A Thumbnail Sketch of WPCR’s History

Prepared by Jennifer Yanco with loads of assistance from Barbara Beckwith

January 2016

White People Challenging Racism: Moving from Talk to Action is an anti-racism workshop focusing on the role of white people in confronting, challenging, and dismantling racism. It is run by a group of co-facilitators; a group that changes as new people come in and others step back to take on new challenges—here in the Boston area or elsewhere. WPCR has not incorporated as a non-profit, preferring to retain its grassroots identity and avoid the administrative and financial strains of the non-profit world. We have a longstanding reciprocal relationship with Community Change, Inc., a 501c3 whose mission is to fight racism in white communities. CCI publicizes our courses, has served in an advisory capacity, and has acted as our fiscal sponsor (for e.g., when we had a grant from the Haymarket Peoples Fund). We encourage all who take the course to become involved in CCI’s racial justice work.

WPCR is a grassroots movement, with WPCR workshops being offered by and for ‘ordinary’ people—that is, we are not specialists in any professional sense and the course is open to people from all walks of life. The important qualification for being a WPCR facilitator is being a good listener and being willing to meet people where they are. It requires no specialized academic training or particular expertise. We believe that anti-racism work is the obligation of all white people and encourage everyone to take an active role in dismantling racism. For the first 12 years of the course, the facilitator group was all white. Recently, that has changed as people of color have come on as course facilitators. [i] and become part of the co-facilitator group.

WPCR has been offered in many venues over the years, and has sparked numerous other groups and programs.[ii] However, it owes its existence and its longevity to the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. CCAE was instrumental in the development of WPCR and has continued to support it over the years, principally by subsidizing the course and offering it at a significantly reduced rate.

IN 1998, prior to the beginning of WPCR, Linda King (writer, performance artist, and editor) and Jennifer Yanco proposed to CCAE a workshop on interracial friendships. Having worked together at the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, Linda and Jennifer were well aware of the challenges facing their own friendship, King (African American) and Yanco (white) wanted to create a forum for women friends to explore the challenges and develop strategies to strengthen their friendships in the face of racism. CCAE accepted the proposal and the workshop ran twice: in winter 1999 and again in spring 1999.

In the spring of 1999, King and Yanco were asked to serve on a panel at CCAE organized by Tracy Gibbs called Racism in the Workplace. Renae Gray was also on the panel. Yanco recalls her experience:

I recall feeling that it was odd that I, a white woman, would be asked to be on the panel—after all, wasn’t racism in the workplace a concern only of people of color? (always interesting to look back….) Someone on the panel spoke about legal strategies for dealing with racism, Linda spoke about spiritual issues and imaging the future. At the panel, Tracy handed around sign-up sheets—one specifically for white people who wanted to pursue the issue of racism.

A number of people signed the sheet, and Tracy asked me if I would develop a CCAE course/workshop for white people on the topic of racism. I was a bit surprised to be asked; what did I know about racism? I was surely no expert on the matter. But as I worked on putting together the course, and confronted all the resistance in myself, I came to understand how that reaction was one of the mindsets that kept racism in place. If white people can’t know about racism or speak about it, then they are not going to be active in challenging it. Tracy was a big support as I put together the course and during the first years of its existence. The first couple times WPCR was offered, she actually came to the last class with a basket of fruit and refreshments! The first run was fall 1999. There were 24 people enrolled in the very first class, including two people of color, and Ella Mazell, then 81, the author of And Don’t Call Me a Racist! The course has run almost continuously since then.

The idea of co-facilitators came about in the second or third class when Emily Heaphy offered to help with the course. She and I worked together for one or two of the next courses. Barbara Beckwith was in one of those courses. She took the course a second time and then offered to help out. Emily was moving, so this worked out well. The first time Barbara and I co-facilitated, Pamela Goldstein and Dara Silverman were in the class. Shortly thereafter, Pamela came on board and co-facilitated with Barbara. [iii]

As more people came on as facilitators, each brought their own style and particular focus. In July of 2001, we held a Saturday morning training for people interested in co-facilitating.[iv] This was the only training we have ever held. In 2003, the group began having regular meetings. [v] We were concerned about defining the core elements of WPCR so that we would have a center that everyone could work around as they planned the course. We worked on this for a long time, coming up eventually and after many drafts, with a document called Core Elements. This has continued to be revised.

The issue of accountability was on our minds from early on. We discussed it extensively at our regular (monthly) co-facilitator meetings. To whom were we accountable? Was what we were doing with WPCR a useful approach? Was it making any difference? What would being accountable look like? We invited some people with anti-racism experience to meet with us about accountability. We met at Boston College in 2004 with Horace Seldon, Paul Marcus, and Patti DeRosa. We realized the importance of being in touch with our friends and colleagues of color about what we were doing with WPCR, the wider anti-racist community, and of course, our students and CCAE. Being transparent about our courses was important, as was seeking feedback through course evaluations and other means. At the time, Jennifer was working with Sophia Kim, who was one of the founders of the Sticky Rice Project, an Asian American anti-racism group that offered workshops at CCAE, among other places. Jennifer took the course and she and Sophia tried to get our groups together. Although we were not ultimately successful, we did share some of our work and incorporated some of the Sticky Rice materials into our WPCR work.

Another big concern was our effectiveness and how we could measure it. People seemed to be getting something out of the course, people kept signing up. But was it making a difference? Was it helping people take action? And how could we know? We decided that we should do a follow-up survey. We developed a proposal and submitted it to the Haymarket Peoples Fund. We were awarded a grant of $4,800 and set to work. The survey was sent out to all former course participants and we had a 62% response rate (103 responses/166 surveys sent out). The results of the survey are summarized in our report, Spurred to Action (2006).

There are three key elements of the course and its approach that bear mentioning.

The first is the notion of praxis, or role plays. Most of us have little or no experience interrupting racism. If we want to be able to do it, we have to practice. Like learning a language or a dance, skillfulness in confronting racism comes from practice, or doing the thing. This includes making mistakes, trying again, improvising, and finding your voice. Thus a key part of the course is role plays—re-enacting situations where we could have a significant role in confronting racism—if only we knew how. One of the main objectives of WPCR has been to provide a place for that practice and feedback from peers.

Another is raising awareness of white racism and its history, reflection on our own socialization into white racism, and heightening awareness of the racism around us every day, all the time. We do this through readings, films, exercises, and discussion. It is shocking to white people when they come face to face with the degree to which racism defines and undergirds our society. This information, this history, is not taught in schools and people often feel a deep sense of betrayal when they realize the extent to which racism has been intentionally supported by our government and by most private as well as public institutions, and how rampant it continues to be.

Preparing an action plan, which has become a central part of WPCR, was not part of the course at the beginning. By spring 2001, it had become part of the course outline and quickly developed into one of the three pillars of the course. The action plan piece is a way that the course can continue even after the five sessions are over. Participants are led through a step-by-step process of developing a plan and are encouraged to team up with others in the group for ongoing follow-up.

We encourage and try to set things up so that people will keep up the momentum. We ask them to write into their plans ways in which they can help each other stay on point, we put them in touch with CCI, and provide them with a list of community resources. In addition, many people who have taken WPCR have gone on to form their own groups. [vi]

[i] WPCR’s evolution to a multi-racial co-facilitator group

Following the advice of Malcolm X, WPCR was, for the first 13 years of its existence, intentionally co-led by white facilitators. “I tell sincere white people,” Malcolm X said, “’Work in conjunction with us- each of us working among our own kind. Let sincere white individuals find all other white people they can who feel as they do – and let them form their own all-white groups, to work trying to convert other white people who are thinking and acting so racist. Let sincere whites go and teach non-violence to white people!”

While CCAE courses are open to all, and people of color are often among those enrolled, our focus has always been on raising awareness, providing skills, and motivating white people to take action. While some white students expected an all-white space where they could freely admit to and get past their stereotypes, it was clear to us that people of color who were in the class always took it to a deeper level. The question that kept surfacing was how to make the course welcoming to all while keeping the focus on educating our white peers and providing paths to action for them.

At first, our course flyer ended with “While the focus of this course is on white people’s role in dismantling racism and building a just society, people of all heritages are welcome,” but as of 2011, we changed the wording so that the flyer began with “People of all heritages/identities are welcome to join us as we focus on the role of white people in dismantling racism and building a just society.”

We also found that some white students expected the course to be taught by people of color, following the (false) idea that racism is mainly a problem of people of color. Knowing that racism is really a problem of white people, we felt that it was our responsibility to take on this task. We did not and do not assume that people of color are responsible or particularly interested in educating white people.

When in 2012, when Stephen Pereira, a person of color taking the class, expressed an interest in co-facilitating, we were gratified by this vote of confidence in our work. We also realized that we needed to rethink our earlier notions about how the course should be run. This led us to discuss a number of issues at length, including:

  • how a white/poc co-facilitator team would work
  • how such a team could be painful to poc when oblivious white people say ignorant or insensitive things
  • how white co-leaders might feel obliged to show themselves to be perfect white allies
  • how such a team could be an opportunity for the white co-leader to learn how to collaborate without white privilege getting in the way
  • how such a team could lead help co-leaders prepare to teach a future course on cross-racial collaboration.

Since then, three other people of color have joined the co-facilitator group.

[ii] WPCR has been taught in Brookline Adult Education, Newton Adult Education, Boston (a short version). It has also been taught as non-credit course at MIT, Wellesley, Simons Rock (Bard), Tufts Experimental College, and Hampshire. Variations of it have also been taught as one-time workshops in a number of places, including Rapid City, South Dakota. A list of some of these is appended to the WPCR Course History.

[iii] See the attached WPCR Course History

[iv] This training, supported by CCAE and its director, was organized by Jennifer Yanco, Barbara Beckwith, Xochi Kountz, and Kate Scott. The program included laying out the objectives and components of the course, a presentation on adult identity development (by Kate Scott, a WPCR alumni who was working on her PhD at Harvard Ed School, and Xochi Kountz), methodology, and resources (people and materials).

Objectives were stated as

  • Forming a safe, trusting and accepting community that allows open exploration and sharing on the topic of racism and white supremacy
  • Arriving at common understanding of key concepts like white supremacy
  • Empowering people to act—for their own sake (rather than helping others)
  • Helping people find their voice, their power to act through practice and finding a new way of being in the world

Notes indicate an emphasis on

  • The action piece and getting people to move beyond talking
  • learning by doing (role plays and importance of having people bring in situations from their own lives to work on);
  • the non-academic nature of the course
  • the spiritual nature of the work
  • role of readings,
  • importance of the course outline, and of moving to Action.

[v] Many people who have taken WPCR have gone on to form their own groups. Early on, there was a ‘Writing about Racism’ group (Cheryl Clarke, Jennifer Yanco, Elizabeth West, Emily Heaphy, Jennifer Ellwood, Barbara Beckwith, Christine Maguire, Karen Holmes, Kate Scott, Dawn Dreisbach) that met sometimes at member’s houses, sometimes at Central Congregational Church (which provided space and supported our efforts) to share with their writing and get feedback. They were invited to read their work at Martin Luther King Jr. service at Central Congregational Church in JP, some also read at JP Open Studios. There was also a follow-up group that met for two years (Xochi Kountz and Steve Saranga); another group that met monthly to view and discuss films (Marie Ariel); a WPCR alumni group at CCI started by Holly Fulton, then co-led by Rachel Szyman, then  Susie Brigham, then Barbara Beckwith that met monthly for 8 months.