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  • Writer's pictureItzbeth Menjívar

Community Agreements for Racial Dialogue

On this last day of #HispanicHeritageMonth I would like to invite you into solidarity and community to dismantle white supremacy culture that harms so many in our communities. Showing up in solidarity and community and minimizing harm can be aided by tools to foster dialogue across difference, and particularly in the Hispano-hablante (Spanish-speaking) Hispanic and Latine communities, which I have been part of since arriving in the US. Before I share racial dialogue tools I think would be helpful in fomenting solidarity, I would like to provide you with some context and tell you a little bit about myself and my work.

I am an Afro-Mayan woman from Panamá. In the late 80’s, I migrated to Miami, Florida during an economic and political crisis in Panamá. My older brother is a very dark-skinned tall Black man. My younger adoptive brother was born into the Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous community, and was abandoned in a prison cell after birth. It was clear early on that as a lighter-skinned “ethnically ambiguous” woman, I enjoyed privileges not afforded to my siblings. Growing up in this context has informed my journey and passion for racial justice.

As of last June, I no longer identify as Latina, as this label and construct is intentionally steeped in white supremacy, centers the language roots of colonizers and settlers, and erases the experiences of Black and Indigenous peoples living across what is now called the Americas. It’s important to note that most indigenous communities do not identify themselves as Latine, as this is an European colonial construct that has been deeply harmful to so many communities. I do however still identify as Hispano-hablante, because due to colonization, my native tongue is Spanish. Sadly, indigenous languages have been driven into near extinction by the brutal and harmful cultural genocide of our colonizers, and part of my healing journey includes beginning to learn and reclaim indigenous languages.

I was raised as a Roman-Catholic and was a practicing Christian for most of life. While I no longer identify under the Christian label, I am still firmly in the camp of followers of Christ, and I am happy to be held accountable to live my life in the ways that Jesus taught. I also follow and learn from all other faith traditions, and am blessed to be in community with people of all faiths and no faiths. In reclaiming the spirituality of my African and Indigenous ancestors, and in growing in my understanding of the Mayan cosmovision, I now understand that ALL human beings and ALL living beings, including our planet, plants, animals, land, and water, are sacred and interdependent. We are all in this together. I believe that our choices are to come together to protect ALL of life, or to perish.

It is this sacredness of life that informs me and my work daily. I refuse to reclaim my full humanity by robbing someone else of theirs. I believe that those who oppose racial or social justice are the victims of intergenerational lies and mis- and dis-information. I believe the enemy is always the system, and never the people. I believe that the systems of domination that harm us all include: white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, religious intolerance, ableism, ageism, adultism, elitism, classism, and also poverty, the prison industrial complex, and anti-poor legal and (in)justice systems (I may have missed some, feel free to add them in the comments). Dismantling the system that oppresses us all does not have to (and likely will not) come about through violence, we can choose to divest from oppression, cease our complicity, and engage in different ways in the relationships in our life, making systems of oppression obsolete.

I believe that the foundational lie that these systems are built upon is the myth of scarcity. I believe that we live in a rich and abundant world with enough resources to meet everyone’s needs, but that a few are hoarding most of the resources, and stoking fear in order to divide, control, and exploit us. Indigenous people, who protect 80% of the remaining forests and biodiversity that enable life on our planet are under constant threat by predatory capitalism and corporations extended immunity by our government. If we are to survive on this planet, the voices and wisdom of Indigenous people will have to be elevated and taken seriously.

I began my efforts to advance racial justice in my work in November 2016, after my shock and horror in seeing the United States elect a self-proclaimed white supremacist to the highest office. I had bought into so many of the myths about American culture, that I failed to see what was clearly impacting me and my loved ones: a deeply entrenched white cis-hetero patriarchal supremacy that utilizes systemic racism, discrimination, and exclusion as a way to perpetuate its power, wealth, and privilege. I first began to develop my own racial analysis when I served as Chair of the Board of an organization called Service Never Sleeps from 2017 to 2019, which was where I was first exposed to shared agreements as tools for racial dialogue.

In 2019, after an awful professional experience as a Black immigrant woman in senior leadership at a so-called social justice organization, I decided to launch my own racial equity, leadership development, and culture transformation strategic consulting firm, BridgePeople. My goal is to equip leaders committed to social and racial justice with tools for dialogue and creating multicultural environments of belonging for all.

The tools I am sharing today are informed by a number of teachers, colleagues, and collaborators. They include: Service Never Sleeps, Collective Action for Safe Spaces, Equity in the Center, Racial Equity Institute, DC BLM, the WildSeed Collective, and many, many others. None of these were developed by me, I am just collecting and sharing them, in the same way they were generously shared with me.

I want to reiterate that this an invitation into solidarity with those most impacted by white supremacy, anti-Blackness, and Native erasure. Take it if it’s helpful, leave it if it’s not.

Tools for Racial Dialogue

  1. Consent & Boundaries are the foundation of any productive dialogue. Be sure to obtain consent before entering into a conversation. You cannot force someone into dialogue. It is your responsibility to establish and communicate boundaries in advance of entering dialogue. Boundaries express your needs in the conversation.

  2. Understand the problem before proposing solutions. Easy fixes never work, we need to go to the root of the problem, not the symptoms. Work towards understanding the larger historical context from the perspective of the most marginalized, particularly Black & Indigenous people.

    1. Instead of centering yourself in the conversation, center those who are most impacted by white supremacy and other systems of domination. In the Americas context, the most impacted include Black & Indigenous people living at the intersection of other areas of marginalization: poverty, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, religious intolerance, ableism, ageism, adultism, etc.

    2. Consider and understand the specific complaint that is being raised in the conversation. Is the complaint individual, interpersonal, organizational, institutional, or systemic? If it’s a systemic complaint, don’t get defensive, this is not about you as an individual, this is about a system. Defensiveness is not helpful to advancing understanding, instead seek to understand more about the system, and how you can be part of dismantling it.

    3. Understand how the systemic lie of white superiority and Black inferiority may live in you, at the individual or interpersonal levels. What are the lies that you still believe about Black or brown people? Interrogate your biases and assumptions. If you are not in relationship with Black or Indigenous people, ask yourself why? If you resist the leadership of Black or Indigenous people and think you have all the answers, ask yourself why?

  3. Be fully present in the conversation. Be present in mind, body, heart, and spirit. Be present to another’s humanity, and to your own too. Do not multi-task while in conversation. If you’ve gone a few rounds back and forth in writing without progress, perhaps make it a point to actually speak to the person(s) you are in conversation with.

  4. Be willing to actively listen with a curious and compassionate heart. Consider asking open questions to deepen your understanding, and check your understanding (repeat it back to the person) to ensure you got it right, before you offer your own perspectives.

  5. Be willing to take responsibility for impact, regardless of intention! They rightly say that road to hell is paved with good intentions. If you harmed someone, even unintentionally, take responsibility for it, and if needed extend an apology. A good apology includes a statement of how change will happen. If you’ve apologized before, but did not change your behavior, then the second or third apology carries very little weight. For your apology to be taken seriously, you have to stop the harm and demonstrate different behaviors.

  6. Assume best intentions, and clarify when needed. Be fair in your assessment of what “those people", or "the other” is seeking to raise and is asking for.

  7. Speak for yourself and your experiences by using “I” statements. Refrain from speaking about someone’s else’s experience. It’s very difficult for you to know for sure what it’s like for someone else. Don’t assume. And if you assume, assume best intentions.

  8. Expect and accept non-closure. White supremacy in the Americas has been around for over 600 years. Knowing that we won’t fix it all in one day, we need to be committed to long-term dialogue that honors everyone’s humanity.

  9. WAIT: Why Am I (Not) Talking? Take responsibility for how much space you take up. If you normally take up a lot of space, allow some time for others to speak. If you take up too little space, challenge yourself to share, so that others may benefit from your perspectives.

  10. Confidentiality: Share the lesson, not the story. If something moved you deeply, and you want to share it, either ask for consent to share it, or share the lesson and not someone else’s story.

Take these Community Agreements, make them your own, and share them widely!

What other agreements would you add? Feel free to comment and share.

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