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What Happened in Hartford

Abraham Lateiner of

My name is Phil Britton, and I fight for the freedom to live out my values of love, justice, and tenacity.  I fight for my freedom, because I cannot be free unless we are all free.  I am a student of my brother and sister.  I am not confused.  I feel fear of having too small a voice, but I will speak anyway.

No post has clogged up my creative flow as much as this one.  I’ve tried to pull what happened in Hartford out of the record my synapses created several times, but I kept getting stuck.  I think I wanted my voice to be coherent, authoritative, wise, convincing, or at least like I knew what in the hell I was talking about.  Unfortunately, those things only come with time, with active processing, reworking, testing, and mistakes.  So, my friends, here goes.  Here is me, slogging my way to a slow and stumbling woke.

Literally hours after Donald J Trump was declared the winner of the 2016 presidential election, I flew out east (see this post for reflections on that). I was slated to co-present at the NESAWG It Takes a Region conference the day after.  I flew into Boston in a haze, stayed at a friend’s, and he drove me to Hartford, where the conference was, the next day.

I had already planned on attending the two sessions on race when I first registered.  It was a topic I was interested in, as I had been listening to others share their stories of how prevalent racism still is in America for several months, especially systemic racism and police brutality.  I was aware of my ignorance, so I was just listening and learning, and hoping to continue that during the conference.  I got way more than I bargained for.

The first night, after my session, I ended up having dinner with Karen Spiller (interim director of NESAWG).  She was a delightful old black lady, and we instantly connected over our shared Michiganderness – she grew up in Detroit, but has spent the last several decades in Boston.  She practically oozed optimism, and spoke of her time working with a program (details are fuzzy) that brought conversations on race into schools throughout the country.  When she stopped mid-conversation to quietly give thanks for her food, it was one of those mystical, holy moments.

The theme of the conference was Wicked Problems, and the irony was lost on no one.  The idea was taking on incredibly complex problems, that in reality never end.  I wrote down some notes on the Cynefin framework that dove into some really juicy systems-thinking, which I love.  I went to another session on creative sources of funding, which I don’t really remember, and then it was time for the first session on racism, called “Social Justice for Who?”

It was led by a man named Abraham Lateiner, who runs the blog, and it blew my mind.  Here was a white, cisgender, able-bodied, college-educated male, basically the epitome of white privilege, talking fluently and passionately about racism – from that point of view.  Totally owning his identity, what that means in America, and what he can do from that position.  In talking to Karen afterwards, I learned that she really wanted to create a space at the conference for white people to talk about racism.

I’m intentionally not explaining a lot, because it’s too much and too fresh, but one of the first things he had us do was shout out some of our values, like truth or love or peace or happiness, while he wrote them down on a flip chart.  When it was full, he turned and said this “If you are born white in America, you are prevented from living out these values with integrity.”  He went on to talk about how  systemic racism undermines our efforts in that way.  He walked through more examples while I just sat there, immersed in a new environment.  New even in little ways, like how it was the first time I had heard people snapping their fingers when something resonated with them.

The last thing we did was write a personal freedom narrative using prompts that were taped up around the room, and took turns reading them aloud (mine is above).  As people shared, everyone began standing, clapping, cheering, and the room became electric.  It was a powerful moment.

After eating lunch in a bit of a daze, I went to another session called What White People Can Do About Racism in the Food System, which was co-led by Karen.  This session was longer and took more of an academic approach, but was just as powerful.  What left it’s mark on me the most was the concept of the white-centered American narrative, most obviously illustrated in the “Great American Melting Pot.”  Immigrants were to be absorbed and assimilated into the American narrative, but that narrative was implicitly told from a white-centered perspective.  It’s assumed that the default point of view is the white one, hence the problem of “colorblindness.”  We also discussed the same concept in terms of the alternative food movement by reading an excerpt called “If They Only Knew – The Unbearable Whiteness of Alternative Food” (you can read it in another form here).

So that’s what happened in Hartford.  A fire was lit.  Fresh horizons were crossed in me.  Like any de-centering or deconstructive event, it was unsettling, disorienting and exhilarating at the same time.  I’m very much still processing it, and writing publicly about it feels incredibly vulnerable and exposed, but it produced such a fundamental shift in me that not writing about it had basically closed the valve on creating anything.  So here it is, here am I, hopefully it moves the conversation forward.

I feel fear of having too small a voice, but I will speak anyway.

Peace and Tenacity,