White Privilege Focus Group helps prepare trainers for anti-racism work

February 08, 2021

In July 2020, the New England Conference formed a White Privilege Focus Group (WPFG) to address white privilege and help engage our Conference in anti-racism work.
The focus group then created action groups that would each approach dismantling racism and addressing white privilege in a different way or with a specific focus. They are:
  • Systemic Racism 
  • Education/Book Study 
  • Reparations 
  • Actions for White People   
Rev. Effie McAvoy, who chairs the Conference Commission on Religion and Race, and Rev. Stewart Lanier, a retired elder, led the Actions for White People group. 
They organized a training based on White People Challenging Racism, Moving from Talk to Action, developed at the Cambridge [MA] Center for Adult Education.
There were six people in the workshop, which ran from Nov. 19 to Dec. 15, 2020. This was a train-the-facilitators workshop. The goal, organizers said, is to empower people to offer this training across the Conference. (Watch the Conference e-news for events coming up.)
Rev. McAvoy helped identify those who would be asked to participate. She looked for people who were already involved in some anti-racism
Rev. Stewart Lanier
work, she said. “This is not ‘step one.’”
And she said it was important to find people “who could facilitate. Not who could go in and tell people what to do … but who could facilitate a conversation and guide people to introspection … and who come in ready to learn something as opposed to thinking they already know something.”
Rev. Lanier began his involvement with White People Challenging Racism about 10 years ago. Once the facilitators are trained, they, in pairs, will be able to offer training to others who “already see that racism is a problem in our society,” he said. 
This training will then help them:
  • Understand racism better
  • Learn how to speak up about it
  • Facilitate the creation of an action plan/s to address it
 A significant piece of the training is the action plan. Each participant is asked to come up with an action plan for carrying the work forward. 
These can be large-scale or small, Rev. Lanier said. For example, one woman noticed the lack of diversity in the books for young people at her local public library. She worked with the children’s librarian to find titles for every age group and donated many of the books. 
Another participant, who is a neurobiologist, launched a long-term study comparing a group of Black people living in a predominantly Black society (Trinidad) with a group of Black people living in a predominantly white society (Brookline, MA) to look at the effects of racism on brain plasticity. 
“And there's lots of others all in between,” Rev. Lanier said. “There's some pretty amazing action plans.”
Jane Allen, a member First UMC in Melrose, MA, was a co-facilitator of this workshop along with Rev. McAvoy and Rev. Lanier. 
Allen has been participating and leading workshops based on the White People Challenging Racism model for the last six years, and estimates she’s led 150 people through the training. 
Allen said simply learning to think in terms of action plans is an important skill, but it is not something you have to do alone. 
Early on, she and Rev. Lanier came up with a joint action plan to create a WPCR alumni group in Melrose. Anyone in the area who had taken the training was invited to meet up monthly as a way to stay in the work and offer each other support. The group has been meeting for five years. 
“In my experience, those action plans that we do collectively are much more powerful in terms of the change that we can create,” Allen said.
And working together helps keep people involved and engaged.
“This is life-long work, and everybody, for whatever reason, gets tired now and then. You might have family things pull your attention away ... But at that time, there's always someone else who can take on more of the weight of the work and keep you in it, whereas otherwise, you might [drift] away at that point,” Allen said.
People seem to naturally gravitate toward different topic areas where they have interest or expertise, she said, and that means “we know who we can turn to lead us in a specific moment.”
While there were times when she cancelled workshops for lack of registrants, these days, Allen says, there’s always a waiting list. The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor seem to have been a tipping point, she said.
“The public consciousness about racism fluctuates and people's sense of personal responsibility, or interest in making it their personal responsibility, fluctuates, too,” Allen said “But we're in a period now where it seems like it is something that people are taking on. People have reached whatever that point is that makes them say, ‘yes.’”
A critical part of saying ‘yes’ to this work is being open to seeing our own biases, Rev. McAvoy said. None of us are experts, she said, in the sense that we don’t have more to learn.
“Wherever we are at on this journey of being Methodist Christians — in our process of sanctification — wherever we are, if we are open enough to learn something, it can change us to move us a little bit further down the road,” Rev. McAvoy said. “My hope — and my goal — is always to give people the tools to move forward in this process.”
“If we are striving to be that beloved community, then we have got to act as agents of love and transformation. … And when it's time for us to learn something, to be quiet and be taught and not be offended when we are corrected.” 
Rev. McAvoy described a moment when she faced an unconscious attitude of her own. 
Rev. Effie McAvoy

“Thinking I was being funny, I said something that was able-ist,” she said, and a young woman serving on CCORR called her out on it. It stung, Rev. McAvoy said, and in reflecting on it later she realized that it hurt because the young woman was right. 
“When we are able to own our own mistakes, it teaches others that none of us are perfect in this work,” Rev. McAvoy said. “… it keeps us humble, too, so that we always engage with the people who are helping us be better, right? Because we are Methodist, and we believe in connection, right?”
Part of what is humbling is recognizing that the work – internal and societal – will be ongoing. 
“I would say I've been very intentional about understanding racism and trying to respond to it, as a white person, and to my own white privilege for I'd say about 20 or 22 years,” Rev. Lanier said, “and there's always more layers of understanding. … It’s a life-long journey.”