-Rachel Siegel PJC Executive Director
“The goal is not to be a better white person. The goal is to build the movements we need to create the world we want to live in.” -Dylan Cooke, Catalyst Project trainer
I was fortunate to be selected for a four-month program called the Anne Braden Anti-Racist Training. The end of last month, I spent my first of three long weekends in Oakland with my cohort of 30 activists from around the county (plus one from Beirut).
The program is named for Anne Braden who was a white anti-racist activist in the South. I hadn’t heard of her before but now she is one of my heroes. In “Finding the Other America,” Braden said, “If we are serious about the challenge of the unfinished business of racism, we much start by realizing that… it is the basic contradiction in our entire history as a nation. The first European settlers who landed on these shores saw themselves as creating a great new experiment in democratic government. Yet they were enslaving a whole population of human beings, Africans, and committing genocide against the indigenous peoples of North America.”
The first weekend (Friday – Monday, eight hours each day) was both heady and emotional. Plus, I had travelled there after 24 hours of intense food poisoning so I was pretty depleted upon arrival. I found myself sobbing one minute, full of rage the next, and then hopeful after that. Some of the material was very academic which I found intimidating at times. There was song, poetry, great food, guest speakers, and field trips mixed in..
I took 11 pages of note and have distilled it into three pages of takeaways along with a reflection on each:
Developmental approach to anti-racsm work
We need to take a developmental approach to anti-racism work when we look at other white people and ourselves. We shrink our movement when we don’t let in people who are beginners. Being a white person doing anti-racism work is awkward and always will be. We need to shift away from perfectionism, self hating, and competitiveness to create sustainable and vibrate movements to get where we want to go.
I am not always good at this. Especially with people I am close to, I have less tolerance than I’d like to have.
My body doesn’t oppress me, society does. There is a difference between impairment (factual) vs disability (society created). Disability Justice is more than Disability Rights. We must include every type of body and mind if we want to truly grow our movement. 50% of people killed by police have disability (including deafness and mental health issues). “Why is not being able to walk a big deal? No one can do everything,” said Dessa, a woman who started and runs Detroit Disabilty Power who is part of my cohort. She uses a wheelchair to get around.
I was so moved by Dessa’s comment. The ability to walk seems like such a big deal to me but I think seeing it as such a big deal minimizes (in my mind) who she can be. This was relevatory.
The right wing has serious think tanks backing them up. Even without formal education, we need to be ready to take on this level of strategy. It is worth it to slog through some dense reading material together. Learn the things those in power don’t want us to learn.
I get so intimidated by hard reads but I am now motivated to try harder.
Comfort vs Safety
The more privileges we have, the more comfortable the world is for us. When the world is generally comfortable, learning, which is inherently uncomfortable (stretch zone), can feel unsafe. As white people, we need to be in deep learning because we don’t see racism automatically.
I really liked how they articulated this. I’m sure I will lift this language to explain this concept that is so important.
What is my Role?
It is not a question of if racism will show up in our work, it’s how it will show up. My whiteness makes it hard to see the dynamics which have been created by systems much longer and bigger than us. Need to take “right-sized” responsibility.
It was so great to hear this! Staying right-sized is a slogan I knew it from my years in 12 step programs and had forgotten. I often get wrapped up in the question of “how much work is enough work?” It is never enough work! And therefore, we have to stop when there is still more to do or we will never stop. I needed this reminder. It is arrogant to think if I keep going it will be all better. This speaks to me of the need for self care, time to recharge, and seeking balance.
We went over a long history of racism and patriarchy in early Europe starting with the crusades that predated the creation of capitalism. The same ideology and tactics were used then against Jews, Roma, Irish, and others in Europe as used later (and now) in the Americas. Capitalism as we know it treats people and earth as disposable and only worth the profit they can bring. In order to continue it trajectory of self perpetuation, abject racism was developed on this continent in the 1600s to separate poor people based on race. There is no capitalism without racial capitalism. (This is a term coined by Cedric Robinson.) Indian Health Services forced sterilization of 50% of all Indigenous women. Resistance has been evident throughout. Without resistance, there would probably be no Indigenous people today.
Strategies of the Ruling Class (capitalism in action)
- Dehumanization Gender control and sexual violence
- Land and natural resource theft/privatization
- Divide and rule
- State violence
- Control and theft of labor (women’s role: birthing and raising new workers)
- Passing on wealth to our children is morally right
- Poor people are using the most government resources
- POC with wealth can escape racism
- Boot straps/rugged individualism/anyone can make it
- Jews control money and are richer and work together internationally to take over the world.
Wealth Distribution in US
Owning class/ruling class 1% of the people 40% of the wealth
Managerial class 19% of the people 49% of the wealth
Middle class 20% of the people 8% of the wealth
Working class 40% of the people 3% of the wealth
Poor/working poor 20% of the people -1% of the wealth
- This system is designed to always have people at the bottom.
- 60% of people in the US have very little.
- Half of the bottom 20% is white.
- Globally 0.1% have 82% of the wealth
- Women receive 10% of global income and run 83% of single parent homes
- The system (oppressive capitalism) is not natural. It can be fixed.
This was all very heady and also very emotional. It was a lot of data and facts to try to absorb and a fair bit of things that were really new to me. Learning about capitalism beyond the superficial is something I’ve managed to miss/avoid. I can see how important it is to understand and recognize the strategies that are used against humanity (and in favor of profit) so that we can resist and create something different. I have a lot of questions about what the “something different” could look like. Someone recommended reading science fiction. I’m totally into that assignment!
Need for strategy
Where is my social location and how can I work from that spot to fight like hell? What’s the strategy for me in all the complexity of my identity? Bring along A LOT more white people with POC led movements as our compass. Big feelings can motivate us to organize big things. Even before colonizing this continent, Europeans were colonized and lost their cultural connection, their land, their Indigenous roots. Organized white supremacists offer a connection/a culture/community so are very dangerous. What can we offer?
This brings up a bit of insecurity for me as a leader. I’m not always the best strategist. I want to work with others to get better at this. I think having someone new at PJC in our Community Engagement person will push me/us to be more strategic.
We touched on anti-semitism and Zionism and the need for solidarity work. There’s a webinar on it that I’ll be doing later this month as part of the prep for our next session. I’m looking forward to digging further in since issues of Israel and Palestine have been very present in our work lately. Because of the generations of trauma that we’ve survived as Jews, it’s hard to always react calmly. Trauma will do that to a person!
I am soooo glad this is part of the conversation. As always, I really want to create an educational workshop on antisemitism. It is at the heart of all the blatant white supremacists’ beliefs. And because of the need to support Palestinian freedom, we at PJC need to show clear and strong support for Jews so that we can avoid, as best as possible, the accusation of false antisemitism which only serves the real and dangerous antisemites that we all know are organizing like mad. We need to find a way to do Palestinian rights work and antisemitism work simultaneously.
Panel of Visionaries: Indigenous Organizers Protecting Land
Wahleah Johns, Mark Tisen, and Carrina Gould all working on land reclamation and building Indigenous power. After the panel, Carrina took us on a walk to the site of one of her ancestors’ shell mounds (burial site). It was at an intersection in downtown Oakland. There is no way we would have known we were walking on graves. There are 100s of them that she has mapped in the Bay area.
I realized that I’ve barely taught my own children whose land we are on. I have some homework to do to learn what this area might have looked like before colonization. I want to be able to picture it and honor it. I want to know if we are walking on sacred sites. I want to be more in touch with want Indigenous sovereignty and justice work is happening now with the Abenaki tribes. I don’t even remember the names of the four tribes. I to share that information with my kids and also at the events and programs that PJC hosts. We sometimes include a land recognition in our opening but I want to make that consistent.
We talked about grassroots fundraising and the strength and power that exists in talking directly to people in order to build our movements (as both organizers and fundraisers). Some folks felt very uncomfortable thinking about asking others for money (fortunately this is not one of my struggles). They said that there are three things that help people give money and that usually you only need any two of the three:
- They have the ability to give
- They believe in the cause/issue
- They are connected to me
It was suggested that “it is a mitzvah to help them do a mitzvah.” That is, when you give someone the opportunity to do good (donate), you are doing something good yourself. I like it.
We were graced and schooled by Linda Burnham who came to speak with us. She is the Research Director for National Domestic Workers Alliance, and an activist, an author, and a leader of many movements in the past few decades. She focused on the opportunities that are presented to us in the specific moment in time (which she referred to as “both crazy and crazy making”). She said people are realizing that we are not an “exceptional democracy.” We are just as vulnerable as any other democracy to the basic tenets of right wing and fascist ideology: racism, anti-semitism, xenophobia, and authoritarianism. That as people wake up to this, more people are ready to take action. She also talked about white rage and how dangerous it is to democracy because if we are not organizing the angry white people, someone else is.
She ended by asking us: What is our plan to win? Very important to always keep in mind for each campaign and project but also how does it add up to transformative change beyond resistance? How is our work making what is impossible now, possible in the future?
Then she quoted Gandhi who said, “A correct diagnosis is three quarters of the remedy.”
She made up repeat after her: “I am a strategist!” I need to see self as a strategist. Learn from others and develop my own strategies/analysis. That is not my strongest muscle.
I am excited to keep digging in to this training and develop my vision for a better world and my strategies to get there collectively.