Welcome. Thank you for being here. To begin, let’s first ground and center ourselves. A deep breath in, and out. Rooting our feet or sitting bones in a place that is either general or specific. It can also be a place that is set in a particular position or order. The word place derives from Latin platea meaning open space or Greek plateia hodos meaning a broad way. I think of place as the physical space where I live and where I’m from. It’s where I work and focus my learning. For instance, who I am consists of the Midwest where I spent my first thirty years. That is enough time that, for me, the Midwest is my base and without a doubt my roots. It is a big part of who I am. At the same time, the pacific Northwest is a place I’ve been for nine years and a place where I have done a large amount of adult learning and, most importantly, unlearning making this place significant in who I am as well.
Base can mean the bottom of an object of which the object rests and is supported by the base. It can also be a foundational principle or the bottom layer of something. As a verb or adjective, base means to form a foundation for something. Base derives from Latin basis meaning base or pedestal. I think of my base being the era I come from and the ancestors that have come before me and whom I call. My base are the places I’m from and the communities I work with. Base is where things begin or where something may be stationed like my literal work office is my base while I’m visiting communities around the state.
Place-based then is to focus on a specific physical space recognizing the local heritage and ancestors, cultures and peoples, landscapes, opportunities, traumas, and experiences that comprise the area and using these as a foundation for working together. Place-based is root-based. Working statewide, my role is to then promote a power to and with in the communities I enter while centering the community members as the base and the place. My own place is somewhere less geographic than conceptual. I’ve toggled for many years over not feeling like I have a place being in a statewide role. The reason I call it conceptual, is that my work is all over the state in communities that are not my living space or base, so that I have to perform a lot of place-based learning and centering of the community.
Now that we’ve centered ourselves, I want to discuss racism, allyship, accomplices, white supremacy, and capitalism. Whew, nothing too big right? I’m just coming off a community food system conference held in Savannah that was powerful and inspiring and affirming and full of love and joy and truth. It felt time to revisit my Deep Love blog series.
To begin this processing, we must first start knowing that our food system, economic system, and government structures are not broken. They are always being vastly improved to continue working as they are to benefit a specific group of people. This was always the intention and everything is working as it should. So, what some of us are working on and towards is to actually break the system, maybe even collapse the system, burn the system perhaps. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house as Audre Lorde once said. White folks cannot change the system working within and abiding to white supremacy. We have to be brave and create brave spaces where white dominant culture is not the norm and where we ask what we can do to build a new equitable system.
For an organization wanting to become anti-racist this could include embracing discomfort. As white people we are almost always able to deflect and remove ourselves from discomfort, but with undoing racism and white supremacy, we have to step into discomfort. If I’m not uncomfortable in these conversations then I’m probably not having the real conversations that need to be happening. I’m protecting myself and my ego. I don’t like being uncomfortable and, to be real, who actually enjoys that feeling. As an ally or accomplice, this is a feeling white people are going to have to get used to. When I’m in these conversations, sometimes my anxiety rises to hands shaking, sweating, shortness of breath, and yet I push myself forward. I’m afraid I’m going to say something that upsets someone else, specifically someone identifying as black, brown, or indigenous, but I continue and hope that 1) they tell me if I spoke with harm and 2) that I will receive it and learn without letting the guilt or ego ruin the moment.
Co-opting is another troublesome topic for an organization striving to be anti-racist. It has been witnessed by black, brown, or indigenous communities that, at times, large organizations have co-opted an innovative community program by rolling out their own copy, as their own. There is a fine line between finding a program that could work for your community and asking that organization if they may replicate it in their own community (where both organizations are local and small) or a large organization doing the same without asking. Do you see the difference that seems delicate and grey, but is actually harmful and colonialistic? An anti-racist approach could look something like a large organization practicing participatory research (more info on this practice below) where communities share their innovations while the organization records (video, dance, speech, written, etc.) and then shares with other local communities. Or perhaps this organization invests in the innovative community practice to grow and sustain it in their community and even beyond leaving the control with the community-based organization. The difference is that an anti-racist organization ensures the power stays with the community. It never takes any power from them. They also help to funnel power to communities.
Tearing down these large systems can seem impossible when they’ve been running for hundreds of years to the point that we have internalized their stories of goodness. But during a conference session we were given an Ethiopian proverb that helps to find and resurrect the energy needed: When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion. This speaks to our need for partnership, allyship, and being an accomplice with others. How are we acting complicit and how are we working to not advance these systems? There are already great definitions of an ally and accomplice out in the world so I will not review them here, but I have included links at the bottom of this post.
By the second session of the conference, I found myself wondering once again of my place in the work I do. As I said, my place-base in work feels less geographic. I’m slowly finding my place and it hasn’t been easy as I acknowledge the places I hold power or privilege while wanting to be mindful of how I work with each community. I find place in working with communities not to empower but to power with and to. I need to hold space to learn from and see community members trauma, inequities, and joy. I find place by assisting in removing barriers, bringing access and resources, all while being accountable to community members.
Here comes that ugly knight on the horse – the savior. The white savior to be more exact. Why do we feel that people always need saving? Saving from expressing their bad day, saving from feeling uncomfortable, saving from their hunger, saving from their community. Sometimes people do need saving, but these are not those moments. These moments need narrative change, social justice and equity not charity, deep dives into the root causes of the problems, and a liberated collaboration centering those with direct experience not the white dominant narrative. As white organizers we need to facilitate not lead.
We will need to create brave spaces where we continually design power to and with the directly impacted community. The table that is never too small needs to be owned by the community members. The table is only too small when we’ve left out those who will be impacted by our “help” which then quickly becomes white people trying to save the poor. We have to check our urge to fix it or to just come in and get it done quickly as if there is a sense of urgency creating a dominion of quantity over quality. All characteristics of a white supremacy culture (see link below for full description of characteristics). Within these brave spaces, as white folks, we need to arrive knowing our place and base and root in our acknowledgment of any power and privilege we may have while checking our ego at the door. We will have to acknowledge trauma (past and current) to move beyond and with black, brown, and indigenous communities. We need to continually examine how we are coming to the table and for what reasons. We need to practice being in discomfort and calling out when we see inequities happening whether large or small, whether interpersonal or institutional racism. We have to unlearn each and every day white supremacy. It’s been going for over 300 hundred years. It’s ingrained in our structural systems, media, movies, TV shows, books and perhaps everything around us. It is a life-long path to unlearning white dominant culture.
Lastly, there needs to be grace, gratitude and sacredness. Grace in that I will mess up sometimes and hopefully I will learn from those moments. Grace with others as we unlearn together. Gratitude for those that laid the ground before us working towards undoing white supremacy; gratitude for my colleagues around the country working to make equitable change; gratitude for strength and a community to lean on when feeling not so strong. Sacredness in honoring those that came before us; honoring our own bodies and minds; sacredness in healing together.
Definitions of White Ally and Accomplice:
Characteristics of a White Supremacy Culture
Farmer-led Participatory Research