I went to a conference last week, an institute and immersive experience, on race, racism and how it plays out on the individual, group and institutional level. The institute is the Social Justice Training Institute (SJTI) and they’ve been producing and facilitating these week long experiences since 1998. This was the 28th institute and it was more than I’d hoped, even better then I’d been led to believe, and a fundamentally soul shifting time out of time.
The institute brings together approximately 40 individuals of as wide a racial range as possible, diverse in gender, age, sexual orientation and profession. The institute is 4 full days in length and is structured in a compassionate and intentional way, that brings each participant from where the are to where they need to be (and of course that is different for everyone). The focus of the institute is race in a US context but does touch on intersections of age, religion, ability, gender, orientation, expression and so forth.
There were large group activities, smaller core groups for processing, a dyad for more personal interaction, and then a day where each of the racial groups shared time together in discussion and thought (and feelings) focusing on the needs and issues and hindrances and dynamics of one’s own race and race group. Following that, there were theoretical pieces around oppression, violence, non violent communication, and personal histories (and all the triggers and reactions they bring up).
The institute was exceptionally well done and intense. Intensive. Immersive. Challenging. Shaking. Deep, so long as you allowed yourself to go deep, and filled with an empathy I’ve rarely experienced in group work on diversity or race. Or gender. Or much. I can’t speak for the facilitators or participants but to me, at the personal place that I am in, it felt deeply spiritual in its entirety.
I will write more over the next weeks and months about my experiences and connections from this institute, but my initial take-aways are this:
1) We are a country and culture that is obsessed and seemingly addicted to a dynamic of dominance and subordination. Whether that is about race (whites in the one up position) or gender (males) or sexuality (straights) or religion (Christian) or ability (able bodied) there are “right” ways to be. Because of this we engage (and I am speaking generally and I own that) in aggressions and violences from micro-actions such as dismissing someone in a meeting and then taking their idea, or not sitting next to a person of color on an airplane, or assuming that a sexual assault victim may well be the one to blame, to policies designed to keep a group in or out even as we try to shift those policies, to actual hands on violence in fights, attacks, bashings and hate crimes.
We are swimming in a culture of dominance and subordination and we are nearly all part of a dynamic where we rank ourselves (even those in oppressed groups) in relation to others through that dynamic.
2) There is a deep, deep sense of pain and shame connected to the violence, our place in it, whether from being perceived as subordinate and weak, to the harsh mental effects that holding dominance over others does to us. Often the dominant group isn’t always aware of the levels of shame they feel from not admitting they are part of that system, if they can even see it at all. Shame does bad, bad things to people, as Brene Brown has pointed out.
One thing that happened for me at this conference was a sense of relief and release around that shame and violence, an eye opening experience but an inner eye, shining a light on how actual healing of a system can begin to occur in a system that we are all still a part of… through work on peace, non violent communication, and vulnerability.
For that one little bit of perception shifting I am grateful.
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