Facing Race Reflection

On the first morning of the Facing Race conference this year in Atlanta, I was washing my hands in the bathroom when a tall black man walked in. Startled, he looked at me in the mirror and asked, “Uh, am I in the right place?” “Yeah,” I responded, “it’s all-gender.”

Good conferences match format to purpose, and model the world they wish to build. Like social movements, their purpose goes beyond informing. Each participant fulfills their own purpose (and gets their own individual benefit), but as a whole, the conference is an action in itself – to start (or expose) something, or to form and mobilize community. A national, multiracial, multigenerational, multicultural, cross-identity and cross-sector gathering, Facing Race stands out as a conference whose values and goals are fully enacted at every level. The goals of the racial justice movement aren’t abstract from people’s lives; the architects of this conference acknowledged that in their design.

Besides all-gender bathrooms and nametags indicating each bearer’s preferred pronouns (mine: She/Her), Facing Race provided accommodations for parents and the disabled. It offered wellness space and services. It contracted translators for multiple languages. As the crowd filtered into the massive hotel ballroom for each plenary, “conference weavers” promoted healing and reflection with group chanting and collective practice to “breathe in, breathe out,” perhaps an unanticipated nod to keynoter Roxane Gay’s comments on self-care: what it’s really about is gearing up for the work that comes afterwards. Presentations used and championed arts, music, dance and film as tools of communication and movement-building. And in an accurate reflection of the racial justice movement and of America, people of color were in the majority.

A good conference needs rhythm and flow - but more like jazz than opera. Like jazz musicians, conference organizers curate purpose, framework, and environment. If they expect specific outcomes, a dynamic ensemble’s potential is more limited. For community organizers, the process of figuring out people’s common self-interest -- the glue that binds political organizations and movements -- is also an emergent one. At Facing Race, different coalitions within the broader umbrella of the racial justice movement had space and time (both figuratively and literally, on the stage and conference agenda). Attendees were encouraged to self-organize (organically, as well as via a whiteboard in the lobby) around any issue of the moment. Judith LeBlanc of the Native Organizers Alliance emphasized that despite our distinctions when it comes to social movements, “it’s a continuum.” Alicia Garza made a point echoed by many others: our fates are intertwined.

Good conferences, and successful movements, are timely. They are responsive to real events in the world. This year’s conference took place days after the 2016 presidential election, and naturally the election became a focus. The final panel of the event was titled “Where Do We Go from Here,” and certainly took on a different flavor than panelists were expecting when they signed on months ago. Moderator Van Jones reminded everyone that as racial justice advocates, “We are less alone now than we’ve ever been,” and yet in our unity we risk deepening the divide by defaulting Trump supporters to a monolithic evil. Michelle Alexander quoted late civil rights activist Vincent Harding during her time on stage: “Is America possible? The answer is yes,” she said, “but the odds are against us.” Workshop facilitators from Oakland-based Center for Media Justice called for intervention in the public narrative around race, sovereignty, and liberation post-election. Conference organizers and speakers adapted their agendas to the brand-new reality, which left me with a fuller understanding of opportunities and challenges facing the movement today.

Good conferences, like movements, take you out of the workplace and into the context of a larger whole. In her opening remarks, Race Forward ED Rinku Sen said, “We live without knowing we’re not alone...if we don’t look up, we’ll miss all these other people.” The same visceral sense of solidarity of marching in a protest or participating in a movement was a part of Facing Race. And yet, in a crowd of 2,300, I felt lonely sometimes. Squeezed-full breakout sessions and the reverb of the multi-thousand-person-capacity main ballroom brought body and mind to a high frequency that called for antidotes in the form of a conversation over lunch with a colleague, or a drink that evening with new acquaintances. Being one of many gives me the big-feeling and the small-feeling at the same time, and that distortion of psyche is hardly comfortable.

Neither is the work for social change, though -- and at Facing Race I was reminded that in this effort, love is as crucial as power and networks.

Sueli Shaw

Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors

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