Silence takes many forms, both positive and negative. The silence of the early morning, before others awaken. The silence of a monastery, where we go for meditation. The silence of government, when it doesn’t respond to a disaster. And the silence of community leaders, when members of the community are in crisis. I think most people value silence at some point in their lives. Silence has a role and a place. But I want to explore moving from silence to an action, a declaration, a response. Through silence I work to cultivate insight and compassion. It is also through silence that people remain unheard in our society and in our communities.
Last month I received a text message from a Black colleague. My colleague wrote, “White silence is real.” This was an invitation and a wake-up call. The text was sent in disappointment and in kindness. Disappointment because he had to say it. Kindness because he said it. For me, the exchange was about being unafraid of difficult conversations. And my role was to say thank you, be silent, and then take action.
White privilege and racism are hard for white people to see. It challenges us as individuals and as well-meaning people who often see racism through the lens of Racist = Bad / Not Racist=Good binary. This really sets us up to be defensive and unable to see a different reality. In writing about what makes racism so hard for whites, Robin DiAngelo identifies individualism as a key characteristic. She writes, “Individualism prevents us from seeing ourselves as responsible for or accountable to other whites as members of a shared racial group that collectively benefits from racial inequality.” This in turn leads to our silence and to our denial of the advantages of being white, allowing us to think through a colorblind lens, assuming that we treat everyone equally. From this place it is difficult, if not impossible, to build cross-racial understanding and discover how race and racism are at play in our lives.
I want to break my racial solidarity with my fellow whites and speak to you. This is not about feeling guilty, feeling indignant, or a need to prove ourselves. This is an invitation to begin to see our racial filters and to recognize their impact on people of color. This is an invitation to look deeply into the life experiences of the Black men and women in this country. Looking deeply means reading Black literature and history, following people of color on social media, seeking out media aligned with racial justice (such as Colorlines), attending race-focused conferences, cultivating friendships with people of color, and engaging in small-group workshops with other white people to talk about what it means to be white. It is a constant learning process, and we will make many mistakes along the way. Like the text thread above demonstrated.
For most of my life I have remained silent, either consciously or unconsciously, when racism is present in conversations and in my community. Honestly, it has been easy to remain silent because as white people we have been trained to ignore racism and act as if racism is either something taking place elsewhere, or that racism is already solved. We’ve got our blinders on. I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that people of color have also been silent, but in a completely different way. While as a white man, I don’t always see the racism, people of color have learned to accommodate, code switch, and/or withdraw. The person of color feels racism acutely. They are constantly reminded through media, wealth, employment, housing, law enforcement, education, etc. that things are unjust. In the workplace and in the community, people of color may not feel safe to speak up and remind others of racism. I imagine it is exhausting to remind white people of their blindness.
What I have observed is when people of color speak up, particularly Black Americans, they are judged and shut down. White people see them as being angry or unreasonable. That what they ask and argue for is too much. Then we may beg them to hear our apology and we ask them to be forgiving of us! Ultimately, we may even say that we feel silenced because talking about race makes us feel unsafe and judged. Suggesting that we don’t want to offend anyone. I am not being silenced because a person of color has finally been able to speak up and share living truth. We may think our action are about being politically correct and sensitive. I have been this white person making these judgments and requests.
My action, my declaration, my response is to engage in this difficult conversation. To hear the stories told by people of color, to offer the benefit of truth, to speak up when I see injustice, and to stand in solidarity in the hope of building and creating a more equitable world. Step forward with honesty, humility, and a willingness to make mistakes. Know when to be silent, and when not to be silent.
It has been a little over three weeks since a vice-president said the n-word during the Gender Equity meeting at Santa Barbara City College. During this time, the suffering and trauma experienced by our employees of color has come forth. And it is not only the trauma being experienced at my place of work, but a much deeper societal and generational trauma. An unhealed trauma for which we all have a role in addressing and healing. I am also watching some members of the white community quickly fall into the racist=bad and non-racist=good dichotomy (source) and that prevents us from being able to move forward and truly address the systemic and structural racism within our work environment.
These three weeks have been a personal struggle as I make an effort to speak the truth of racism, honor and support those who are traumatized and have experienced oppression, and to also honor my deep-seated beliefs of nonviolence, reconciliation, restorative justice, and social equity. My Buddhist vows guide me by saying, “As members of a spiritual community, we should nonetheless take a clear stand against oppression and injustice. We should strive to change the situation, without taking sides in a conflict. We are committed to learning to look with the eyes of interbeing and to see ourselves and others as cells in one Sangha body.”
I am striving to change the situation and also working very hard to not take sides. But I have a side, and it is the side of justice! And this is my pain and my struggle. Seeing through this to the middle way is my path.
During the recent Facing Race conference, I picked up a journal called Othering & Belonging from the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society. The essay I read this weekend, An Evolutionary Roadmap for Belonging and Co-Liberation, speaks straight to the heart of the matter for me. Written by Sonali Sangeeta Balajee who has worked in the field of racial equity, primarily in government, to more fully integrate and prioritize healing. Her essay shares a framework in the following key areas: beloved; be still; behold; believe; becoming; and belonging, co-liberation, and well-being. I loved how she writes, “spirit-based practice is inseparable from social justice, and when realized, is the highest form of political consciousness.” She honors “being still” while at the same time acknowledging “anger and frustration as necessary emotions and movement builders.” Encouraging the reader to “bear witness to hope, as well as grief and anger.” Ultimately, the reader is reminded that “merely learning about belief systems that breed supremacy and superiority are not enough. Knowledge alone doesn’t interrupt or disrupt.”
Those are just a few highlights. Read the entire essay because it is important and has clear and practical ideas. I will continue with my struggle for the middle way where truth is honored, people can heal, and society is transformed. Therein lies my hope.
In recent years, I have been reflecting with other friends on the path on methods to make our practice communities more inclusive. Also, to recognize and honor those who have gone before us including those who were instrumental in building Buddhism in America. In particular, as a result of the war in Vietnam we have the Venerable Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh living in exile for fifty years. And with that exile, along with thousands of Vietnamese, we have the practice centers at Deer Park Monastery, Magnolia Grove Monastery, and Blue Cliff Monastery that serve and support mindfulness practice in the Plum Village tradition.
Making our practice communities more inclusive is no easy task. It will require everyone to transform themselves and be willing to do things differently. As the Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams wrote on Lions Roar, this is the “back of the bus” moment of our time.
For the last two or three practice events I’ve offered, both in-person and online, I have begun the session with a short statement. It is offered as a guided reflection followed by a guided meditation. The reflection is drawn from several sources. Please use, adapt, and share with your groups.
For over 4 billion years the earth has been here, holding and feeding single-celled organisms, dinosaurs, plants and flowers, and humans. We acknowledge and embrace the many generations of Vietnamese who carried Buddhism to us through our Teacher, Thay, and helped build the sangha in new lands. Their history and practice are present with us today. We are also grateful to hear that our Teacher has been able to return home to his root temple, where he was ordained at the age of sixteen, to spend the rest of his days in the care of the community.
We see and hold too the native and First Nation peoples who lived on the lands before us, who cared for it as we do, and lived their lives in community. Here in the Ojai Valley these are the Chumash people. And today we also honor our diversity, whether that be gender, religion, ethnicity, national origin, age, physical or mental abilities, sexual orientation, gender identity or political affiliation. We hold a special place today for the communities who are recovering from the wildfires in California and earthquakes in Alaska (insert something timely and appropriate).
All this is present here today as the Sangha is invited to come back to our breathing so that the collective energy of mindfulness will bring us together as an organism, going as a river with no more separation.
What does a community college campus do when a racial slur is used in a meeting? This occurred at my place of employment, and for the past week, we have come face-to-face with the structural racism that exists on my campus and within American society.
These are troubling and challenging times we are experiencing. To directly experience structural racism on our campus, immediately on the heals an amazing Facing Race conference, has forced me to apply what I have learned right away. A racial slur was said out loud during a Gender Equity meeting in which I was present. That experience has solidified how little our society has the fundamental framework to engage and navigate anti-racism work. I include myself in that “society” as I sat quietly as the n-word was said out loud into the room. And again, remained silent by not immediately reaching out to black colleague whom I had just spent a few days in Detroit.
As a white American, I don’t want to let fear, shame, and embarrassment prevent me from engaging in the work of justice and equity. Doing the work will include making mistakes. We need to own our mistakes, name the injustice, and most importantly, listen. Listen to understand. And then speak up.
Our colleagues who are people of color have been injured and have been disregarded for their lived experiences on this campus. Time and time again they have not been heard because we (collectively) don’t know how to listen and seek to understand. I have watched myself tune out when a voice is raised or an “angry” voice is made by a person of color as I allow “civility” to block out centuries of abuse and injustice. As a colleague shared with me recently, “We forget that all white people are associated with racism and systemic white supremacy. We all support a culture of racism in that we have all been socialized into it, benefit from it, and are complicit in supporting systems that keep it in place.” And I’ve learned that left-wing, progressive people (myself included) often have the hardest time seeing our own racism. This last year I read two books that deeply influenced my thinking around this topic – What Does it Mean to be White?andWhite Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, both by Robin DiAngelo. I highly recommend both these titles.
I’ve found this work to be challenging and painful. It’s very easy to feel hurt and defensive when I perceive an attack on my character or my intention. At times, I can’t even see the impact of my words or actions until someone says something. What I’m learning to do is to listen and simply say thank you. These are gifts being offered by my colleagues to help me break down inherent racism and white supremacy. And to take responsibility to speak up. I don’t have the answers, but I do know what practices have helped me cultivate trusted and respected relationships with people of color.
This anti-racism and equity work must be extended to the board of trustees, the faculty, the staff, the administrators, and the students. We can take a deep dive into structural racism and gender inequality and forge a path forward that amplifies and channels those voices that have not been heard. Let’s raise up these voices so all might hear.
The sense of community, of joy, of celebration, and of suffering was palpable. Last week I attended a conference on race in Detroit. My first conference of this type. And despite many years of personal work along with anti-racism trainings and workshops, I realize that I still know very little.
I see and hold the native and First Nation peoples who lived on the lands before us, who cared for it as we do, and lived their lives in community. Here in the Ojai Valley, where I write these words, these are the Chumash people. Today I also honor our diversity, whether that be gender, religion, ethnicity, national origin, age, physical or mental abilities, sexual orientation, gender identity or political affiliation.
The bi-annual conference was created by the organization Race Forward, creators of the fantastic Colorlines publication, and the name of the event was Facing Race: A National Conference. The conference week also celebrated the election of 100 women to Congress, including 40 women of color. Each of our general sessions were started with a music, dance, or words from the local creative community. We also had a “conference weaver” who lead the 3000 people in song. For the opening session, we sang together:
We are the children of ones who did not die
We are the children of the people who can fly
We are the children of the ones who preserver
We are fearless
We are strong
And we’re ready to carry on
This was also one of the only conferences that I’ve attended that truly acknowledged and displayed the richness of the local community. Detroit is an inspiring place where the community works for food justice, water justice, and social justice. We were reminded early on by a local speaker from a nonprofit who said, “if you are a nonprofit, and you don’t have the people you serve on your board, then that’s a change that needs to occur.”
As a white male amidst a predominantly non-white audience, I immediately became aware of my whiteness. An experience that many, if not all, people of color experience on a daily basis. A clear reminder of my privilege and place in society. The other new experience for me was that probably 80-90% of the presenters throughout the conference were people of color. What a gift! The opening plenary featured Rashad Robinson, adrienne maree brown, Favianna Rodriguez, Bree Newsome, and Jeff Chang. These folks inspire and remind us that we need to change the narrative. Furthermore, if we want to move the needle and create narrative change then feeling comfortable isn’t going to help us. We need to step into those spaces where people may disagree or not understand. We live in a society that is organized around a lie and the symbol of white power flies above everything. And through conferences such as this we are building the conditions for people to be free and recognize new possibilities.
The conference offered hundreds of sessions and this created a challenge for each block as I had picked three or four workshops but could only attend one in each block. Here’s what I attended:
It Doesn’t Have to Suck! Easy Management Levers for Anti-Oppression Lovers
This workshop was offered by Bex Ahuja and Tamara Osivwemu from The Management Center. These two were energetic and connected with their audience. I loved too how they set the stage to allow for interactions and questioning by creating an invitation at the beginning. They remind us that bad management disproportionally impacts those on the margins. But even with good management, there is also disproportionate impact if we don’t have an equity lens. We need good management within equity and inclusion lens. Further, the modern definition and understanding of management (command and control) is not built for anti-opression work. Managing with an equity and inclusion lens means there is no neutral path. We can‘t just stand back and do the status quo. Dismantling and removing supremacist power (in my management style) means recognizing and addressing implicit bias, assuming sameness, and the convenient story (it’s not us, it’s them) – these are the pillars of supremacist power. Bringing the race lens allows us to do transformative work instead of temporary work. Bex and Tamara offer a model of goal development that is both inclusive and equitable. Instead of SMART goals, we can have SMARTIE goals. When we re-imagine, we can ask who is this process serving (or not serving), who is this building power for (and who it’s not), and who benefits the most from these outcomes (and who doesn’t). We each have a “Choice Point” in which we have a choice to bring the equity lens to the organization.
Afro-futurism and Black Horror
Tananarive Due, an author and faculty member at UCLA, and Bree Newsome explore the healing power of horror and science fiction as tools for addressing erasure and creating visionary roadmaps to black liberation. A fun discussion that ranged from Black Panther and Get Out to Octavia Butler novels. Following a short presentation from each, they opened it for questions on a wide-ranging number of topics. As an avid reader of genre fiction, I have made a conscious effort to include more narratives written by people of color. For example, in the last year I have read Jade City by Fonda Lee, The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang, The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin, Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon, Everfair by Nisi Shael, The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson, and The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin. Through these stories, new insights and experiences are opened up to help me to grow and learn.
Alignment, Alignment, Alignment! Institutional Changes, Performance Measures, and Population Outcomes
In this session presented by Kien Lee, Nora Liu, and Marcella Hurtado Gomez we learn about measuring racial equity. They have developed an instrument to review structural racism through policies, practices, and procedures that benefit (intentionally or unintentionally) white people in our organizations. The tool proactively seeks to eliminate racial inequities and advance equity. It identifies clear goals, objectives, and measurable outcomes. Developed from Race Forward’s Model of Change (normalizing the work, organizing the work, and operationalize the work). This team offered us six stages for racial equity.
Articulate the change desired by the community
Determine the ecosystem and identify and analyze the relevant data
Engage the community
Determine organizational strategies to end racial disparities and ensure equitable outcomes to opportunities and resources
Develop, implement, and evaluate an action plan
Communicate about the plan’s progress and outcomes – be accountable
Each of these stages has their own process. It is iterative and this means you may go from one to four and then have to return to one again. This could occur anywhere along the path. It may feel overwhelming. It’s not going to change overnight. But we need to know we are on the path.
Flipping the Script: Developing and Deploying a Strategic Narrative for Transformative Change
Gerald Lenoir from the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society presents findings based on the Blueprint for Belonging. This is a project in California to develop and begin to use a strategic narrative. A narrative to challenge the dominate view. The fundamental building blocks are to eliminate racialized inequality, an inclusive and responsive government, and empathy and bridging based identities. The last was the focus of the workshop. We had a great deal of interaction and conversation with others attending the workshop. One group exercise was to come up with a statement of who we are as group. The four of us (strangers) looked for our shared experiences, history, values, and visions for the future. It was a challenging exercise, but we came up with “A group who have all traveled internationally and work in the service to others and believe in justice, equity, compassion, nonviolence, and inclusion. To not causing harm and not pursuing harm. That all needs are met in a healthy society.”
Living History, Building Change, Inspiring People
In addition to the workshops, we had some great keynotes. Getting to laugh with Hari Kondabolu was different for someone like me who doesn’t care for stand-up comedy. He’s able to make us laugh without being disparaging. During the follow-up conversation, Hari also got serious by saying things like “I don’t think we should judge immigrants on how they do or don’t contribute to the economy.” He helped us look at what it means to grow-up in America as the son of an immigrant family. Thank you Hari!
Introduced by Alicia Garcia (#BlackLivesMatter co-founder), we hear the amazing Tarana Burke offer her insights and experiences as the founder of the MeToo movement over a decade ago. She talked of her work with women of color and sexual harassment and sexual violence. She reminded us of some very grime facts at the same time sharing how this has been an issue far longer than Hollywood getting all the attention – “Fuck Hollywood. You can’t take shit that’s mine. The MeToo movement is in our work.” Following her keynote, she was then interviewed by Linda Sarsour, organizer for the Women’s March. We are reminded by Tarana that sexual violence is a police brutality issue, a mass incarceration issue, an economic justice issue, a community health issue, a housing and homelessness issue, an LBTQI+ issue, and a racial justice issue. It is a human rights issue. And sexual violence also happens within the movement community. This is not about awareness. This is about action. What happens after the hashtag. This is not time for debate. It’s time to work. These are hard conversations. Expand your lens to include sexual violence. Find where you fit in. And “possibility is all we may have sometimes.”
As for white allies, we have work to do. We need to do our research. Seek to understand and expand our thinking and our hearts. That’s what I take away from this conference. The lived-experience of hearing and being with people of color for three days is something all white allies should experience. I do believe that we need to be vulnerable. We gotta find joy, people. Even in the struggle. Even in the learning and the mistakes.
And within the movements – race, environment, LBTQI+, sexual violence, women – we need to build bridges to create the larger “we” that links all of us. Step out of our silos. Perhaps as Chris Moore-Backman framed in his book, a movement of movements.
Thank you Santa Barbara City College and the Equal Employment Opportunity Advisory Committee for sending me to Detroit. And thank you for my two colleagues.
What does it mean to address equity and diversity in a community college setting? More specifically, as an academic administrator at Santa Barbara City College? I recently had the opportunity to reflect upon this very question and the topic feels important enough to share more broadly.
Why is diversity and equity important?
Addressing diversity and equity is important because almost 60% of the students at Santa Barbara City College, where I am employed, are students of color. I suspect this is a common statistic for many of our California community colleges. It is important because the research clearly indicates that students of color are less successful in completion and retention. It is important because we don’t always know who the students are in our classrooms and what personal and systemic barriers may exist in their lives – whether that be race, gender, economic, or lack of educational experience in the family. It is important because the majority of faculty and staff may not be members of the student equity populations and yet they will be called upon to support and teach these students. It is important because we all have blind spots, and unconscious biases, that inform the services and programs of the institution. And as an academic administrator, and campus leaders, we need to have the most understanding and the clarity for addressing diversity and equity issues.
What can we do?
First, addressing diversity and equity always begins with oneself. Do we have awareness of what we bring to the institution? I am a middle class, white, cisgender, able-bodied, neurotypical male with a graduate degree. I am a father to an autistic young person with a developmental disability. And my mother came out as gay in her forties. All this informs the way I think, understand, and view the world. My worldview is also built upon a mindfulness practice that includes training on equanimity, understanding and compassion. This background helps me serve and be an advocate of diversity and equity but it also means there are inherent biases present. Personal awareness means that any employee can be a voice and advocate for diversity and equity issues. I see myself as a learner who must continually engage with my biases, both known and unknown. On occasion, this has been quite a surprise. For me, this means trying to be humble, listen to understand, acknowledge my ignorance, and use my place of privilege to support change and advocate for others. This is the exploration and conversation that I would encourage and pursue in this position – to help transform those already present in the institution to be more equity-minded and to help others to be learners.
Second, addressing diversity and equity requires us to look at the data. We have made great strides, but the systemic issues still remain. We have offered a great deal of employee education on our campus over the past 5-6 years. A lot of data has been presented, discussed, and open forums have been offered. This brought forward the opportunity to create the Student Equity Committee and the Equity Plan. These are big changes. And yet, our institution has moved at what feels like a very slow pace. I know these are large issues, and I also know how challenging it can be to influence change. This year as dean, I began to make data more accessible to departments who offer online courses. My office generated a report for each department and sent it to the chairs along with some very specific questions for exploring the data. We have the capacity to continue to expand this effort by getting the information directly into the hands of those who have the ability to impact student learning.
Third, in the area of faculty hiring – both adjunct and contract. Working with our department chairs and managers to transform the job announcement and the interview experience can expand the colleges opportunity to create an employee base that is diverse, inclusive, and equity-minded. Our Equal Employment Opportunity Committee is taking leadership with this and I’m honored to be on the team. Through this effort, we will automatically influence our student experience and hopefully student success.
These are three ideas, and perhaps another is to turn to those voices on campus who have experience and knowledge of diversity and equity issues. To turn to them and empower and support their efforts. I will be an advocate.
In conclusion, let me offer a short story from my perspective as a white, cisgender male. I remember my very first professional employment in 1994 and how they did a diversity workshop for all faculty and staff. It scared me just a little because I didn’t understand much of what was shared. But at the same time, it immediately became an interest for me to pursue because inequity seemed so clear. Since then, I have remained active in my professional and personal life by continuing to educate myself through training and workshops. For many of the last 5-6 years, I have served as a lead in bringing voices of equity and diversity to campus through work on the Professional Development Advisory Committee and the Equity Committee.
A couple years ago, I offered a deep listening workshop based on my experiences with meditation. In this workshop, we included a panel of student voices who came out of prison. During that session, I felt like many of the audience members “woke up” from something they hadn’t seen or heard before. It was a powerful experience. More recently, I put out an idea for our white employees who were interested in learning more about what it means to be a white ally. The response was very positive and a group of a dozen employees met over 8-10 weeks to read and study the book What it Means to be White by Robin DiAngelo where we explored the concepts of white privilege and white fragility.
We have much to learn as a collective community supporting our students on their path. And we have much to be inspired by for the caring and passion of our faculty, staff, and administrators.