Organizing in White Communities

Inspiring and motivating white people to join in or deepen commitment to the pursuit of racial and social justice takes careful intention setting and planning. Every step of the organizing process is an opportunity to educate and rebalance power dynamics. Following are community engagement practices that hosts and I are discovering work well when planning educational and action-oriented events.

  • Don’t go it alone. Co-host/lead with two or more organizations
    • Likely collaborators include: libraries, schools, universities, YWCAs, grassroots social justice organizations, SURJ chapters, churches, book groups
    • Everyone benefits by:
      • Sharing event costs
      • Increasing breadth of perspective, collective wisdom, and skills
      • Increasing event promotion and racial justice messaging reach
      • Signaling to broader community that this is a common issue with broad community support, not the work of one radical group
      • Drawing larger, more diverse audience
      • Increasing chances of bringing in people new to racial/social justice
      • Creating and/or deepening cross-organizational relationships
  • Set realistic expectations for planning committee and attendees
    • Expect no single event not to solve racism (seriously, this needs to be articulated)
    • Expect any given event/meeting to be as much diagnostic as educational
    • Be prepared to pay attention to where your community’s growing edges are so that you can create next-step events that further develop understanding and skill
    • Plan on at least one follow up session in for any given event. Awakening people can feel deeply shaken. Acknowledging and supporting that process is essential to their development and ability to stay engaged. One or more facilitated dialog gatherings, or drop-in hours offered by a pastor or educator, can both support and help assess where people are
  • Promote any given event as a way to educate and spark curiosity in the broader community while drawing people to the actual event
    • Use questions such as: Ever wondered why it’s so hard to make friends cross-racially? Ever wondered why racism seems to have returned with a vengeance? Curious to learn about xyz? Want to connect with other people also concerned about xyz?
    • Offer a glimpse of what people don’t know they don’t know by naming that phenomenon: many white people don’t understand that the concept of race was invented as a political tool; most white people have bought into ideas about white people being smarter, harder working, and less criminal without understanding the history of that messaging; most white people don’t know that when their family got the GI Bill, Black and brown families didn’t; most white people remain completely unaware of what they were not taught in school or in mainstream media about the history of race in the US
    • Avoid one-up or shaming language and instead create a sense of “we are all in this mess together and we need you, your resources, your time, and your connections to create a more humane and connected community” – this is what will draw new people into your local movement.
  • Use the actual event to widen and deepen community interest in ongoing social justice education and activism
    • Offer handout of local groups doing social justice education and activism, upcoming events, book groups, etc.
    • Offer a table where people from local groups doing social justice education and activism can leave brochures and/or engage with people at or following any given event
    • When possible, survey people about his/her/their satisfaction with the event and, more importantly, about their interest in social justice. What brought them to this event? Why do they care? Did they have any major breakthroughs at this event? Is there anything they’re especially struggling with? What other issues would they like to connect with others/know more about (e.g. gender, class, immigration, etc..) – multiple choice works best on this last one
  • Create a reassuring, inclusive community feeling from the get go. Many white people new to racial justice may be afraid they’re coming to be scolded
    • Have people at the event welcoming participants
    • Play music
    • Offer food and childcare
  • For both safety and follow-up reasons, know who’s in the room
    • Use Eventbrite or another online registration platform to register people even if event is free
    • If you skip the online registration process, have a sign-in sheet at the door with name and email and a monitor to see that everyone signs in
    • When necessary,  hire security. Consider that this may also double as a chance to expose law enforcement to history and ideology not taught in schools or through mainstream media as well as make personal connections to people in the community she/he/they may not yet know