Whatever happened to the PN Winter Gathering?

IssueApril 2014
Comment by Milan Rai

There is a saying in the field of community development finance – providing credit to disadvantaged groups – that if you never have a bad loan (that isn’t re-paid), you aren’t doing it right. You ought to be going to the risky, hard-to-reach areas, where things don’t work out.

I think something like this happened to the Peace News Winter Gathering, which turned into the Peace News Spring Training, which has unfortunately been withdrawn by Seeds for Change, who were going to be delivering the training. (a statement from Seeds is below.)

In 2013, Peace News Summer Camp was organised by people of colour, and centred around a great four-hour anti-oppression workshop led by Black Feminists (and largely designed by Daniel Hunter of Training for Change in the US). After that camp in July, it seemed there was a good opportunity to extend the work by having an anti-oppression training in the winter of 2013-2014, and we brought together six trainers with different approaches to devise and deliver a weekend workshop in February 2014. Four of the six were people of colour, and racism and anti-racism were live issues in the group. This was not the only significant difference in the group, which included, for example, working-class trainers.

It was a very experimental, very different kind of process for everyone involved, trying to bridge many kinds of difference – including in our approaches to anti-oppression training. I learned a lot; I hope other people did, too. We were all operating outside our comfort zones.

Different life things happened, including a bereavement, and overseas travel because of work, and suddenly we were not in a position to go ahead with the original group-of-six weekend-workshop concept.

White People

At that point, I encouraged the two white trainers in the group to use the venue and date that had been arranged to deliver a one-day anti-racist training for white people, something that had nearly happened as a two-hour workshop at the previous Peace News Summer Camp. The original title, ‘Being White’, evolved into ‘White People Exploring Racism’.

During this whole process, the Winter Gathering idea had felt quite pioneering, and this white caucus workshop seems to have been a step too far for a few folk in the activist training community, both white people and people of colour. It was a peculiar experience for me, as a person of colour, trying to support two white people creating a space for white people. This amount of whiteness happens all the time! Here, there was a conscious anti-racist intention behind it, which does not happen much at all. Somehow, though, this particular white space had a flavour that some people found troubling.

My own experience of being in workshops or caucuses for oppressor groups (anti-sexist men’s groups, or able-bodied people talking about disability, for example) is that it can create a safer space for exploring difficult, complicated feelings and thoughts. Not bringing them out into the light doesn’t get rid of them, it just suppresses them, making it harder to get rid of unconscious or semi-conscious attitudes that contribute to oppressive behaviour towards other people, or collusion with oppressive institutions.

A lot depends on the structure of the workshop, and the skill of the facilitator, but I’m a firm believer in the value of caucusing for both people of colour and white people; for both working-class people and middle-class people; and so on.

Speak out

At the George Lakey training in July 2012 (PN 2549), there was a ‘speak out’ session by people of colour, speaking to the white people at the workshop about their experience of racism. It was preceded by people of colour separating out to think about what they wanted to say, leaving the white people to their own devices for over an hour (something referred to in the accompanying article on activist training). The starting point of the session was an open invitation to any group within the workshop to do the speak-out if they wanted to. It happened to be the people of colour who stood up first on that occasion.

George’s approach is that, firstly, the speak-out must be heard in silence by the other group, in this case the white people, and, secondly, no one can assume that someone who has spoken out is willing to discuss further what they have said. They must be asked for permission to talk about what they have said. As someone speaking out, and making myself vulnerable in that way, these were incredibly important principles to me.

I don’t particularly care what the white people were doing during their enforced caucus, but I’m sure there was a good opportunity for them to learn something in that space, if they were willing to take it.

One of the best experiences during the Winter Gathering/Spring Training process was a Skype consultation we had with Erika Thorne of Training for Change. Erika, who is white, has been leading anti-racist workshops in the US for many years, including workshops aimed at white people who want to explore racism in themselves and in society. I found her wisdom and experience invaluable. I look forward to the day when workshops for white people wanting to fight racism and become good allies to people of colour become normal, everyday occurrences in the UK, as they are in the US. I hope that the Peace News Winter Gathering 2014 project has helped to bring that day forward.


A word from the trainers

Seeds for Change is committed to supporting grassroots organisers to develop their awareness and skills to recognise oppression and challenge it, in ourselves, in the groups we work with, and in wider society. We have been working in conjunction with Peace News to offer a workshop for white people to explore their relationship with race and racism. We’ve decided to cancel this workshop so we can do more work on this ourselves before stepping out to offer support to others. The white trainers in Seeds for Change plan to focus energy working in smaller groups in our home towns.

We know of a handful of groups, of people of colour, white people, and mixed groups, around the country who meet regularly to discuss race. There are more that we don’t know about. If you are interested in exploring race, we would encourage you to join a group that already exists, or start one of your own. We remain committed to supporting the development of a culture of anti-racist organising and to offering spaces for white people and for people of colour to explore their relationships with race and racism.