Reaching for the edge

IssueApril 2014
Feature by Emily Masters

It all started with a room full of grassroots activist trainers, a US anti-oppression worker and a discussion about power and privilege.

‘I think there was discomfort, unhappiness, shock, disbelief, anger, that: “Oh, I am a part of this problem. This feels uncomfortable.” Because as social justice activists we try not to replicate the very same oppression we are trying to change,’ Denise Drake told Peace News recently.

Drake is a trainer with Turning the Tide, a London-based Quaker grassroots training collective. She and other UK-based trainers are now collaborating in a network to better incorporate anti-oppression methods into their work. The process has been personal, political, and constantly up for debate.

‘There is this relationship in the UK about the environmental movement and the non-profits. There’s an overlap between the people – the organisers, the key thinkers, how agendas get set,’ trainer Suzanne Dhaliwal said, adding that these organisations tend to be founded in the white middle class. ‘That’s starting to change now… slowly. But it is still really, really slow.’

Dhaliwal, after working with numerous peace and environmental groups, has just joined Seeds for Change, an Oxford-based training collective.

‘I’m coming to work for Seeds for Change to bring a different perspective – to bring the perspective of a person of colour, someone who has been experiencing oppression in the UK. A lot of the methodologies for Seeds for Change have come from the US and I’ll be looking at the UK context,’ Dhaliwal said

Kathryn Tulip, another Seeds for Change trainer, noted that anti-oppression training is ‘much, much more common in the States than it has been here, certainly within the environmental and peace movements. Within our movements, a sort of concerted effort to change the way we relate to each other and deal with power, I don’t think that’s happened before, so it seems a very important time.’

Seeds for Change, Turning the Tide, and other collectives have felt the impacts of the George Lakey session in July 2012 – the same training Drake described as ‘uncomfortable.’

‘Oh, people hated the workshop, because we were being challenged on our power,’ Tulip said. However, the day after these difficult conversations, trainers met and decided to keep in touch. ‘If we really want equality, then we need to step out of our comfort zone,’ Tulip said.

George Lakey, founder of the US-based Training for Change collective, facilitated the July 2012 training for trainers (organised by Peace News co-editor Milan Rai). During the training, Lakey introduced the ‘mainstreams and the margins’ framework for discussing oppression.

The concept – still debated by trainers today – is meant to give activists and trainers a way to acknowledge divisions in class, age, race, gender, sexuality, and more.

Mainstreams and margins

Training for Change elder Daniel Hunter has observed: ‘Every group has mainstreams and margins. By nature, the mainstream is clueless about the experience of the margins. Every mainstream group I’ve ever worked with always starts clueless about the margin’s experience. The margin, however, experiences the rejection of their insights. Think about the amount of women’s insight lost because of sexism and women’s collective anger at that. From a pedagogical perspective, then, my responsibility as a trainer is to follow the margin and interrupt the apparent smoothness to allow the margin’s wisdom to show up.’

London Roots co-facilitator Hadiru Mahdi reflected: ‘There’s a question of what a mainstream and margin might be in a particular scenario and how that’s reflected in a broader society. Is there a sense of fluidity in mainstreams and margins?’

“A lot of us have gone through a lot of trauma trying to speak about systemic privilege, and the backlash that happens.”

‘I found that, through organising in London… a lot of the movements or activists in the UK were kind of complaining or feeling self-conscious about being white, male, middle class,’ he said. ‘But in some of those meetings it was less race or class that was uniting people or dividing people. It’s like, what lines or similarities are there? I think sometimes for me, in that room, my education or reading or recent experience was more of an aligning force of similarity for people in the room than my ethnic background or class background or being a first generation in this country. There are other lines that aren’t as visible.’

Lucy Mason, a trainer for the Scottish training collective Tripod, said that often an individual can find themselves in the mainstream in some circumstances but the margins in another, depending on groups, backgrounds, and experiences.

‘It helps us understand that power is fluid,’ Dhaliwal said. ‘Often, in one context, you’re in the mainstreams, and in another you’re in the margins. Power is not fixed. But I feel like, what has happened is that people who start to identify with the margins – it could be that I’m queer, or I have a disability – and, if that person is white, it stops the conversation [about racism] from going forward sometimes because that person sticks with that identity and says: “Well, I’m also oppressed. Therefore I don’t have to deal with that.” ’

Mason has found that facilitating conversations between ‘the mainstream and margins’ can be a challenge for trainers because there is a question of whose responsibility it is to initiate the discussion.

‘The mainstream will resist recognising, or are unlikely to become less oblivious, that they have something to learn without being confronted about it first,’ Mason said. ‘I think that the idea that the onus should only be on the mainstream to teach themselves [this is not the Training for Change approach– eds] is potentially disempowering to the margins because the mainstream can just reinforce their own power without it being confronted.’

She tries to strike a balance between the mainstream identifying and working on their oppressive tendencies along with creating space for the margins to feel empowered to confront these behaviours.

Black Feminists trainer Lola Okolosie has also had similar conversations with other trainers, although her collective does not tend to collaborate with other groups because ‘other organisations are not perhaps outwardly feminist, aren’t claiming that label for themselves… and also aren’t black in a political sense,’ she said. Black Feminists is devoted to educating communities, activists and young girls about the intersections of racism, sexism, disabilism and homophobia.

‘Despite the fact that I completely agree that people from the margins shouldn’t shoulder the responsibility and the burden of doing the teaching, I also think that it is incredibly necessary that they speak their truth,’ she said. ‘In some ways that isn’t going to happen if you leave people – if we’re still using these terms – from the “mainstream” to go and do the learning themselves. They should go out and do that learning, but I don’t think it can happen in isolation from a deep and more profound learning which can happen if people from the margins are speaking their positions and grounding what might be theory in lived experience.’

Dhaliwal said her own experiences of oppression have helped inform her facilitation of anti-oppression workshops.

‘Language is often used as a way to oppress people – people who have better language skills, better media skills. A lot of those things are used to create a sort of hierarchy within the movement,’ Dhaliwal said. ‘For me, I try to work within those cultures; I try to suppress a lot of the ways those things are undermining my self-esteem… my ability to feel my ideas were valid because maybe they spilled out a bit more loosely or I had difficulties with grammar. I have a first class philosophy degree but I still was experiencing this soft bullying in a sense.’

Partnering with the right person also has helped.

‘I think it helps sometimes to have a small brown woman and a six-foot-four white guy doing this together. That relationship shows cooperation,’ Dhaliwal said.

The number of trainers of colour and disability, on the whole, however, is ‘hugely lacking’ in the United Kingdom, Okolosie said.

Difficult conversations

‘I think there is still a lot of work to do to make various activist organisations more inclusive and I don’t say that implying that we at Black Feminists don’t have that work to do also,’ she said. ‘A lot of these organisations don’t have enough members from the very constituencies they’re wanting to talk about. There is the difficulty of not wanting to… speak for and therefore silence the very groups you are trying to empower.’

Dhaliwal agreed that women of colour trainers are ‘rare.’

‘A lot of us have gone through a lot of trauma, mainly from, not their actions, but from trying to raise these issues, trying to speak about systemic privilege, and the backlash that happens,’ Dhaliwal said. ‘I’ve found I try to phrase things in a loving way and it’ll often be misconstrued as “angry brown woman,” or “misunderstanding situations,” or “it’s all in your head,” you know, that kind of language.’

The challenge, Okolosie said, is committing to the long-term process of bringing a diversity of people to the table. ‘I think it is about questioning who isn’t in that meeting and thinking about the ways in which you can get them into that room to work with you. And being patient enough to foster relationships over a long period of time.’

Fostering those relationships often means starting out with difficult conversations, which the traditional training collectives have begun to commit to. Collectives have formed a UK grassroots training network to share progress, resources, and skills.

In past years, training groups have focused their energy on training activists in skills like consensus decision-making, and nonviolent direct action. Recently, however, there has been momentum to offer anti-oppression training, as well as to weave the theme into trainings of all topics.

‘There’s an interest in the undoing of oppression, the power and privilege work, and that network is being revived to help people do that work,’ Drake said. In the early 2000s, there was an action training group created to bring collectives together and this newest project is reminiscent of that early work, Drake noted. Turning the Tide hosted Training for Change in the UK again in January 2014 for another training for trainers.

As training groups have begun learning more about anti-oppression work, grassroots groups began requesting these types of workshops for the first time, Tulip said.

‘We’ve just had a flurry of people requesting anti-oppression workshops, which is fantastic,’ Tulip said. ‘I feel like this is the right moment to start this work with groups… to make this a part of the culture of activist groups, that people will accept that part of the work they do together will be around anti-oppression work.’

Part of the network met in late February to start sharing and improving their anti-oppression trainings. Tulip expressed optimism after the meeting; she said having a supportive group to explore ideas with was useful, bringing up new questions and ideas.

Tulip said since the network began, she has collaborated with other groups more often than she had before. ‘I think that’s really valuable – sharing skills and knowledge between the collectives in that way,’ she said.

Dhaliwal says that the innovative and inclusive trainings being prepared have so far been successful in assisting groups to understand their working dynamics.

‘People often think: “Oh, no, we’re going to be in a line up and all the white middle-class people are going to have to stand in the centre… and people are going to spend three hours hating on me because I’m white and instead this is quite a soft process, quite personal. It doesn’t go into that blame game; it’s more about mapping and understanding. It builds a culture of listening to people,’ Dhaliwal said.