Building the Beloved Community in Washington, DC

By Donna Lamb

Earlier this month, the National Conference on Organized Resistance (NCOR) met for the ninth year at American University in Washington DC. Close to 2,000 people from all over the country packed its approximately 100 workshops on such varied topics as Race and Privilege in Radical Communities, Parenting for Social Change, Animal Rights and Human Wrongs, What Does Positive Masculinity Look Like?, and Street Theater as a Media Tool.

Among the workshop presenters were Sha’an Mouliert and myself, Donna Lamb, representing WILPF’s Issue Committee Building the Beloved Community (BBC), which Sha’an chairs. BBC’s purpose is to provide a safe space to explore the history and nature of systemic racism, the connection between oppressions, and the struggles for racial justice.

Sha’an’s workshop was titled Creating Caring Communities, and it employed techniques from Augusto Boal's Theater of the Oppressed in which movement, pantomime, and acting skills are tools for staging and analyzing problems of oppression and power and exploring group solutions to these problems.

Sha’an began with an exercise from the technique called Image Theater in which two participants create a tableau and other participants tell what they see in it. Viewers were asked first to state what they saw objectively – such as two people shaking hands – and then subjectively – such as that they had never met before and were a little uncomfortable.

It soon became apparent how difficult it was to stick to an objective viewpoint without reading things in subjectively. It was also clear that most people easily agreed on what they saw objectively; it’s when they got to their own subjective interpretation that differences and disagreements came in.

The main body of the workshop consisted of the game Star Power, which reveals how people interact and negotiate with each other based on external circumstances and messages. The purpose is to enlighten people on how they participate in an oppressive system and thus help to oppress themselves. As Sha’an explained, “It brings to people’s attention the challenges we all face working within a system of oppression. Even more importantly, once you recognize that you’re a participant, you’re in a better position to develop strategies to overcome oppression by making positive changes beginning with yourself, as opposed to trying to change other people.”

The next day I conducted my workshop, Being an Effective Social Justice Activist – the Personal Side. As a completion of the very physical and often non-verbal techniques utilized in Sha’an’s workshop, mine took a purely verbal approach to dealing with the need for introspection in order to achieve our goals as an activist.

The main premise was that activists have all the same tendencies – good and bad – that everyone else has, and in order to be most effective, we need to examine ourselves to see where our human flaws might interfere with our social justice work. To set the tone, I began by giving a fairly extensive list of my own shortcomings – starting with harboring petty resentments, being self-centered, feeling competitive, getting sarcastic, being impatient and having uncharitable thoughts – all of which hinder my work when left unaddressed.

Workshop participants then divided into small groups to discuss what they saw as common failings and also the admirable traits often found in activists. The individual groups then reported their findings to the whole.

Some of the negative traits were: self-righteousness, personal bias, elitism, patronizing people, close-mindedness, biting off more than you can chew, arguing instead of discussing, writing off people who disagree with you, and not following through. Some of the finer qualities were: caring deeply for others, being proactive, creativity, generosity, compassion, optimism, a sense of connectedness, and a willingness to challenge injustice.

This session also tried to show how close and intertwined the positive and the negative traits usually are in people; that’s why every social activist needs to see examining ourselves and our motives simply as part of our work. This led to some very lively and deep discussion about how our desire to help, for instance, can turn into a desire to control, and how, on the one hand, we shouldn’t think that just because we’re activists it proves we’re better and more noble than other people – yet, if we don’t get a sense of pride, pleasure and satisfaction from trying to make the world a better place, there’s something wrong too. What we feel is good for ourselves and good for others has to be the same thing.

Though some issues that were discussed, particularly regarding racism and white privilege, are usually quite uncomfortable to address, many people showed real courage. One group even exchanged contact information so they could continue their dialogue once they returned to their respective homes.

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