By Maia Kelly

As we approach the next annual cycle of Unlearning Courses, we will be continuing to trial and evaluate more approaches to improving the impact of the work. The ways forward we are trialling do not mitigate all inherent risks associated with this work, but we will continue to be transparent about our backtracking, growth, and attempts to repair as we fumble forward. A key takeaway from this unlearning journey has been how accountability is a constant process. Deepening trust and relationships through showing up, deep listening, doing what we say we’ll do, not repeating harms when we mess up – are essential parts of serving our shared mission of ending racial injustice. 

Part of our work within the Unlearning Racism Programme (URC) is to continue to evaluate, learn and strengthen . Being transparent about our backtracking and re-strategising whilst sharing our unlearning journey as a project is part of our accountability to those who experience racial marginalisation, and entrust us to do this work alongside them, as part of our shared vision for collective liberation.

We want to acknowledge the reputational and organisational risks that the Racial Justice Network takes in hosting the URC Programme. Over the years of coordinating this project, we have welcomed critical feedback and sat with the pitfalls, tensions and contradictions we hold in doing anti-racist education as white-facilitators.


Some publicly available critiques around white people educating and organising for racial justice that have influenced us includes;

Rachel Ricketts’ White Women Ain’t Fragile (Nor is White Supremacy)

DiDi Delgado’s ‘Whites Only: SURJ And The Caucasian Invasion Of Racial Justice Spaces’

Ambalavaner Sivanandan’s ‘Communities of Resistance: Writings on Black Struggles for Socialism’

Among other tensions, their critiques highlight the tendencies for;

  • Many white people to prefer learning about white supremacy from other white people instead of from those who experience racial marginalisation – which is white supremacy continuing to limit the success of Black and Brown anti-racist educators;
  • For whiteness and the white-gaze to perpetuate white supremacy, superiority, entitlement and white comfort – which inevitably permeates white caucused spaces, and risks white-washing or minimising the relenting harm that white supremacy inflicts;
  • For white anti-racism spaces to risk becoming ‘safety nets’, that protect white people from the uncertainty, risks, and fears of failure – which both keeps those with lived experience at a distance, limits relationship building and building an anti-racist practice through doing.

DiDi Delgado’s article highlights the crux of white-anti-racist work being about being in true accountability, not leading the work in isolation. ‘The objective for allies should be to inflict as little harm as possible. And the way to do this is through accountability. But who are white-led anti-racism groups accountable to? And what does that accountability look like?’ 

As URC is a white-identifying space, it is essential to continually ask ourselves these questions. How accountable is our work? How effective is it in meaningfully contributing to movements for racial justice? And are we meeting our purpose of ‘supporting and mobilising for Black and Brown-led anti-racist work’? 


2021

Following strategic conversations with Mentors within the Racial Justice Network, we trialled new approaches in our organising work as discussed in our blog post on white accountable action.

Central to these earlier revisions of the course was the recognition that it was not enough, and even harmful, for white people to learn about how racism and white supremacy operate but stop there. We realised that the efforts of URC were inherently flawed if we were not going further, and engaging white folks in taking accountable action in support of racial justice. In response to these discussions, the changes made in 2021 were; 

  • Movement Mentors – To resource movement mentors to offer guidance to facilitators, as well as in depth sessions with course participants to centre their grassroots organising within the course, guide opportunities for action and shared requests with us that might support their work, and wider movements for racial justice;

  • Accountable Action Group – To set up a white ‘Accountable Action Group’ (inspired by the Showing Up For Racial Justice organising model in the States) to be responsive to the needs of grassroots campaigns when opportunities for mobilisation or targeted action arose (guided by the Racial Justice Network, Mentors and other grassroots groups in our networks). 

  • Financial Redistribution – Further embed a financial model based on redistribution of income generated through course fees: where 50% of income covers running costs and mentor remuneration, and the other 50% is allocated towards resourcing campaigns and projects within RJN.

Despite these interventions, there was still a low uptake of Mentor requests, and limited evidence of collective action. This was not least due to how our whiteness showed up in our organising practices through: prioritising outputs over relationship building with Mentors; lacking flexibility to resource emerging needs and creative ideas when these arose; failing to give direct feedback or say no when asks weren’t possible, under-communicating boundaries and needs both as individuals and as a collective. The combination of these factors alongside structural factors such as siloed meetings, and underestimating time, limited our ability to deepen personal relationships and work in community towards co-liberation.

One comment that particularly stood out in the annual project evaluation was that;

 ‘The learning happens in caucused spaces and action happens in community’.

– Penninah Wangari-Jones

This highlighted how counterproductive it was to host a caucused white ‘Accountable Action Group’. We wasn’t seeing actions emerging from this space because it inadvertently prioritised time in white spaces over building trust and relationships with Black and Brown organisers in lived experience-led spaces.


2022

In response to feedback received over these recent iterations of the course, we’ve continued to adjust our approach further in efforts to see more energy going into supporting campaigns and projects organising for racial justice following the courses. The changes made in 2022 were;

  • New Content on Accountability & Redistribution – Bringing more action oriented content into the course. This was done by streamlining the current content, and adding two new modules focused on solidarity, relationship building, accountability and wealth redistribution to the course. 

  • Practical Tasks – Encouraging a participatory process of action learning throughout the course, by cutting back on content and reading materials, to give more time to action, practice and organising. The new modules included practical fundraising, donating, research and action tasks between sessions.

  • Clearer Purpose – Making effort to better emphasise our purpose and what the course is for in our publicity, to attract those who share our vision, and are interested in lifelong unlearning and solidarity.

  • Less Silos, More Solidarity – Presenting requests and opportunities for action upfront in courses and communications with participants beyond the course, to create easier pathways into Racial Justice Networks campaigns (because ‘action happens in community’). 

  • Action Learning – Continuing to offer a monthly peer support space, but ensure it is not a forum for action, but explicitly for reflecting on our practice (the learning happens in caucused spaces’). This functions to build more accountability to each other, and receiving support and challenge in how we apply the learning to prevent drop-off or harmful application.


Acknowledgements

We would like to acknowledge the teachings and wisdom of our Mentors and colleagues Peninah Wangari-Jones, Esther Stanford Xosei, Mama D Ujuaje, Anu Priya, Melany Zarate, Sarai Pinney and Viriginie Assal, as well as former Trustees Maureen Grant, Sai Murray, Richard Traviner and Remi Joseph-Salisbury who gave shape the work in its earliest iterations in 2017-19. Without their generous feedback and insights – recognising where the project falls short of its goals, as well as shining light on potential ways forward for us to explore – this work would absolutely not be possible. We are incredibly thankful for the trust and honesty to share these truths, visions and ideas.


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