The Racial Justice Workshop series at the YWCA Madison is more about just being kind and pleasant around people who may be a little different from you, it’s about serious conversations and about actively promoting racial justice. Those interactions can get pretty personal and intense and the discussions can become very lively.
“It’s a wonderful, transformative experience. It’s positive and inspiring. It’s a chance to be part of a community,” says YWCA-Madison President and CEO Rachel Krinsky. “We just had a closing circle where people are trying to sum up their experience. As people were talking about it there were tears and laughter and people talking about how much they have come to appreciate each other and about how much they have learned.”
The workshops recently wrapped up their summer sessions which were held on August 20, 21, and 22 at the YWCA Empowerment Center on Madison’s south side. The facilitators for each class direct the 20-25 participants through exercises and conversations where there is plenty of one-on-one discussion. The individuals also complete worksheets and journals to explore and understand their own cultural perspective.
“The facilitators and the group were able to create an incredibly safe space. We got really deep in three days,” Krinsky says. “Everybody in there is talking about race and you know that when you break people into dyads it’s easy to talk about something else. But everybody is still engaged in this. They are in there talking about all of these different complexities of race and privilege. They are excited and animated. The energy is just amazing.”
The YWCA Madison is a membership organization dedicated to eliminating racism, empowering women, and promoting peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all. Their Racial Justice Workshops are a series of three eight-hour meetings designed to address questions of race, privilege, and intercultural understanding. They attract a diverse group of people from throughout Dane County with professional and personal reasons to explore the issues.
“I really enjoy the sense of community here, but what I probably enjoy the most about these workshops is that I am re-engerized to do the work,” Krinsky says. “I’ve been attending workshops like this and learning about this and trying to be involved in anti-racism work for a long, long time. Particularly, if you are a white person, it’s easy to drift away from it or to get tired of it. It’s part of the privilege. So I seek opportunities to reconnect and to be re-energized and to be hopeful of what things I can do as part of staying engaged.”
Workshop participants range in age from 20s to late 60s. The racial composition of attendees is usually pretty diverse, although Krinsky expressed concern that this particular session lacked Asian and Arab representation. The workshops have grown and evolved a bit since they first started in 2001.
“About 11 years ago, the national YWCA rebranded and reworked the national logo and the mission of the YWCA which is eliminating racism and empowering women,” says Colleen Butler, YWCA Racial Justice and Outreach Director. “At that point in time, the Madison YWCA felt like we were doing a pretty good job on the ‘empowering women’ part of that mission but that we weren’t really doing anything intently and specifically focused on eliminating racism.”
So, the YWCA started facilitating the Racial Justice Workshops. For an intensive and cumulative learning experience, the YWCA offers a Racial Justice Certificate program for participants who attend all three of the Racial Justice course levels and complete reading and online assignments between the courses.
“We do the large conference [YWCA Racial Justice Summit] and then have rotating workshops throughout the year,” Butler says. “In the last two years we’ve created a certificate program which is YWCA curriculum that we’ve developed over time to meet the needs of the people who are coming to the workshops.
“There is great diversity at the workshops although we always have more women than men,” Butler adds. “Generally, the participants tend to be professional adults and are coming in connected with their professional backgrounds. The hope is that not only will they benefit from the workshops but they will be able to take something positive back to the people they work with.”
Some of the attendees are individuals from the community, but other times you will see large groups from a single company or agency that go through the workshops together. Many participants take the lessons they learned back to their professional environments and continue the conversation outside of class.
“We have a huge group here today from one organization who has been through the whole three days together,” Krinsky says. “I’m doing a facilitator training at their organization where they are going to bring it out to their staff of 600 people statewide. Then they will continue to do the work in their departments all around the state. That’s a best-case scenario for us but it’s a good example of what we would hope is possible.”
There are three levels of the Racial Justice Workshops: “Communicating Across Cultures,” “Deconstructing Racism,” and “Exploring Privilege.” Each 8-hour session gets a little deeper into the subject matter then the last.
The first workshop on “Communicating Across Cultures” deals with interpersonal relationships at the introductory level for people who haven’t thought about racism too much. The second, “Deconstructing Racism,” goes beyond personal rapport and explores institutional racism. Participants examine how racism and racial injustice is embedded in structures and in society, even if nobody intends for it to be that way. The final workshop on “Exploring Privilege” is the deepest.
“At the end of the third level they have a pretty intense discussion,” Krinsky says.
People are encouraged to speak freely at all of the workshops.
“I think our workshops doing a really good job of setting a tone where people say what they really feel,” Butler says. “Our goal is that people feel like they are in a safe place to say whatever they really feel and I think they generally succeed at that.”
Having a diverse group with trained facilitators allow participants to discuss all kinds of sensitive subjects in that “safe place.” “It’s a place for people to talk about really, really difficult issues that is safe and is facilitated to be safe,” Krinsky says.
Which is refreshing because all too often any real discussion on racial issues get bogged down in pleasantries and people telling each other just what they think they want to hear. Not at the Racial Justice Workshops, however.
“These are incredibly difficult things to talk about — political correctness gets in the way; fear of offense gets in the way. I think there are a lot of people who don’t want to talk about it,” Krinsky says. “But I think that for even people who don’t want to talk about it, they have questions and concerns. I think that people get stuck ... and this is a place to get unstuck.”
The summer session guests that came out of the workshops on Aug. 22 were clearly energized and excited about the workshop they just went through.
“With the work that I do at Centro, we get into conversations with the youth about race and about racial justice. [For] a lot of the outcomes around suspensions or the zero-tolerance policies in schools, the people most affected are people of color,” says Eugenia Highland, originally from Mexico City, who is the New Routes Adolescents Coordinator at Centro Hispano of Dane County. “These workshops are important for my work and for my personal experiences.”
Highland enjoyed the diversity of the people in her particular workshop.
“The group was very diverse and so we got to hear many different perspectives from different races,” Highland says. “I think that’s very important. We had a lot of conversations about privilege and understanding our own privilege even within all races. In the end, we’re all the same. But there is a lot of injustice and a lot of work that we all have to do and [by] recognizing a lot of white allies in the group [it] gives us a lot of hope that there is going to be a change.
“I think it would be good to have these workshops in schools and in community organizations,” she adds. “I would love to have workshops like this at Centro. I think the workshops should be everywhere because we live in a world mainly dominated by white privileged males. We need to start to expand it to the greater community.”