learning and experiencing into words has been a task. I am sure my words are imperfect, but they offer a taste. As always I welcome your feedback, insight, curiosities and stories of your own about what you are learning these days. May more and more of us with pale skin find the courage and strength to be with the discomfort, commit ourselves to learning and changing, and find the strength and grace to be even more courageous and effective for the marathon that we are running together.

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Borders

“An ad from Mexican airline Aeroméxico shows how dangerous, and ultimately meaningless, physical and ideological barriers can be.” ~Source

Are you asking yourself critical questions, looking deep into yourself about what the role of borders really is? How they serve the world you want? Are you questioning your thoughts — what stems from your own moral and ethical values and what stems from your fears and “truths” that are told to you by others but not experienced by you personally/directly?

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