Saturday, February 22, 2014

Healing Together

It is I who Must Begin
~By: Vaclav Havel

It is I who must begin. 
Once I begin, once I try
here and now, 
Right where I am,
not excusing myself
by saying that things
would be easier elsewhere,
without grand speeches and 
ostentatious gestures,
but all the more persistently
to live in harmony
with the "voice of Being," as I 
understand it within myself
as soon as I begin that,
I suddenly discover,
to my surprise, that 
I am neither the only one, 
nor the first, 
nor the most important one
to have set out
upon that road.

Whether all is really lost
or not depends entirely on
whether or not I am lost.

I like to rise early so that I can move about my mornings slowly. Waking past the bewildered moment of first opening my eyes, over to the window to see what the world looks like for the day. I shuffle, serene before real world distractions, breathing in the scent of hot coffee, the unyielding routine of brown eggs. I like to indulge in the quiet and the novelty of the day. M
ost mornings I make a great breakfast and think about the small, simple things that become us: the color of winter morning air, the movement of cold bodies on the street. Taking unspoiled time to experience myself before the influence of my people, my jobs, my obligations. This is the way I like best to experience the world. Slow mornings are my blessings. It is in these moments when I learn the most about myself. It is in these moments that I find the center of it all. And in more recent mornings I've been finding myself reflecting less on simple things, and more, now, on that which is deep, that which is grave and important. I move from the small, to reflecting on the feelings of isolation, devastation, connection, of love. 

This has been inspired in no small part by my recent attendance to the Healing Together Retreat on January 23, 2014. As marked by the SMBHS site, the Racial Healing Retreats, put on by the Racial Healing Initiative of the Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society, are "designed for small, interracial groups of community members who have a desire for personal transformation, connection and community healing. The retreats facilitate a healing journey towards individual and community reconciliation of unresolved trauma caused by issues of race." The Retreat is a full day, facilitated experience that takes place only a couple times a year.

I had been hearing little rumors about this retreat for months by this point, but was still unsure of what to expect. I had, however, been warned about tissue boxes and tears. On the day of the retreat, it was bitter cold outside and heavy with another night of unforgiving snowfall. After having Al, the man I've come to know as my giver of wisdom, help push my car out of the driveway, Donna and I set out into the crisp morning, slowly through the snow. Driving through hilly roads west of town, my little car chugging doubtfully, we arrived a little late and a little busted with the day, not yet 8 o'clock. However, the Fetzer Institute proved to be an instant haven, and my exhaustion quickly gave way to comfort. Warmed by a wood-burning fireplace, the building offered us a view of the rare blue sky through great, wide windows overlooking winter's white scene
a frosted pond, magnificent, old trees. After tea, coffee and a small breakfast, our retreat began. Less than twenty of us sat in a circlea mix of black, white and brown complexions, the aged, the young and those in between. All women, save for the two men who huddled together, overwhelmed, I'm sure, by their small numbers.

After sitting, we were welcomed by two phenomenal facilitators, Beverly Coleman and Caren Dybek, trained in the prestigious Center for Courage and Renewal. Throughout the day, Bev and Caren eased us into this inexplicable space by guiding us through a set of greetings, activities, reflections and small group discussions that allowed us to really dig into both our own experiences with race, and each other's experiences with race. We read poetry (see above!), created our own personal timelines, wrote and spoke. Through the sharing of our stories and perspectives, we were able to reflect on how racism affected our lives and the health of our community, how it crippled and scarred. We were able to use this room full of wisdom and experience, this room full of different backgrounds and histories, to build a better understanding of  racism and its various faces. And through the sharing, through the honest listening, we were able to connect.

I am left in awe, yet again, at the importance of story-telling. As Donna will tell you, the feedback we always get after any program is gratitude for creating a space to have a dialogue about race. People are craving this conversation. We are aching for it. In January, the Healing Together Retreat again opened up this space. It gave us a chance to connect to one another and acknowledge the individual experiences we each have with race. For me, this experience of Racial Healing was quite honestly the cherry on top of my still-developing journey with acknowledging and combating racism in my own life and in my community. Having spent a modest amount of time thinking about racism somewhat academically in school and through trainings like ERAC/Ce, I am conscious of the vastness and gravity of racism. I know and recognize how it is literally ingrained in the smallest and largest foundations of our society. And while we each have our own experiences with it, it is undeniably a structural and systemic problem. It is the invasive species. Racism saturates all thingshealth, housing, employment, education, the judicial system, women's rights, gender issues, et cetera and on and on. When one works for social justice, they must recognize this fact at all times. And, to be honest, it is a daunting and disheartening reality. So, to have the chance to couple this knowledge of institutional racism with a conversation and a practice of listening to individual experiences. Well. It completed my circle, connected my dots. Through the process of sharing with folks at this Retreat, I realized that I had been spending a lot of time thinking about the institution of racism, and only a very small amount of time reflecting and understanding how it has damaged my own life. For me, acknowledging race has been a particularly painful and terrifying experience, becauselike many people who identify as multiracialas a biracial young woman with fair skin, I still do not see or understand my place in this world. This retreat challenged me to take up courage and explore this. And I'm seeing that through following this exploration and acknowledging how damaging race has been in my own life and development, I feel much more prepared these days to converse about racism and find ways to move forward. This retreat helped fill a void for me, provided me with a more full set of tools, so to speak, to advance in combatting racism on multiple levels.

So, in many ways, the Healing Together Retreat married two worlds for me. Where Anti-racism is giving folks the tools to really recognize and analyze racism as it relates to systems, structures and institutions, Racial Healing is providing us with opportunities to connect as individuals and find personal transformations. I cannot express enough how well these two philosophies compliment each other. That is, we need to be able to address and share these individual racisms while also thinking about and acknowledging the systems and structures. We must be able to transform our own understandings, transform ourselves in order to make larger change. Please watch this four minute video and read this short article for some light and articulation on my thoughts here. 

All in all, what will always stand with me from this day is the importance of connection for healing. Although I feel that I am still beginning my journey with race, because of the connections I made at the Retreat, I now have a deeper understanding of racism than I ever would have had exploring this issue alone, or with my own circle and family.  Without community, we are weak. I believe, firmly and sincerely, that we cannot create change alone. However, when we come together, when we listen with compassion, heart, understanding and a desire to grow, we create a space that naturally nurtures and promotes healing. No longer a soldier, but an army.

Now as I sit in the mornings, quietly reflecting on my world over a cup of coffee, I sit feeling just a little bit closer to the center of it all. History is etched into our being. It is a part of our making, the very matter of our DNA. True, we cannot escape the past injustices done by, upon, or in benefit of us, but, we do have power to take responsibility for our present and our future. The Racial Healing Initiative is creating space for dialogue that can inspire change. Although I still feel there is a mountain of work for me to do in terms of understanding the atrocity of race and racism and how to combat it, after the retreat I am left now with a clearer understanding of racism as it relates to the heart. I am now left with a clearer understanding of the personal journey I have left to healing, atonement, and the work I must put in for my own transformation. I am ever indebted to Donna Odom, Beverly Coleman, Caren Dybek and all of the men and women who attended and participated in January's Healing Together Retreat. I very much look forward to coming together again for more dialogue and love.

If you're ever invited to a Healing Together Retreat, I urge you to go. There is no denying that every person will experience this retreat differently depending on where he or she is in their journey with race and racism, but I sincerely believe all will benefit from the conversation. I can say no more. Over and out.