Building an RC Community with People of Color at the Center

Over the past five years, I have spent a lot of my time sharing the tools of RC with people of color and helping to build an RC Community that works well for all of us. As a mixed-heritage black woman, I’ve done this in close partnership with a white ally, whom I have supported to lead the other white allies in our Area.1

Having this Community around me has improved every aspect of my life. It’s given me the support and closeness I’ve needed to take on2 bigger challenges than I thought I could. This includes the leadership I take in my city, through my job, to challenge racism and classism on a large scale. It has helped me discharge early hurts that have kept me from having the relationships I wanted.

All the above came after many years of my struggling, mostly in isolation and frustration, to share RC with other people of color who lived in my city—to little or no avail.

I want to share what we’ve learned here in Chicago (Illinois, USA), from both our mistakes and our successes. It might help others who are making eliminating racism a central part of their work in RC.


It started with my decision to build an RC Community—no matter what. That came after I participated in the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, in Durban, South Africa. I was part of the delegation of United to End Racism, a project of the Re-evaluation Counseling Communities. Our delegation attended the conference for the purpose of sharing the tools of RC with the activists, officials, and organizers who attended. I had lots of opportunities to practice talking with complete strangers about RC.

During the conference I noticed that I became more relaxed about doing this and that I got better at using clear language (many of the delegates spoke primarily languages other than English).

I had tried, for many years, to tell my friends and family about RC, with little success. I had been somewhat tense when I described it, giving them the impression that they were unenlightened if they did not agree that it was “the best,” and dismissing other approaches to making people’s lives go better. In Durban I learned to be more open and less judgmental. I learned to share something about RC and then listen to people as they shared something—perhaps about another project or program that had worked well for them. I gave people concrete examples of how I used discharge in my life, so that RC was not just a theory—for instance, I shared that I would sweat and shake during and after giving speeches and that it was useful to laugh for a few minutes before speaking because it helped me relax. Keeping it simple helped. Listening to others makes sense to most people, even high-energy activists. Sometimes I helped people use discharge to make a meeting or gathering go better. Sometimes, when things got tense, I would be there to listen and help people resolve the conflict.

Back home I decided to have a series of introductory lectures at my house. I invited people I knew and encouraged other Co-Counselors to send people they knew. I reached out to all the people I could think of, emphasizing how much I liked them, how smart I thought they were, what they would add to a group, and that I really wanted them there. I called one person, off and on, for two years before he actually came to something. He loves that I never gave up on him. I was so scared at one point that I welcomed people into my home, then excused myself to go throw up3 in the bathroom as they chatted in the living room.

But I had decided that I wanted to build an RC Community around me, so I kept coming back to this decision. At some introductions, I was the only person of color. At others, only one or two people showed up. In the meantime, our Region held a United to End Racism event to which Co-Counselors could bring friends and family. Two women of color who came expressed an interest in learning RC, and a few of the other people who had come to my intros decided they wanted to try it, too. At the same time, a few other people of color in my Region heard that I was going to teach a class. Being in mostly white classes, taught by white leaders, had not been working well for them. They decided they wanted to join my class.

Shortly before I went to Durban, I began Co-Counseling with Jim Oleson, an experienced white Co-Counselor who had moved to my Region. (A few years later he became my Area Reference Person and I became his Alternate Area Reference Person.) Jim had experience in Community building, and he helped me work on the discouragement, urgency, and frustration I felt about teaching RC. He helped me remember that liking people and helping them to like themselves were the most important part of teaching RC, because they were the contradiction that enabled people to feel safe enough to discharge and to really learn the theory. He was patient when I yelled at him about racism, when I teased him about all the things he didn’t know as a white person, and when I complained about the ways I had been mistreated by white people. I let him work on how clueless he felt as an older white guy and the feelings he had about leading an all-white RC class. We got really, really close.


I began teaching a class. A few months after it started, it became an all-people-of-color class and I noticed immediately how different things were—how safe we all felt to show ourselves, how relaxed we were, and how our attention was not pulled to reassuring or taking care of white people. I decided to keep the class all people of color.

At different points, two of the more experienced people in the class, Laurenti Wright and JeeYeun Lee, were my assistants. We talked and thought together, all along the way, about the group and what would move people forward. This experience provided them with the foundation they would later use to make decisions for themselves about RC leadership. The class became their project and their Community.

During the first two years I focused on people getting to know each other and building strong relationships. Every week I would go around and ask people how their sessions had gone. (Often a number of people had not been able to have a session that week.) I used these opportunities to counsel people on what was hard. Sometimes I worked with people on what had been hard about counseling with a particular person or what they had been particularly pleased about—either as client or counselor. In these demonstrations I was able to teach the basic theory in a way that people could really understand how to apply it. We spent a lot of time laughing and joking. I let people ask lots of questions. We tried many things. At one point we formed small counseling teams and gave each person in the class a mini-intensive—two hours of one-way discharge time. We had creativity potlucks at which people got to share a part of their culture. We did adult special time4: people paired up, and they each got a chance to have another person be their ally as they tried something they had always wanted to do. We played lots of indoor games and tried outdoor games a couple of times. I led classes in which I counseled each person on a particular topic, classes in which we split into small groups for discharge time, and classes in which I did long counseling demonstrations. The main thing was that we kept meeting—for five years, nearly every Monday night, year ‘round. People came to class because they counted on5 the other people there and cared about them. They knew they would find each other on Monday nights.

People tried a lot of things to get closer and kept discharging as they did them, for example, attending funerals of other class members’ relatives, playing with other class members’ children, getting to know other class members’ partners, going to each other’s workplaces, doing daily mini-sessions on the phone, running errands with class members who felt too overwhelmed to have a session. I think this helped the class and the group feel genuine to people. We weren’t just seeing each other once a week, we were a part of each other’s daily lives. People could hold each other in their minds the other six days of the week.

People also had struggles during the class. Lots of people tried to join the class but could not stay. Some of those who did stay still have a hard time getting a session every week or coming to class when life feels overwhelming. Other people have come close to dropping out. With one person, I took the class to his house one night after he stopped coming. I told him we wanted to be with him and that there wasn’t anything in particular we wanted from him. This helped him keep fighting against the feelings that made him want to leave RC. I gave him many, many sessions on how badly people had treated him in his life and the mistakes people in RC had made around him. I didn’t try to “fix” anything, I just listened a lot and stayed with him. Now he is planning to teach his own RC class. In another case, a young adult woman with a demanding job struggled to come to class and to have sessions. I decided to offer her one-way counseling time as often as I could. For about a year, I called her almost every week and listened to her for thirty to forty-five minutes. At one point, she was angry about a session I had given her in which she got very, very scared. Even while she was mad at me, I kept in contact with her. It seemed to make a big difference to her that I could stay even when she wasn’t nice. She could remember that I cared about her, and that went a long way. She now discharges easily, and regularly attends classes and workshops.

I did not push anyone in the class to attend larger workshops unless the workshops were constituency-based (for example, Asian Liberation or Black Men). What we were building in our group seemed more important than the challenges and restimulations people would face in a workshop where there were lots of white people with whom they did not have close relationships. I wanted us to build something that was ours—not push people to assimilate into something else. I made sure that they knew they were welcome at other workshops but focused on helping them have each other and continue to build the safety they needed to discharge well. For most everyone in the class, their primary counseling relationships are with others in the class. A couple of people have just begun having some sessions with white people.

Almost from the beginning, I had some kind of regular counseling relationship with everyone in the class. That meant changing the frequency of some of my other Co-Counseling sessions and calling people in the class when I needed a mini-session, even if I didn’t think they would be my best counselors. I realized that people were learning RC, in part, by having chances to counsel me.

We struggled to bring new people into the class. In most cases, they would come for a while and then stop. It looked like it was hard for the experienced people to go after6 the new people the way I had gone after them. The new people couldn’t remember to ask for sessions, and the more experienced people felt too overwhelmed to do much reaching out. They would try for a while but then get discouraged. It was hard for me to figure out how to counsel them on those feelings in addition to everything I was helping them work on to stay in RC themselves. After a certain point, it looked like it didn’t work to invite additional people into our class—apparently it was intimidating for new folks to be part of such a close, experienced group.

I went through big struggles over the course of the class. They included a promotion at work that dominated my life for several years and through which I was publicly attacked. I also saw my mother, who lives a thousand miles away, through two bouts of breast cancer. I went through difficult break-ups of two important relationships. But I kept teaching the class. I came to rely heavily on the group to see me through these challenging times. There were many stretches of days—or even weeks—when I needed to call Co-Counselors several times a day to remain functional. The people in the class, and my white allies, never got tired of me. They appreciated my leadership—regardless of how beleaguered I felt. I needed that level of contradiction to distress in my life to keep moving ahead.


During all of this, I continued to counsel weekly with my primary ally, my Area Reference Person, Jim Oleson. Jim kept reminding me that I didn’t have to give up on the class, even though it felt hard sometimes; he helped me remember that anything I was doing was important. There were many weeks when only one person showed up, or when I was so exhausted from work that I didn’t have any idea how to teach the class. Jim reminded me that the most important thing was to let myself care about the people in the class and help them care about each other—and me. (He even ordered me, a couple of times, to spend the entire class letting people show how much they cared about me. The class loved it, and it was good for me, too.) There were a lot of weeks when I just had us do Co-Counseling sessions, or had someone give me a long session, but I could notice that even this made a big difference to people.

Jim also helped me remember that the internalized oppression people acted out was inconsequential compared to how they were getting close and learning RC. He helped me discharge my urgency about people being on time or coming to every class. While I needed to hold out those expectations, Jim helped me remember how much I wanted people, how much they meant to me, and what a good job I was doing of teaching them RC. He gave me a safe place to complain openly about internalized racism, since I knew he wouldn’t take it seriously or get confused about the goodness of everyone in the class. I knew he’d had lots of close friendships with younger people and people of color.

I had tried teaching RC many times before, but this was the first time someone had tracked and referenced me closely as I did it. There was nothing I was doing in the class that Jim didn’t know about. He asked me lots of questions about how things were going. He came to visit the class a couple of times. Eventually he started having some sessions with some of the people in the class. He kept bringing me back to the idea that the closeness—the relationships we were building—was more important than anything else. He pulled me away from developing a lengthy syllabus for the class and pushed me in the direction of showing myself to the group and letting myself love them. He encouraged me to try things and to make mistakes, and he helped me clean up the mistakes I did make.

Meanwhile, he and Michele Hallett, another teacher in our Area, were teaching all-white classes. Things got hard for Jim and Michele after a few years. I gave Jim, in particular, many sessions on how hard it was for him to see other white people’s struggles and to love them and remind them of their goodness in spite of those struggles. Mostly I listened a lot and helped him laugh. Jim needed this time to work on white identity and the chronic distresses carried by white people, particularly white Protestants. It was significant that I, as a woman of color, did not step in to take care of him or try to make him feel better.

Thanks to Jim and Michele, the white people in our Area did a lot of their own work on relationships and closeness. My picture of it is that they grew to truly love and depend on each other. It looked to me like their teachers had helped them to notice and remember their goodness, in spite of the racism that constantly flies in our city. All of this work made a tremendous difference when we began getting the white folks and people of color together.


After the fourth year or so, it became clear to me, Jim, Michele, and others in our Area that we needed to try some new things in the Area and help it grow. We spent about a year discharging about, and debating, what the next steps should be. We thought about merging the two white classes. We tried bringing more people of color into the people of color class. We thought about creating three new classes, each of which would have some people of color in it. Jim said that whatever we did had to work well for the people of color. He felt strongly that the Area should be shaped by what would work well for this group, because that would be good for everyone. What I had been doing, he said, had worked, and there was no reason to infringe on that success. In the end, we decided to offer an Area-wide class for the summer to which everyone would be invited. We agreed that it would work better for the people of color if I led the class.

Everyone needed to work on his or her feelings about the current classes ending and a new one starting (the white classes had also been meeting for several years). People seemed to have feelings about losing something, fears about whether they would feel as safe and close with the rest of the Area as they did with their current class, and general concerns about whether what we were doing was actually necessary. For several months before the new class started, the people in my class worked on their feelings about being in close contact with white people and being part of a Community with white people in it. Some of them were opposed to the idea. People worked openly on feeling as though their opinions had not been respected, on their concern that white people would not counsel them well, on their lack of interest in being close to white people, and on their sadness that our class, as they had known it, was coming to an end.

It seemed to make a big difference that people were able to have these sessions. I pushed them on where they felt victimized by white people and had difficulty taking charge of their relationships with them. I was able to work with people this openly because we had spent several years getting close, loving each other, and working consistently on our relationships, and internalized racism, in the safety of a group of people of color. These sessions would not have worked without this foundation, or if a white person had tried to give them.

The summer class went well. It was fun to watch everyone, including me, get looser and more relaxed as the summer went on. Telling people how glad I was to be in this project with them and how much I wanted them in my life (scary for me to do in a majority-white group) seemed to help people feel closer to one another. The people of color had come into the class with an attitude of leadership—they had agreed that we, as a team, would see to it that this class went well. They had agreed, as a group, to support me as their leader. They felt as though a group of white people was coming to participate in a Community that they, as people of color, had built—not the other way around. Instead of having to assimilate into something white people were leading, they got to be themselves. It was a lovely, lovely sight.

The white people became less tentative around us. They took more risks, showed more of themselves, asked people they didn’t know well for mini-sessions, made jokes, were silly. Chicago, like many U.S. cities, is extremely segregated. A large percentage of the black people live on my side of town (the South Side), and some people had feelings about coming to my house for class. (Historically, all the RC events in our Region have taken place on the North Side or in the northern suburbs.) I explained that it was much easier for the black people to come to classes at my house. Clearly, the white people hadn’t really thought about that.

As the class was coming to an end, Jim and I got into a little fight. When I lead, many of my struggles show. Also, as a middle-class only-child, I tend to pull inward and get isolated while trying to maintain the appearance that I have everything figured out and don’t need anyone’s help (even when that is far from true). This confuses other people, particularly working-class folks like Jim. He felt as though I was dismissing him and his leadership of the Area. We had a good session in which we went back and forth, feeling mad and discharging, and realized that we were feeling safe enough and close enough to show each other harder and harder material. I also realized that this is part of what will happen as people of color lead white people: white people will feel as though we are taking over or dismissing them, even when that is not true, because our taking leadership is such a contradiction to the racism. It was good for Jim and me to get to work on these harder issues. Last fall he led a class for the whole Area, so it was my turn to discharge what I needed to in order to support his leadership.


Five years after I started my people of color class, two of the class members are beginning to teach their own classes, as is someone from one of the white groups. I am proud that my folks resisted others’ attempts to push them into leadership years ago, and that they got the chance to discharge and do their own thinking about the role they want to play in RC. They have big struggles in taking leadership, but I assist them as they try to do it. They work on the places where they feel like they can’t offer much resource to new people (their lives feel too busy, but they also have a lot of old resentments and disappointments). My main goal is to stay with them and help them work on these and other distresses while they try whatever they want, make mistakes, and learn things. I am so pleased that they have the room to do this without the pressure of feeling like it is their responsibility and theirs alone to bring more people of color into RC. It has been great to watch them be in touch with each other, and the white Co-Counselor who also decided to teach a class, as they figure this out.

As our Area ongoing class continues, people will continue to meet separately once a month as white people and people of color. It seems to remain important that the people of color get time alone with each other on a regular basis. We will continue to spend time backing our new teachers, and perhaps try some family work.7 I think this will give us a new way to work on closeness and relationships.

It also continues to be critical to our Area’s success that the white people meet separately to work on white identity, racism, their own goodness, and the feelings that come up when they are around each other. At our first weekend Area workshop, which I led last fall, it was obvious what a difference this has made. The white people were relaxed, caring, and playful with the people of color—partly, I think, because they had discharged some awkwardness and desperation about forming close relationships. We have a number of day-long workshops planned for the year, with a variety of leaders, which will give us more opportunities to connect and get close.

What we’ve done here in Chicago is create the conditions in which people of color can build their own RC Community, and get support as they do it. It has worked to ask people of color what role they want to play, and what they want to see happen, and then to arrange the Community’s resources around that. It has worked to support white allies to have close, loving relationships with each other. It has worked to prioritize getting close and caring about one another. And it has worked for both the people of color and the white people to keep deciding, and re-deciding, not to let each other give up on the goal of people of color building their own Community, no matter how hard it feels.

Alysia Tate
Chicago, Illinois, USA
Reprinted from the April 2007 Present Time 

1 An Area is a local RC Community.
2 Take on means take responsibility for.
3 Throw up means vomit.
4 Special time is an activity, developed in RC family work, during which an adult puts a young person in full charge of their mutual relationship, as far as the young person can think. For a specific period of time, the adult lets the young person know that he or she is willing to do anything the young person wants to do. The adult focuses his or her entire attention on the young person and follows his or her lead, whether the young person tells, or simply shows, the adult what she or he wants to do. Adults can also give “special time” to each other, following these general guidelines.
5 Counted on means relied on.
6 Go after means pursue.
7 Family work consists of RC gatherings of young people and adult allies, including parents, in which the focus is on young people, and counseling young people in the context of play. These gatherings are designed to empower young people, to give them a setting in which they largely determine what happens (in contrast to the usual adult-young person dynamic). The focus is not on “Co-Counseling,” as it is in the usual adult RC. This model of family work is the result of experiences gathered over the past thirty years.


Last modified: 2014-09-23 00:15:59+00