Learning and practicing the language of anti-racism
The conversations that led to the founding of the Diversity & Decolonising Circle took place in the DAF Strategy Options Dialogue, in early 2020. I was one of the volunteers who was convening that space and holding the conversations.
As the facilitator, I was popping from small group to small group to eavesdrop and make sure that people were progressing. And every time I dropped into the room where Wendy and Sasha and Dorian in particular were, there was this common theme and common thread, and my curiosity was to be with that topic, and to see how it was unfolding – as I always had this issue around accessibility and the voices that were never heard, and the perspectives that were never represented. But I didn’t have the ability to do that, because I needed to be paying attention to the whole event and every conversation thread.
By virtue of my relationship with Sasha, who participated with me in another group in DAF, I was invited to join the circle in the very early days.
I came into the circle with an attitude of, “I can learn better skills to make the spaces I host more accessible and more inclusive.” I feel a little bit of embarrassment to admit it, but I was definitely naive about the complexity involved in this type of work. I wasn’t naive or blind to the impact of racism – I’d seen it as a child in my mum’s workplaces, in the decisions that she had made, and the heartbreak she would carry with her because of the racism that she was observing as a medical professional. And then I moved to Australia, where there was still a White Australia Policy in 1983. And blacks would have to cross the street to avoid whites and were not allowed to be on the same public transport. So I wasn’t naive about racism. But I was absolutely naive about how ubiquitous it is, about how every structure – every one of our normal ways of being – are racist: our ways of being are designed to separate and to isolate.
It felt easy from the very beginning. And perhaps that’s because we’d coalesced around a purpose or at the very least a curiosity, without any real picture of what that might mean or what that might be or what the end point was. For me, that made it really easy to be part of the conversation. Because it wasn’t prescriptive. It wasn’t fixed. There were no big expectations or grand ideas. It really was just a tremendous curiosity and this heart-open… “Well, what if? What about?” and so for me, that was part of the appeal of becoming part of this circle of folk working together.
The early work that we were doing in the run up to and then in response to the anti racism training, in November 2020, helped me start to really understand systemic racism and just how blind nearly everybody is to it unless they are suffering because of it, unless they are a marginalized group – unless they are black or indigenous.
So I went through a lot of heartbreak and a lot of crying, a lot of shame and a lot of embarrassment for all the situations in my life where I had not consciously acted to stop racism. I never consciously contributed to it but I was so blind, I didn’t speak up. And I never thought to question it, it never occurred to me.
My discussions with other participants in the circle led me to consider whether this was, at least in part, due to my being a woman: I never felt empowered to speak up to my brothers who were awful, or to challenge the authority at school or university or at my workplaces.
Everyone I’ve worked with in this circle has been so gentle, so compassionate and so incredibly supportive – especially Nonty, whom we must have inadvertently wounded and hurt many times over, and yet she is still here, celebrating each tiny step forward that we take.
There is also something powerful about the speed at which we have been doing our work. It hasn’t felt forced, or rushed, there was always lots of space, it’s felt very much like the relationships came first. For example, I remember being in meetings where in the check-in someone’s having a bad time or is in a particularly difficult place, or showing up with difficult emotions, and the work gets pushed to one side, because what’s important in that moment is being present with the other in there. And similarly with moments of celebration and happiness. So it’s been really centered around relationships. As a result, being here isn’t onerous – when this meeting pops up in a calendar every week, I’ve never once had that feeling of “God, again?!” – it’s always like, “Oh, great!” because it’s not fixed, it’s not rigid, you don’t know what you’re arriving into, or even at the moment of clicking “Join the meeting,” what you’re arriving with. But just knowing that there is space for all of that feels really powerful.
Another important thing is that I haven’t noticed any of us dominating. Not having a single leader is so beautiful, because that leaves loads of space for co-creation and for creating in that moment, as a group of people. At one time or another, some of us have stepped forward to make things happen or to take on a responsibility. But I’ve never felt like anybody was exerting undue power or influence or control over the group or what the group was doing. And my sense is, if any one of us had been particularly dominant, or particularly controlling and demanding of the others, we would have had a lot more tension and difficulty than we did have. And the tensions we had were very challenging and exhausting. In those moments as we were getting through them, had we had a very dominant vocal person in the group who was pressing their perspective and their way, we would have disintegrated. That level of tension and argument may have just pushed us beyond reasonable limits, particularly around a topic which is so challenging and painful already.
This journey of learning has been deeply transformational for me. I almost feel like I’ve now got a fluency, and the language, that will allow me to speak up anywhere even when there’s that little doubtful voice on my shoulder that says, “Hang on a minute! What if, what if, what if…?”
Thanks to my involvement in the DAF anti-racism training, in November 2020 I invited Nonty to organise an anti-racism training for my team/network outside of DAF. This training has been instrumental in supporting a National Environmental Movement (comprising more than 60 organisations) that are now engaging in the hard work of decolonising their ways of operating, to increase their accessibility and to value and engage appropriately marginalised groups within their local areas.
The workshop was a success. This work is new and challenging for many, but the training kindled high enthusiasm and commitment in the participants.
As a result of this successful training, I was approached in the Summer of 2021 by a Rivers Trust in the South East of England to provide advice and support on inviting BIPoC to their board. All in all, after introducing this work to the National Rivers Trust network, 74 individual trusts are making a combined effort to address systemic racism, white supremacy and to enhance equity, diversity and inclusion in their teams and in the communities in which they operate. This speaks to a potential big change. Many of the original trainees continue to meet monthly to support their ongoing learning.
I also heard that the training we ran inspired several other organisations to launch their own anti-racism efforts supported by the national umbrella organisation. Progress is slow but steady and there are still many mistakes being made but now with more consciousness and an awareness of the harms that, prior to this training, were unconscious.
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