Well, it’s taken me almost a full month longer than I originally intended to write about my experience at the Liberal Religious Educators Association Fall Conference, but here it is, finally.
Some of you will have heard through the all the various grapevines by now that in many ways the conference fell apart. How that happened, and the implications, is going to take up a large part of this post. This will probably end up being pretty long, so settle in.
The theme for this year’s conference was #BraveSpaces. I honestly went into this conference having paid very little attention to exactly what the programming would be. I knew I would learn a lot and make connections with other Director of Religious Education, but that was about it. Based on the events of the past year (the resignation of former UUA President, Peter Morales, and the development of the White Supremacy Teach-In by UU’s of color, largely DRE’s) and the theme, I predicted that we would be discussing race and racism in the context of UU-ism, and learning about tools for discussing oppression within our programs. All of that happened (understatement of the year), but not in any of the ways that I expected.
Before the conference officially began, I attended a “New DRE Day” which was sponsored by LREDA. I also attended the Multicultural Renaissance Module as a part of my continued professional development and participating in the Credentialing Program. The amount I learned at both of these events was staggering, and I would love to share more about them and the affects the will have on my approach to Children and Family Ministry. That might be a separate post, though.
Last thing before I get into it: what I’ve written about is my experience. I cannot and will not speak for other attendees, and I write about it entirely in the context of my own lived experience (particularly as a white woman) and learning. Also, I’m aiming to keep this relatively brief.
As I mentioned above, I hadn’t really paid attention to the details of the schedule for the weekend. It turned out that the two featured presenters were going to be teaching about Non-Violent Communication and that they were scheduled to take up the majority of the conference. The presenters began on Friday evening by stepping out in front of a conference room of about 200 DRE’s and declaring that they would not be standing on the stage, because they wanted to “be on [our] level.” This was followed up by sharing with us how difficult it is to be a white man in the world right now, and how nervous they were to be standing in front of us. “Us” being a group made of up primarily of women, with some men and women of color.
As is the case with quite a bit of what happened with these presenters at the conference, I’m fairly certain the intentions behind this were not malicious. I understand that what they were probably trying to do was acknowledge the elephant in the room (two white men were about to teach a room full of mostly women) and in some way get rid of or acknowledge the power differential. The thing is though, that it came across as incredibly condescending and patronizing. And not only is undoing a power differential like that vastly more complicated than stepping off of a stage, it quickly became an accessibility issue when people were not able to see or hear the speakers properly. Especially when people who asked them to stand on the stage were routinely ignored.
All of that escalated into emotional manipulation, when one of the presenters asked the room, “Raise your hand if you’re heart broke open for me a little bit, hearing about how nervous I am.” At the time, this question felt presumptuous and, once again, patronizing to me. I was later given some more vocabulary around why this felt like a weird question, when it was pointed out that there was a clearly right answer to the question.
We were then led to through an activity which asked participants to walk around the room, stop and look into someone’s eyes, walk around the room, stop and look into someone’s eyes, walk around the room, then stop and hold someone’s hands with your eyes closed. We were asked to reflect on the oneness of the universe and if we could tell the other person’s gender or race just by holding their hands. This was, once again, pretty patronizing, but there was also something else going on. While we, as a collective group, were told that we could opt out of the exercise, there was no real alternative given. This once again sent the message that there was clearly a right way to engage, and put everyone in a position of forced emotional intimacy and vulnerability. The questions we were asked also seemed to be coming from a place of “colorblindness.” An out of date approach to race, which inherently denies the lived experience of people of color and in so doing, denies a piece of their identity.
I wish I could say that I was on it enough to get all of that analysis of the questions and activity in the moment, but I wasn’t. That kind of activity is something that feels weird and uncomfortable to me, but I’ve been doing some variation of it in group settings almost my entire life, so it also felt strangely comfortable. Which, obviously, is contradictory. This kind of reflection all happened later on, and a lot of it was a direct result of other DRE’s walking through the activity and questions, and their implications, in explicit detail.
It’s important to know at this point, that I have had almost no experience with Non-Violent Communication. I know that it is a communication tools which is beloved by many UU’s and that many UU congregations host Non-Violent Communication trainings and workshops. So, it wasn’t until much later that I realized the presenters at the conference were actually using NVC methods while speaking to the group at large, because they were never upfront or clear that, that was what they were doing.
Saturday morning began with the presenters once again saying that they would be standing on the floor, so that they could “be on our level.” It was not until a woman stood up in the back and loudly said, “we cannot see or hear you, stand on the stage” that the presenters recognized the feedback that it wasn’t helpful or useful to have them on the floor.
The room was set up so that everyone was seated in small groups at round tables. Each table was given an envelope full of strips of paper with words on them like, “rest,” “support,” “purpose,” “freedom,” and “safety.” We were asked to pass the strips of paper out around the table, so that each person had 5 or 6 strips of paper. Each person was asked to pick out the one that was most important to them, from their individual pile, and show that to the rest of the group. After that, we were asked to flip over all the strips of paper and reflect on what all these words had in common; they were all basically human needs . We were led through an exercise where we traded words with other people seated at our table. We were asked to pick a particular word the resonated with us and share a memory of a time that particular need had been met. Then, the reverse. We were asked to share a time when one of those needs had not been met.
Up until this point, the activity felt comfortable and familiar for me. It’s important to point out that, there were many people in the room for whom the activity was pretty deeply troubling from the get go. At this point though, it became clear that the activity was set up as a thought experiment to ask the question “what if you didn’t have these needs met?” The problem is that there were a large number of people in the room who don’t have these needs met. For whom that question is not a thought experiment, it is a reality, and it is a reality because of their race, their apparent abled-ness, and/or their gender presentation. There was a baseline assumption that everyone in the room was coming to it with basically the same life experience. Which can feel extremely other-ing, if things like safety are not something that you can just count on. It makes the room your in unsafe.
So it was also at this point that a woman stood up and pointed that out. She pointed out the baseline assumption in the activity and the problem with it, as well as the fact that virtually everything the presenters had done so far in their time with us was hurtful and causing real harm, particularly to the people of color in the room. The presenter’s response was something along the lines of, “Thank you for sharing that with me…I want to learn from your words and take them in.” Which reads great on paper, but in person feels disingenuous and as if the presenter were checking off a list of the ‘right’ things to say. And this became a pattern, as those with critiques became more vocal.
The woman’s words, who stood up, had a ripple affect, in that we were all now reflecting on the morning a little differently than we might have otherwise. However, as a group we sort of moved on and went back to the original conversation. And, the presenter began to make a point about pain, and the ways in which pain is relative. He brought up the idea that you can’t really compare pain and that all those in any kind of pain deserve love and comfort. Which is all true, of course. However, the example he used was badly chosen, but it served to underline the ways in which “well, all pain is relative” can end up undermining those in states of trauma or take power away from those who have lived with oppression.
While trying to make this point about relative pain, the presenter said something to the effect of “the kid who has lost both parents and is in the foster care system needs love and empathy, and so does the kid who’s upset that they didn’t get a car for their 16th birthday. And both kids should give empathy to one another.” This kind of statement displays a gross misunderstanding of pain and trauma, and quite frankly, that pain is relative. Yes, they both deserve love and understanding, obviously. But, the kind of sympathy and empathy that I would give to each of those kids are worlds apart. So, another woman stood up said, “I have a fundamental problem with the example you just presented.” And again, the response from the presenters felt inauthentic and as if they weren’t really hearing anything that was being said. In fact, one of the presenters followed it up with something to the effect of, “you’re right, a kid going through the foster care system probably can’t empathize with a kid who’s upset they didn’t get a car for their birthday.”
And, if I’m remembering it all correctly, this is the point when things really came to a head. LREDA members, particularly people of color, began speaking to the room at large about the ways in which the conversations the presenters had been leading us through and the activities that we had done, were causing pain. I’ve found that I have a difficult time articulating this, but the best way I’ve found is to say that it felt like our faith was breaking open. I didn’t realize how much tension I’d been holding over what was happening in the room, or the conversations that have been happening in our faith denomination. To have this discussion out in the open was an immense relief.
That I’m aware of, I also have never been in a setting where the people of color in the room were having a fundamentally different experience than the white people in the room. It’s highly likely that I’ve been in settings like that before, but this was the first time that I was aware of it in this ways, where I could feel it. Where what was happening for me was just different, and it was clearly because I’m white. Because I have moved through this world as a white person, so the world has moved around me differently. There is coded language and behavior that was built into the activities the presenters had us do that is a part of our white supremacist culture, as much as the presenters may have intended otherwise.
What followed was basically a huge re-evaluation. After a lot of discussion and the two men presenting trying to participate in the conversation, they were asked to stop, by the participants. They were told, “This isn’t about you anymore. You need to step down and listen.” The conference was paused, and we did some impromptu identity caucusing. A room was set aside for people of color to use for caucusing. The LREDA Board went into a different room and they invited people of color to come talk to them about what had happened. White colleagues were asked to stay in the large conference room to discuss with one another what had just happened and figure out what things were confusing, or what things we still didn’t understand.
The two men, who were presenting, were ultimately asked to leave. On Sunday morning, the next time that they would have been presenting, Jessica York, Co-director of Ministries and Faith Development and the Director of the Faith Development office of the UUA, and Annie Scott led the group through a White Supremacy Teach In. The discussed with one another, and the rest of us by proxy, what exactly happened that led to the Non-Violent Communication presenters being asked to leave. We learned that when the presenters were originally announced, many DRE’s had contacted LREDA staff to express concern, because they had experienced NVC as oppressive. We learned that on Friday night Mark Hicks, the Professor of Religious Education at the Meadville Lomard Theological School, had sat down with the NVC presenters to walk through the ways that they had been manipulative, forced emotional intimacy, set us up with choices where we had false agency, and why it was inappropriate. And the NVC presenters’ behavior didn’t change on Saturday morning. Jessica York and Annie Scott discussed critiques of white supremacist culture, and the ways things like perfectionism and unwaveringly following a schedule can reinforce our white supremacist culture and maintain power imbalances. Jessica York lifted up that dismantling white supremacy means seeing it and naming it, and that was exactly what had happened on Saturday morning.
After a short break, the conference was broken into small groups again, and we participated in restorative justice circles. One at a time, in these circles, were answered these questions:
- What was your involvement yesterday?
- What were you thinking about at the time?
- What have you been thinking about since?
- What affect/hurt/harm was done to you?
- What affect/hurt/harm was done to others?
- What was the hardest thing about it all?
In these circles each person got to share what was hurtful or confusing about the experience for them, without the process valuing white fragility and guilt above the pain that had been caused to people of color.
I learned sort of an indescribable amount over the course of the weekend, and much of what we covered at the Multicultural Renaissance Module solidified that for me. It also impressed upon me the urgency with which we need to be addressing racism, as well as sexism and ableism and homophobia, in our congregations and within ourselves. Because not talking about it, means that people come to our congregations and get hurt. It also reminded me that our programs should be making space for a variety of lived experiences from the ground up. We need to be asking ourselves “who’s not here?” when we create programs or events. We need to walk through our halls and look at which faces and histories are represented on the walls. Do the historical UU figures we choose to teach about include UU’s of color? Do we include readings and songs by people of color, and credit them properly?
There are two things that I don’t want to get lost in this. The first is that as amazing as the growth I experienced at the LREDA fall conference was and despite all the more complex thought I have around white supremacist culture and racism, that learning and understanding came at a pretty steep cost. It’s not right to consider the weekend, without reminding ourselves of the cost.
The second is about Non-Violent Communication. I am sure that there are pieces of NVC which are valuable and useful. However, it also is a tool which silences voices and supports oppression and abuse. I believe it’s true that the presenters for the weekend were not great presenters. But they were also using the methods of NVC throughout their facilitation. Because my experience with NVC is limited though, I don’t feel like I can articulate the issues with NVC well. So, below are a wealth of resources, explaining some of the ways that using NVC might be harmful.
I’d also like to end this post by saying that this particular piece of the LREDA Fall Con had a huge affect on the entire experience. But, there were other things, like the New DRE Day, that I also learned an amazing amount from. I won’t be writing about those here in the immediate future, but if you’d like to hear more about them or what I’ve written about here, you are more than welcome to get in touch.
In love and faith,
Director of Children’s and Family Ministry
EDIT: If you’d like to read more, from other perspectives, here is the summary, recording of Jan Devor’s Odyssey speech, Annie Scott’s opening speech, and Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray’s opening speech via the LREDA website. I highly recommend reading Christina Rivera’s closing speech.