YWCA Olympia held their first annual Racial Justice Summit on May 6, 2017. As the issue of racism in our community has become more broadly known and discussed, the Summit’s “Intent vs. Impact” theme proved to be a timely focus. Before the November election, YWCA Olympia began cataloging the escalating number of race-related hate crimes in Thurston County. While interpersonal racism and discrimination are not uncommon experiences for many Black and Brown people in our community, physical and verbal violence against a person’s body or home further heightens levels of legitimate stress and anxiety, and greatly decreases one’s sense of safety. Generational trauma, oppression, discrimination, and police brutality are public health issues. People who regularly experience the effects of these issues are re-traumatized when hate-crimes occur in our community, and we cannot ignore this reality.
Bystander Trainings. YWCA Olympia heard from people in various parts of Thurston County who expressed concerns for the safety and wellbeing of themselves, their family, and children. In an effort to equip community members to interrupt acts of hate, the agency held two Bystander Trainings in November and December. Both trainings filled quickly, and it was evident that many people were looking for ways to further engage. While YWCA Olympia had planned to hold a Racial Justice Summit at a later date, it was clear that the community urgently needed a platform to understand how racism plays out in our community, and how to resist it on multiple levels. A planning committee of twelve women and femmes of color organized the Summit as a rapid -response community action.
Over 200 people attended. The day-long Summit was held at South Puget Sound Community College and had over 200 attendees. The morning opened with recognition that the work was taking place on traditional Squaxin, Nisqually, Puyallup and the Medicine Creek Treaty Nations land. Through spoken-word, local artists shared about their identity-development journeys and experiences of facing racism in our community. Nikkita Oliver, a Seattle-based creative, teaching artist, and anti-racist organizer delivered a powerful keynote address. Nikkita emphasized the need to recognize the deep and lasting impact of systemic racism and white supremacy in communities, and stirred her audience to take every opportunity to engage, and resist. Through song and spoken word, Nikkita encouraged communities of color to continue pursuing healing together, as she lovingly proclaimed that “We ARE our own medicine.”
The value of facilitated panels. While Nikkita’s words brought inspiration and fire, the facilitated community panel seems to have provided the most profound and lasting takeaway for the majority of those who attended. With participants representing a diverse spectrum of the community, the panelists answered questions from a moderator and described many ways they experience both interpersonal and systemic racism in our community. They courageously spoke openly and honestly of how they are frequently perceived by others, the ways in which their experiences are questioned or minimized; the assumptions that are made about them, the things they have to think about when getting dressed in the morning, of how prevalent and problematic the “White-Savior Industrial Complex” is in the Olympia community, and how apologies and words of intent are not enough. One thing that all five panelists seemed to share in common was an intense feeling of being unsafe in our community. From feeling physically at risk navigating public spaces, to the intense emotional labor and fatigue that comes with both experiencing, and speaking about racial trauma.
As there seems to never be enough awareness about the realities that members of marginalized communities face, in the coming months YWCA Olympia will be organizing more opportunities for individuals to share their experiences and perspectives.
Group caucuses. Ramirez Family Restaurant catered a delicious lunch which was followed by caucusing and workshops for the remainder of the afternoon. While not commonly practiced at public events in the Olympia area, caucusing provides the important function of creating space for groups to do interpersonal work with other individuals who share their racial identity. To accomplish this, YWCA partnered with Full Circle United, a group of Black and Indigenous organizers who center the wellness and healing of People of Color (POC), and Showing Up For Racial Justice Olympia (SURJ), which is part of a national network of groups and individuals educating, mobilizing & organizing white people within a multi-racial movement for racial justice. SURJ organizers facilitated two White Anti-Racism Caucus (Beginning, and Continuing), while local educators facilitated workshops on internalized racism and identity development in the People of Color Caucus. Throughout the entire event, Full Circle United maintained a POC Healing Space that was filled with donations of flowers, medicines, refreshments and opportunity for individuals to take a break from the intensity of discussing / hearing about racism and race-related trauma, or simply to connect with other People of Color. The Healing Space was visited by over 60 people and was welcomed and appreciated by many, as there is frequently a sense of isolation among communities of color in our community.
Community “give backs.” At the end of the day, everyone reunited to do “community give-backs,” where individuals were able to share a few words with those who had participated, shared or organized the event. While the event was complex, and broached one of the most contentious subjects that can be discussed, it was deemed a great success. YWCA is already looking ahead to what we will do next year. In all of our work at YWCA, we emphasize a high level of accountability to communities of color, especially in our anti-racist work. In doing this, we were particularly thankful to receive excellent feedback about how POC experienced the event. The post-Summit survey was returned by over 50 responses, with every one noting something positive about what the event accomplished, how it was organized, or simply appreciated:
“The Summit reinforced how pervasive, persistent, and pernicious a problem we are facing. Racism is alive and active at all levels and all facets of our society. Its destructive power operates in obvious and subliminal channels.”
“I learned that I have a community and that I never have to be alone anymore. I also learned how to cope with my identity and really define my stage.”
“I realized how caucusing gives us the opportunity to explicitly examine our defensive, protective, and healing behaviors. During the afternoon POC caucus, I realized that I often don’t give myself permission at all to cry in public, and specifically in front of white people, and this is part of a larger pattern of projecting strength that is related to both my struggles with assimilation and my fear that vulnerability will be taken advantage of by white people in order to put me or my loved ones in danger. I know consciously that this is a trap, a form of self-policing behavior, but I am very grateful for the opportunity to trust and care, while confronting how our behaviors and our social desires are impacted in so many ways by systemic racism.”
“I learned that it’s not enough to keep attending workshops and post things on Facebook or work on these issues in a single context. I need to show up and do something in the community at large.”
“The message of “intent versus impact” landed for me. As well as a statement that I heard along the lines of: talk without action is just more trauma for POC’s. Got it.”
“It was refreshing to hear people speaking about racism in a sincere manner, without the interruptions and push-back that usually occurs when POC simply discuss our reality around White people. The healing space went especially well for me and I spent more time in that room than I had planned.”
“This summit elicited a very powerful call to action within me, more so than I’ve experienced during other any other anti-oppression group work.”
Just the beginning. The 2017 Racial Justice Summit was supported in part by a grant from the Community Foundation of South Puget Sound’s Irving A. Lassen Foundation Fund. Scholarships were provided by Heritage Bank, the South Puget Sound Community College Foundation and other investors committed to this work.
The 2017 Racial Justice Summit was a great beginning for collective anti-racism work in our community. We are thankful for all who joined us, and to those who worked tirelessly to make this incredible event possible. We hope you’ll all join us next year… Until then, please get involved, and stay engaged in standing against racism in our community.
YWCA Olympia is on a mission to eliminate racism and sexism to advance the political, social and economic status of all women and girls. Our vision is a world where all people are valued, live free from oppression and thrive in a just society. To learn more: www.ywcaofolympia.org or follow on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.