Eliminating "Segregation" Vigorously and Concretely

At a 1992 workshop I organized, while the leader counseled one of the three people of color in front of the group, the client said she was tired of going to workshops with very few people of color, and that all RC workshops should have at least half people of color. Sound familiar? This has arisen at most of the RC workshops I have attended in the last several years.

I'd been thinking about this problem anyway, of course, as the workshop organizer, and the client and I had been discussing it over a meal just before the demonstration. I concluded that the next workshop I led (July 1993), a women's workshop, would have at least half women of color.

I figured out the way to do it was to require people to apply in pairs: a white woman and a woman of color. They could know each other ahead or the organizer could pair them up as they called her. We also opened it up to people fairly new to RC -- they merely had to have one or two sessions and a short talk about the theory ahead of time. And of course they were recruited one to one by experienced counselors.

We also had an introductory evening, led by one of my three workshop assistants, Isoke Femi, who is herself a woman of color. Many white women in the RC Community brought friends who were women of color that evening; there were also new white women. People signed up on a list if they wanted to come to the workshop. Of course there was screening -- I was there too and was checking out who had enough attention for a workshop.

We publicized the pairs-only policy months ahead of time, so people could get started inviting friends and giving them a session.

I asked three RC teachers to assist me: Ayana Morse (a Latina), Isoke Femi (an African-American woman), and Kathy Fong (an Asian-American woman). We met several times before the workshop to talk about our ideas in terms of integrating new people, focusing on women's issues, and dealing with feelings about racism, internalized racism, and young women's concerns. We also counseled on the relationships between us.

We ended up with a format which included two introductory lectures on Saturday and Sunday morning right after breakfast, which the new people were required to attend, and many of the experienced folks came too. These were both led by Isoke, and Kathy assisted her.

We scheduled two caucus times for African-Americans, Latinas, Asian-Americans, European Jewish heritage, and European non-Jewish heritage women. These were all led by experienced RC teachers, including my three assistants (but not me -- I was just in one of the caucuses). During caucus time we dealt with racism and anti-Semitism issues and worked on alliance-building.

We had sent out suggested support group titles in the welcoming letter, and I had stated there that the support groups should be on women's issues and set up so that anyone at the workshop could attend any group. Suggested topics included Menstruation; Taking charge of our sexuality; Women, money and power; Leading in the World; No limits; Breast self-exam; Taking charge of relationships with men; Young women's liberation as central to all women's liberation; etc. We also asked people to sign up for a support group when they registered and allowed them to suggest new ones at that time. Just before the groups met, we did a show of hands to see if everyone had a group, and assigned leaders. This cut down on the usual time it takes to organize groups during the workshop and also helped facilitate all types of women being in support groups together.

During support group time, I met with my assistants and we split the time. At some point that weekend, I realized this was the women's support group I'd been looking for for years and decided that the four of us would continue to meet indefinitely after the workshop. We have continued meeting, though less frequently, and are working both on being leaders in the world and on getting our own lives the way we want them (and of course getting closer to each other). It's great -- very good for me to be the only white woman and to know how much I belong.

I of course had lots of fears about this whole format, the main one being that too few white women would get it together in time to invite women of color into RC. However, we ended up with forty women, and it was a WONDERFUL workshop! The new women got it -- many have since then started counseling weekly and have joined classes. None of them attacked me. Many of the brand-new women of color didn't know that the racial balance was atypical of RC events until we talked about it in the highlights time at the end, so their first experience of RC was one where they did not feel isolated. And the women of color got to work on women's issues rather than focusing all their time at the workshop on feeling outnumbered by whites.

I felt loved and supported by my assistants, all of whom also made important contributions and led significant portions of the workshop, highlighting areas they had been working on and where they had made breakthroughs. They shared their thoughts, did demonstrations, and answered questions from the workshop attendees. It was good to have women of color in leadership roles at the workshop, not just as caucus leaders. It was a contradiction for me to share the leadership and for them to be in the lead of white women, as well as women of color.

I think we as RC leaders need to re-think the usual situation, where we have assistants in support groups and classes, but not when we lead workshops. For me, it makes a tremendous difference to have an assistant when I am leading a workshop. When no one is designated an assistant, I have noticed that the organizer is often unawarely put in this role, which creates confusion and too much work for one person.

But the thing that I learned the most from was that the white women, myself included, felt MORE relaxed than we/I do at most workshops. I think when there are very few people of color, I spend lots of time worrying about how they are doing, and here I did not because there were lots of people of color, and racism issues were being dealt with adequately in the schedule. Consequently, we were able to devote all the large-group time to women's issues.

Of course, "women's issues" includes the need to build friendships and coalitions across race lines if we're ever going to effect real change as a united women's movement. We spent the Saturday evening group meeting having us four leaders telling our own stories and discharging about cross-racial friendships.

I think we were able to achieve a real balance, an inclusive, welcoming environment, where peo-ple took full advantage of the opportunity to work hard on key women's issues, to play and dance together (we had three Conga drums as Saturday evening live dance music, playing Afro-Cuban music!), and to explore what it means to live in a multi-racial society.

So I propose that we do this at most RC workshops, including ones for leaders (mine was for women generally), by requiring people to apply in pairs, and to open workshops to people new to RC. If it's a leaders' workshop, people would have to be leaders in the world if they're new to RC. We could also have a one-day introductory event a month ahead of time. This would serve at least two functions -- racial balance and outreach to many wide-world leaders.

Publicity needs to be done well ahead of time, so that experienced counselors can start inviting people of color friends to come and learn about RC. Of course, there will also be experienced people of color in RC who are inviting white people (new to RC or experienced).

When I mentioned this idea for an upcoming workshop to Jane Zones (who led the Jewish caucus at my workshop), she was delighted and already has someone in mind to invite who's on the board of the National Women's Health Network with her (and is also a friend/colleague of mine). She thinks this person is more likely to commit to one weekend rather than a sixteen-week class to start with, since she is so busy; I think this is true of many wide-world leaders. Workshops could be an entry point for new people who find it hard to attend weekly classes -- after they experience a whole weekend of RC, they are more likely to want to make a weekly commitment.

After this workshop, I also decided that all fundamentals classes in my Area have to be at least half people of color. Berkeley and the greater San Francisco Bay Area have roughly half people of color living here; it's time to reflect that in our RC Community. So far this new policy is working just fine.

I suggest that we implement this "affirmative action" policy from now on. Let's stop just talking about and discharging about eliminating racism, and start doing it in our own RC classes and workshops. Now.

Nancy Lemon
Berkeley, California, USA

Last modified: 2015-07-21 09:56:36-07