Rainbow Principles: Lessons in Brave Spaces

In early November, I attended the fall conference of my professional organization, the Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA). The theme was “Brave Spaces”, a relatively new term meant to indicate the need for all of us to be open to discomfort when discussing difficult topics so that honest communication can happen and progress can be made. Since the focus of the main activities of the conference centered around racism and power, this theme made sense.

I expected to gain some insights into how white supremacist culture is imbedded in and impacts the work I do as a religious educator, and I did, but not in the way I expected.

The first main exercise was intended (I think) to promote empathy by imagining living without human needs (e.g., safety, choice, understanding, sustenance). However, comments by people of color (POC) during processing portions of the exercise began to make clear that they were unhappy with the exercise. The facilitators did not get defensive when criticized, but, in hindsight, did not change how they wanted to do things in order to address that criticism. Instead, they offered what appeared to some to be platitudes and false choices.

At the time, I was confused and frustrated by the complaints and demands. Why can’t we just get through the exercise in a timely manner and then evaluate its success? It turns out that the exercise can work well among peers, but not so well when significant differences in power or life experience exist within the group. While having a privileged person (i.e., someone who has not had to go without) imagine living without human needs may be helpful, the same exercise is potentially traumatic to those who have actually gone without those things (and have no need to imagine it). There were also some false equivalencies presented in the attempt to promote empathy (e.g., thinking about not getting that new car you wanted can help you understand how it feels not to be able to get food). Sadly, the result was hurt to POC and some others with negative life experiences due to the dominant culture.

It came out later that concerns about using this model were expressed to LREDA leadership by POC, but those concerns were subsumed by the schedule (i.e., having enough time to plan and implement different programming). In hindsight, that was a mistake. When POC raised objections during the exercise, LREDA leadership stopped the exercise, listened to POC representatives, and ultimately decided to cancel the rest of that programming, replacing it on the fly with facilitated justice circles (basically processing in small groups what just happened) and identity caucusing (separating into POC and white groups to talk about racism).

While initially it felt terrible to segregate based on race, I came to understand the need of POC to process things honestly away from potential judgment by whites. It was probably helpful to whites in the same way (although, due to our privilege, it is easier for whites to say offensive things without fearing judgment).

So, what did I learn?

  • It is important to be open to change, even at the last minute. Some things are more important than following the agenda or timelines.
  • My POC friends and colleagues suffer hurt, anxiety, and exhaustion of which I am unaware. No model works for every group or every situation.
  • We have a long, long way to go to achieving Dr. King’s dream.
  • Much as we might like to have POC accompany us on every step of our journey, they need to separate at times to rest from the dominant culture and support each other in a place free from white judgment.
  • White folk need to be educated about systemic racism and micro-aggressions, etc., but we cannot expect our POC siblings to educate us. It is too exhausting to deal with those things every day and educate their white siblings about them.
  • As a consequence, white folk will need to educate themselves. No doubt, we will often get it wrong and stumble. But, the work is too important to give up out of frustration. We must keep trying.

See you in church. -Derby