Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Minnesota Rising & LOCUS: 5/10 Identity-Driven Leadership Workshop Recap

Sketchpad journaling by participant, Cori Lin (IG: Used with permission.

On Tuesday, May 10, 2016, Minnesota Rising and sister initiative, LOCUS, hosted an identity-driven leadership workshop as a part of this year’s BushCONNECT. More than 50 people spent the day immersed in thoughtful reflection and courageous conversations about race, ranging from strategies for self-care and community healing to unpacking the meaning of allyship and empowerment. To get the day started, facilitators led participants through a series of brief exercises to emphasize individual identity exploration and active listening as the foundation for the day’s work. Aeriel and Kyle Ashlee, of Ashlee Consulting LLC, helped frame the day-long program with a story-centered lens, encouraging participants to speak from their own lived experience and value the gift of bearing witness to others’ stories.

Participants spent a majority of the day split into companion tracks, one track for self-identified people of color and indigenous/native communities and the other track for people who self-identified as white/of european-descent. These separate but concurrent sessions enabled participants to delve more deeply into the nuances of engaging in race-related power and privilege work from different racial perspectives. In the white/european-descent track, participants explored concepts related to whiteness and discussed the importance of using privilege to dismantle systems of oppression. In the people of color/indigenous track, participants focused on restorative practices and ways to cope with and heal from racism. Both tracks also spent time learning about wellness practices, such as meditation, tai chi, and intentional breathing to help work through moments of tension that can inevitably arise when delving to difficult topics like race and racism.

One of the most powerful moments of the day came during the lunch performance from Blackout, Minneapolis’ all-Black male improv group. To engage the audience in their creative process, Blackout invited participants to anonymously write down questions about race that hadn’t yet been answered in the day’s program. All the anonymously penned questions were thrown into a hat and drawn at random. One of the questions drawn focused on the use of the n-word; when it might be appropriate to use and what communities are/are not “allowed” to use it. As one of the members of Blackout read the question aloud, he elected to say the full word. Immediately, a stiffness radiated throughout room as participants sat on the edge of their seats cautiously curious about how the improv team would take on this contentious topic.

What was most powerful about this climactic moment was not the specifics of any one person’s response to the posed question or the arrival at a collective or universal decision about the use of the n-word. The most powerful and pivotal moment of the day happened after the Blackout performance, when a woman participating in the self-identified indigenous and leaders of color track bravely voiced her discomfort with and disappointment in the sketch. Through tears, she named the pain and triggering she experienced by the repeated use of the n-word throughout the performance. She expressed her deep frustration and anger that even in a space dedicated to advancing conversations on race and racism, she had to endure such a common and brutal microaggression. The tension in the room was palpable. And yet everyone stayed present. In a wonderful embodiment of the purpose and goal of the identity-driven workshop, participants compassionately and gracefully heard the woman out; empowering her voice and supporting her well-being.

Calling upon some of the wellness and self-care skills learned earlier in the day, everyone took a couple of collective deep breaths together acknowledging the historical pain and complexity of honestly and vulnerably talking about race in a mixed-race group. Rather than retreating from emotionalism or responding defensively, we stayed engaged. We sat in the discomfort. We acknowledged each other’s truths and lived experiences, and we were able to go deeper as a result. While dismantling systemic racism will most certainly require more than a one-day workshop, this day dedicated to identity-driven leadership was a great start. An important and necessary first step for community leaders to come together, share stories, gain greater insight, develop empathy, and begin to build the necessary relationships for making real racial progress in Minnesota.

More sketchpad journaling from Cori Lin.

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