475 Short Stories about White Allyship (at #PoCC13)

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An Overview and Reflections on White Affinity Group Facilitation at the NAIS People of Color Conference


Chris Thinnes

I wish we could start a school with
all the members who attended SDLC & PoCC…

– @DarbyDavenport

I’m remembering a scene from Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould in which the protagonist, legendary pianist Glenn Gould, pulls off a lonely Canadian highway in the dead of winter, enters a packed roadside diner, and sits by himself at a small table — surrounded by strangers engaged in dialogue with each other at adjacent tables. Anonymous, unrecognized, unknown, he begins to eavesdrop on people’s conversations — first one, and then another — not with any malicious intent, but intrigued by the music of human conversation, emotion, and engagement. As he lends his ear to each subsequent dialogue, the sound mix layers those words upon the last, and a symphony of variegated voices and emotions — paced by the subtle, metronomic movements of the pianist’s finger — begins to take form from the perspective of the musician’s ear.

I’d forgotten how the facilitation of affinity group sessions at the NAIS People of Color Conference (#PoCC13), despite the tremendous opportunity to support one’s colleagues, can ironically limit the facilitator’s opportunity actively to participate in purposeful and deeply reflective identity work herself or himself. Yet the experience was transformative nevertheless, primarily because of the extraordinary privilege of helping to chart, to pace, and to amplify the richly textured music of educators’ personal inquiry about white allyship in a series of White/European-American gatherings. As white educators from across the country reflected, pushed, supported, pleaded, admitted, dreamed, and designed with each other in small groups, walking the aisles in a room filled with 475 participants — listening to one conversation, and then the next — felt and sounded rather like the scene from the movie.

In the midst of a conference “by and about people of color and inclusive of all,” designed “to help participants understand their roles in advancing their schools’ equity and justice around racial and ethnic identity,” these sessions provided a safe and separate space for white folks — both those who may be deeply immersed in ‘the work,’ and those who may be confused or troubled by it — honestly to explore their own roles in inclusive and culturally competent learning communities. Hopefully, these sessions also helped to preserve the conferences’ many other spaces for their primary purpose: to provide “a safe space for networking and a professional development opportunity for people who, by virtue of their race or ethnicity, comprise a form of diversity termed ‘people of color.'”

On the premise that sharing parts of the process and programming might be of value to others, here are some notes about each of the four sessions our facilitation team — Alison Dover, Ben Neale, Brian Miller, Eliza Alexander, Katie Grace MacElveen, Kit Tennis, Sarah Hershey, and me — helped to support:

SESSION 1 (DAY 1) – 120 min

Small groups of 5-6 participants gathered in small groups, according the number of PoCC conferences they had attended in the past. After sharing the community norms of affinity group work (“Speak from the ‘I’ perspective,” “Suspend judgment of yourself and others,” “Lean into discomfort,” and others), groups were asked to decide on, and to discuss, one of six general prompts we intentionally tied to Janet Helms’s six phases of white racial identity development:

  • Why can’t we move beyond this race thing? (Contact)
  • How can I learn about race in a room full of white people? (Disintegration)
  • Why are people of color trouble by my attendance? (Reintegration)
  • I get it: now what? (Pseudo-Independence)
  • What does it really mean to be white? (Immersion/Emersion)
  • How can I be a more effective ally? (Autonomy)

Following those group discussions, we asked participants to reflect on what they’d learned from other group members’ testimony, that they might bear in mind as they continued to explore questions of white identity and allyship in the work to come. Then, following a discussion of the purpose and goals of the affinity group sessions to come, we invited participants to reflect on (rather than prescriptively to define) the concept of white allyship, using quotations from Beverly Tatum as the object for collective reflection:

There is a history of white protest against racism, a history of whites who have resisted the role of oppressor and who have been allies to people of color. Unfortunately these whites are often invisible to students; their names are unknown…

Ally behavior means taking personal responsibility for changes needed in our society…

“Allies need allies,” others who will support their efforts to swim against the tide of cultural and institutional racism….

Groups then engaged in a variety of individual reflections and group discussions, inviting them to remember, to explore, and to interpret their experience of a racialized white identity through a series of prompts:

  • What are the ways in which I carry my whiteness with me when I enter a room?
  • What is the difference between the way I carry my whiteness when I’m with other white people, and with people of color? (If this is difficult to answer, why is it difficult?)
  • Tell us about a time when you did well in being self-aware of your whiteness or position in the white dominant group, when you were an effective ally to a person or people of color. (If you have difficulty naming a time when you did this well, tell us a story of being an effective ally as you wish you could tell it.)

Before the closing of the session, participants were introduced to a series of five questions that student representatives from the simultaneous Student Diversity Leadership Conference (#SDLC13) had asked adults to consider prior to a fourth and final session, two days later, in which students and adult educators would exchange their experiences, strength, and hope:

  • Who am I at school?
  • What do I notice about my school community?
  • What do I notice about myself in my school community?
  • How do I plan to bring this experience back to school?
  • How do I plan to bring this experience back home?

SESSION 2 (DAY 2) – 120 MIN

In the second session — after gathering in self-selected groups of five, reiterating the community norms, and once again reflecting on the Tatum quotes about white allyship — participants were asked to consider models of white allyship in their lives: “Tell a story about a white person — in your life, in your community, or in the world — who demonstrates characteristics of white allyship.” After each group member had shared her/his story with their colleagues, we then asked participants to mine those stories further: “From the stories in your group, what are the characteristics of successful white allyship?”

Following these exchanges, participants were led through a series of prompts in a Question Formulation Technique exercise (following protocols developed by The Right Question Institute): in the relationships that are central to our learning and our lives, we believe that asking good questions is a crucial skill — and that this skill can be taught and practiced. In that spirit, each group collaboratively generated, analyzed, and prioritized questions about the following prompt:

White allyship is my life-long journey.

By the end of the exercise, each group identified two driving questions that represented the intersections of their individual curiosities and their shared concerns. Further information about this exciting session, and a link to a list of participants’ driving questions about white allyship, can be found in “Driving Questions about White Allyship.”

SESSION 3 (DAY 2) – 90 MIN

The two driving questions became the topics of participants’ discussions in Session 3, when they reconvened at the end of the day to discuss their rationale for the selection of their questions; to examine the assumptions that underlie their questions; and to propose responses, strategies, etc. in open discussions of the questions. Reflecting on the participants’ questions after the sessions, they seemed to organize themselves into four general areas of inquiry: questions about the definition of the meaning, value, and goals of white allyship; questions about strategies for effective white allyship; questions about the assessment and accountability of goals as white allies; and questions about the support and sustenance of white allies.

The decision to use facilitated prompts and scaffolded exercises — rather than to adopt the ‘Open Space‘ protocols used in the affinity groups for people of color — in the 2nd and 3rd sessions of the White/European American affinity group meetings was intentional. This followed a discussion at this summer’s Call to Action meeting, in which the historical question of the role of white folks at the People of Color Conference was examined with a view to the affinity group curriculum. We determined — given that a subset of white folks who attend the conference are sometimes sent to the conference with a misunderstanding of its purpose, and are sometimes confused by, or reticent to delve into, this kind of identity work — that it was more fitting to provide more active facilitation, in order to ensure that white folks’ discussions asked participants to look inwards (at their own experience, challenges, goals, and needs for mutual support as allies) rather than to drift into philosophical or political explorations of ‘diversity,’ or to entertain curiosities about people of color.

This third session ended (for me, anyway) with my intentional departure from the ‘norms’ of faciliators, at a moment that I found myself aching to experience the ‘work,’ and not only to prompt, to observe, and to support the needs of other participants. In the final activity, each participant was asked to seek out another participant with whom they’d never connected before. I inserted myself in the activity, and found myself face-to-face with first one ‘stranger,’ and then another. Led through a series of prompts by another facilitator, we had the opportunity to affirm each others’ commitments to the important work that had been taking place, and to hold eye contact for a full minute while listening to each others’ accounts of our specific goals and needs moving forward. It was during these brief but tremendously intimate moments — I won’t offer details, in order to protect the sanctity of those exchanges — that I had the opportunity to connect with two ‘strangers’ and to share more honestly, and vulnerably, than I might have been inclined with some friends.

SESSION 4 (DAY 3) – 75 MIN

The last day’s session offered perhaps the great promise of all, as students from #SDLC13 were brought together with adults from #PoCC13 — grouped both by racial/ethnic identity and by gender identity — for a final session to engage as partners in a common cause. The purpose of the session was to listen to the students’ accounts of their transformative experience and takeaways, more so than to provide a space for the adults to speak of theirs, per se — except when common threads presented themselves as opportunities for mutual support. We asked all participants in the group I helped to facilitate — men who work in schools, and young men who learn in them, gathered in equally distributed groups of eight — to reflect on the five questions student representatives had asked everyone to consider in the previous days’ sessions (Who am I at school?…How do I plan to bring this experience back to school?). We asked everyone to focus on the five goals designed by the student representatives to anchor their discussion:

  • Creating something together
  • Hearing students openly reflect and having adults connect with being in that same developmental space at their age
  • Empowering students to be leaders at the small group tables
  • Recognizing that students and adults in our schools are traveling similar paths
  • Preparing for re-entry

Again I had the opportunity to walk the aisles; to see white men engaged in the seemingly uncommon act of deeply listening, rather than speaking; and to see students bravely engaging adult educators on the terms of their own experience, strength, and hope. We saved 15 minutes at the end of the session, for students to report back to the group on important takeaways from their conversations. One student wished that so safe a space as this could be created in his school community. Another student wished he’d realized sooner that the allyship challenges of engaged, white male teachers, are not substantially different than his own as a student. A third student asked white male teachers and leaders to be mindful of how intimidating we can be — primarily, and ironically, because of how much these students look to their teachers and leaders as role models.

– – –

Story upon story, reflection upon reflection, the music of rich, authentic, vibrant human engagement arranged itself into a symphony of positive white identity over these several sessions. Despite the wide range of tones, pitches, and tunings, it was simply awesome to listen to so many white educators and students — eagerly examining their own racialized identities, and exploring strategies for successful allyship with people of color and with each other — perform the kind of music we should all be playing — from the board room, to the classroom — in more of our schools each day.


You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes

  • Barbara Bomes

    Excellent report. I felt as if I were there with you observing and participating in the sessions in some small way.

    • ChrisThinnes

      Thank you, Barbara, for your interest and support!!