White Space: A Letter

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I joined a Deep Adaptation series led by Dean Walker in the Spring of 2019.  The content of the six session online course was extremely well planned and was powerfully directed toward supporting people as they come to a deep acceptance of the immanence of global collapse. I was immediately aware, however, that the group of approximately thirty people was, with the exception of one African American man, entirely white. After some conversation with Dean, and with several participants who were as concerned as I was about the “White Space” that was created in the group, I decided to send an email to Dean detailing my concerns and suggestions.  What follows is that letter, slightly edited for publication here (with permission from Dean). –Kurt Kuhwald 

June 2, 2019

Dear Dean,

I offer this missive with deep respect for you and your work.  I offer it, too, in the spirit of collaboration with the hope that an authentic way, or ways, forward can be created that will build not only resilient communities but fully inclusive ones. 

I have three concerns that have to do with the exclusion of People of Color, both from the Deep Adaptation group and from the writings associated with the group’s focus.  While I understand that you would welcome more diversity in the Deep Adaptation group, my experience is that when groups (including activist and/or justice oriented groups) are not diverse, it is because BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) are, in fact, actually excluded.   

My experience is that when groups (including activist and/or justice oriented groups) are not diverse, it is because BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) are, in fact, actually excluded.

This will take some unpacking to explain fully, and in the points that follow I hope to bring some clarity and understanding about how that exclusion takes place—even (or especially) when unintended. Three preliminary points:

  1. The content of the writings offered (yours and those of others you chose for us), seem to be essentially written from a “white space.”  That is, (a) they make little reference to the concerns and the orientation of frontline BIPOC about climate disruption and how they specifically are affected by it, (b) they do not take note of the apocalypse that has been and continues to be visited upon BIPOC peoples and their communities for centuries. I believe that Philip Shepherd’s work, which you referenced, is a good example of these points, despite the fact that it is helpful in many ways, and certainly insightful into the disastrous separation from embodiment engendered by the larger, capitalist-driven, white supremacist society. For those of us affected by or concerned about that apocalyptic history (whether BIPOC or Allies to BIPOC), the  absence of specific information regarding and/or specific reference to it is experienced as erasureThis kind of erasure is part of what creates “white space,” which means that BIPOC/Allies feel not only excluded, but fundamentally feel unsafe as well.
  1. Racism is embedded in and endemic to the cultures of the United States. In this historical time, it is hidden within liberal groups by the dynamics of “white fragility” (a term developed by Dr. Robin DiAngelo), implicit bias, and unconscious (or conscious) grounding in privilege. Therefore, the creation of a community that is meant to be deeply inclusive must, at its inception, specifically seek inclusion and participation of BIPOC. To go on without a genuine and wholehearted effort to do so has wide-ranging implications that directly affect the humanity of all involved—and the ultimate success of the original mission.  This point is critical. To form a community without this step of inclusion and collaboration creates immediate and often insurmountable problems in seeking to balance the racial mix of the group going forward.  In my own experience it is close to impossible—and can only be partially transformed by a subgroup of dedicated folks whose work influences but can not, in the end, fully transform the whole.
  1. Within the community of facilitators of The Work That Reconnects (WTR) that was founded by Joanna Macy, a stream of work has been evolving for a number of years within a subset of its facilitators (of which I am a part). Here is how that work is described on the WTR website in the section, Evolving Edge: “At this time of great social and environmental crises, a group of facilitators has been exploring ways that the facilitation of the Work That Reconnects (WTR) has reflected the industrial growth society’s patterns of harm. The intention of this exploration is to more fully recognize, address, and reframe the ways that power, privilege, and oppression appear within WTR spaces in order to develop the WTR and its facilitators.” Lessons learned by that small community of facilitators can be helpful for anyone concerned about authentic racial equity, diversity, and collaboration.  It is also relevant to those working within the models and narratives that are aligned with Deep Adaptation and Extinction Response communities, including your course, “Deep Adaptation in Times of Collapse.”

Here are some of the learnings from the “Decolonization” of the WTR (it is important to note that these learnings generally apply to any work for justice):

  1. Revealing where harms have been done in the facilitation of the WTR, in its teachings and practices, is essential in order to shift into work that is supportive and fully inclusive rather than harmful—and to repair harm wherever possible. It is important to understand that “harms” involve and are generated from a number of dynamics: the culture of the community (i.e. “White Space” that excludes BIPOC); a world view that is exclusive and that does not tell nor function from the full story (i.e. that includes a recognition of how  BIPOC were involved historically); individual practices that exclude or target BIPOC (e.g. through “micro-aggressions”); and, the lack of openly recognizing and valuing the full experience of BIPOC in all domains of the community’s work.
  2. Accepting and honoring the experiences of BIPOC persons must be relocated at the center of the community, and particularly in the transformation of the work of the community from harm to support and inclusion.
  3. Courage, dedication, openness, and the willingness to expand and deepen the prevailing story are required by all involved, but particularly by those in the dominant culture in order to facilitate healing, shifts and transformation of the work.
  4. Assessment of the community and its work must include the “big picture” of its vision, mission and objectives, as well as a granular focus on specific practices. Both of these domains need to undergo significant transformation so that the lens and the praxis reflect the full story.
  5. The lack of full inclusion of the perspectives, lived experience and personhood of BIPOC in any work for justice and transformation results in half-measures and in the end undermines that work.  It will, in fact, ultimately support the very powers it wishes to change and replace and/or replicate the systems it aims to change or replace in the long term. 

_______________

What can be done to create a diverse and racially balanced and/or racially sensitive, welcoming and supportive atmosphere/community of praxis once the group has formed without it?

  1. The first thing to do is to identify those within the community who also see the problem and believe it must be addressed—and to work with them to explore the problem and its dynamics, including harms it has caused.  With those people, a strategy for going forward can be created, which will include:
  2. Openly acknowledging, within the community at large, that the imbalance in membership is a problem, and while admittedly difficult and complex in nature—demands immediate attention. This requires courage, sincerity and humility, as well as a passion for justice and equity. For most white people, this also requires serious internal examination of their unconscious biases, and privilege, as well as the dynamics of white fragility that continually influence their understanding and behavior.
  3. Once the problem has been brought to the attention of the whole community, there are a number of ways to move forward.  Two possibilities are:
    1. A working group can be created whose job would be to explore the issue in full. It would bring its learnings to the whole community—which requires committed time to hear, discuss and work with the findings (group discussion, small group discussions, guided meditations, exercises for opening and experiencing the stories at work, embodiment practices and presentations of information needed to create a full story).
    2. Halting the work of the group and refocusing it on the issue of exclusion until an adequate grasp of the issues has been achieved and a plan for action of the group’s mission has been reset.

Given that there are only three sessions left in the Deep Adaptation program, and that the sessions are only one and a half hours long, taking on a full-scale focus that addresses the issue of group’s lack of BIPOC participation, with the intention of seeking a significant increase in BIPOC inclusion, would not work, in my opinion.  However, giving some time to the issue of that lack in the work of Deep Adaptation seems critical to me.

I deeply believe that if we do not find ways to create a unified way forward, a path of addressing Climate Disruption that is fully inclusive of the human family, the resulting society and culture will have been built, essentially, on genocide.  That may seem to be a harsh assessment, but try as I might, I cannot come up with any other conclusion.

Blessings & I look forward to talking with you soon,

Kurt


Kurt Kuhwald photoAfter a 23-year stint as a High School Special Education teacher, Kurt A. Kuhwald completed his training and ordination as a Unitarian Universalist minister in 1994; he primarily focused his ministry on anti-racism/multiculturalism, Just Transition/Climate disruption, and Low-wage Workers’ rights. Trained as a psychotherapist by Dr. Carl Rogers in 1985, Kurt worked in community, hospital, and private settings.  He was introduced to WTR in 2006 and in the last five or so years has worked with the “Evolving Edge” team to bring oppression, power and privilege issues (particularly about racism) into the community of WTR and its facilitators.

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