Holding Hard Truths

The Philadelphia host committee featured many representatives from Quaker organizations.
The Philadelphia host committee featured many representatives from Quaker organizations. This and all photos courtesy of White Privilege Conference.

Good News from White Privilege Conference

As part of my year working at Friends Journal, I was offered the opportunity to attend the seventeenth annual White Privilege Conference on behalf of the magazine. I was honored to be asked, and excited about the event as I had friends who had been working to organize it. But I was also nervous. The discussions around privilege that I’d been having in my life still felt new and raw, and I didn’t feel I had a good grasp on the subject. Maybe that was all the more reason for me to attend. I had been exposed to the intersections of privilege and oppression in my undergraduate years, but I was first introduced to the framework of white privilege during my year-long work with Quaker Voluntary Service. As a white male with virtually all the forms of societal privilege, I was unsure, and still am, if I was really the best person to be writing about the White Privilege Conference. But I was being asked by those I deeply respect, and it was a great opportunity for learning.

The White Privilege Conference (WPC) is an annual collaborative educational conference addressing multiple forms of oppression and privilege. This year it took place in Philadelphia, Pa., over four days in April. Philadelphia is the largest city to have hosted the WPC, and the 2016 attendance was the largest it has ever been at just over 2,800 participants.

There was also a record number of participants who were Quaker or affiliated with a Quaker organization: around 500 people, making up one-fifth of the conference. With at least 18 Friends schools, 15 yearly meetings, many Quaker colleges (including Earlham, Haverford, Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, and Guilford), and several other Quaker organizations represented or serving as hosts to the conference, the Friendly presence was felt. In a way this makes sense. Quakers from all over have been involved in race and anti-racism work for a while. Even the founder and program director of the conference, Dr. Eddie Moore Jr., has a Quaker connection: he worked at Brooklyn Friends School for three years starting in 2011.

For many, the WPC began on Thursday, the day before the official welcome and opening keynote. Thursday was a time for day-long workshops called institutes. Institutes were primarily a place for presenters to gain more training and talk about their work before the start of the conference. The institutes extend the experience of WPC for people in different roles and with different backgrounds.

The next three days were a mix of keynotes, workshops, and caucuses. The keynotes featured amazing speakers that shared both humorous and heartbreaking stories as well as important lessons. The conference was opened by Jasiri X, an emcee and activist, and Yusef Salaam, an educator who was one of the Central Park Five (five teens whose convictions for the highly publicized 1989 Central Park jogger rape case were vacated in 2002). They shared music and hard stories about mass incarceration. Vernā Myers, an author and educator, educated the conference about how to do anti-racist work while making mistakes along the way. Jim Loewen, a historian and author, spoke on the hidden history of racism in the United States, and Howard Stevenson, a professor in education and Africana studies, helped us prepare to speak when we hear microaggressions or are posed challenging questions. Stevenson shared an intimate conversation that he had with his son about police shootings, a stand-out moment for many at the conference.

The workshops, 125 in total, ranged widely in both content and form. Many Quakers in leadership gathered at workshops like, “Creating Socially Justice Organizations: Dismantling institutionalized racism and white supremacy” and “Let Freedom Ring: Change the (White) Rules of Engagement,” in order to learn how to better their meetings, yearly meetings, and organizations.

The goal of the last piece of the conference, the caucuses, was to create safety for groups to explore emotions and attitudes that are part of their shared racial experience. These gatherings were organized by identity: people of color, mixed race, and white. Much of the important conversations and work of the conference took place in the caucuses.

Two staff members of Quaker organizations, Zachary Dutton of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and Richie Schultz of Friends General Conference, organized a workshop focused on Quakers and held at the nearby meetinghouse at Friends Center. Almost 40 Friends discussed ways to take the work of the WPC back home to our meetings. One of the most challenging queries was “What have you recently learned regarding racial justice that you feel uncomfortable bringing back to your communities?”

The three main days of WPC included many unplanned speeches, spoken word pieces, and musical performances. These allowed for the conference to unfold in a beautiful way, and for the conference to become a multicultural space. A number of the opening programs featured prayers and songs from Dennis and Ralph Zotigh in the Kiowa language, an acknowledgment of the need for more space for Native Americans in the conference. There was also time created to hear from local activists from the Philly Coalition for REAL Justice, and at every keynote there were always a few more people at the beginning or the end presenting a little bit of their own stories. Through these opportunities to speak, those who are often marginalized were able to share their experiences with a bigger audience, and this created space for everyone to come to the table.

One Quaker participant at WPC was musician Sterling Duns, who works in the admissions department of Friends’ Central School. He met Eddie Moore there three years ago at a presentation on doing anti-racism work in schools. Duns was first recruited to attend this year’s conference as a performer, but soon found himself helping the conference organizers with logistics.

When I talked with Duns later, he was especially thankful for his institute on advanced facilitation skills. He told me his mind was “still racing from everything I learned in that one eight-hour day.” I asked him why the conference was special to him:

The conference is a place where you can say “white privilege” and “white supremacy” and no one would look at you like you don’t know what you’re talking about. You can be unapologetically loving, and real, and emotional. People hold space for each other in a really powerful way.

The conference was not without conflict. During the morning hours on Saturday, the hashtag #WPCsowhite started making the rounds on Twitter, a challenge that the conference was still too white-centered. Moore acknowledge the problem, later telling me, “Even though it is the WPC, there are elements of microaggressions, sexism, and racism. We are in America. It is society. It’s not like it stops at the door of the WPC.” The hashtag continued to track examples of racism during the rest of the conference. I was impressed by the conference organizers so easily embracing what might have been seen as a critique and then using it to promote more conversation.

High school and middle school participants attended a parallel conference called the Youth Action Project, and on the last morning they gave a presentation to the whole WPC conference. Many Friends school students took part, and there was an especially strong presence from Brooklyn Friends School. Shortly after the students left the stage, Moore invited the host team on stage to thank them. There were 16 representatives on stage that morning, and 14 of them were Quaker or associated with a Quaker organization. This represents a huge commitment: the host team works years ahead of time to manage all of the logistics. It was an inspiration to me to see those people and the organizations they represent involved in such an active way. The experiences of the White Privilege Conference will continue to work on me. When I find it has stopped actively influencing how I think, live, and work, I’ll take that as a sign that it’s time to go back.

Interview with WPC founder and president, Dr. Eddie Moore Jr.

wpc-eddie-mooreDuring one workshop at WPC, two presenters found themselves with a malfunctioning projector. The presenters rolled with the technical difficulties, while someone from WPC was asked to come and fix the issue. To my surprise, there appeared Moore with a new projector. He was there, wiring the new projector, making sure that he wasn’t in the way of the young women who were presenting about gentrification. For me, this was incredibly telling of the president of the organization that runs WPC. He also graciously gave me some time for questions weeks after the conference.

How have Quakers been involved in the conference?

It’s been a powerful and positive journey having Quakers involved with the White Privilege Conference. I do feel that at least over the last five years, there has been some positive momentum, and the last three years especially there have been some real strategic efforts on our part to not only have Quakers present, but also give them some space at the conference so they could have some time together to process their experiences while they’re at the conference. I think in the last three years, we’ve had a more strategic effort to just make sure that they can have the best experience possible. This year, as you know, we had our largest turnout ever. It’s been really great working with the Quakers and seeing that our conference is something they look to as an organization that can help their people get better at dealing with some of these issues related to diversity, power, privilege, and leadership.

What was the role of Friends schools at WPC?

I was working at a Friends school, so that really helped to connect with other Friends schools. In the last three years we’ve seen an increase in the number of young people coming from Friends schools. The impact for me, particularly when I was working at Brooklyn Friends School, is seeing that generally those students at Friends schools come from a foundation of social justice, equity, and a commitment to making the world better. That work those students are doing just goes to another level when you factor in issues that are often missing when we talk about justice, equity, and diversity, like white supremacy, white privilege, and intersectionality. So that’s what I saw. I saw really good kids get better at something that they already believed in. I feel like that’s what I take the most pride in: what we’re doing with the young people. They’re really good kids anyway, and they’re trying to make the world a better place, and I feel like we’re doing a good job of helping them to understand that you can’t do that if you don’t talk about the tough stuff.

What types of groups are coming back year after year?

We get a lot of education folks: K through 12 and higher education. We also get nonprofit organizations as well as some faith-based folks—whether it is Quakers or Unitarians. The other thing I noticed this year is we had a lot of first-timers, which means that people are having a great experience and are continuing to spread the word. People are looking for a place where they can talk about diversity, but they want to be pushed a little bit more. What is unique about the White Privilege Conference is the diversity that’s there adds to the conference appeal. We have people who wear suits every day to work, nonprofit and social justice folks, and then you have high school kids. It’s a powerful diversity that’s not only race; it’s gender, sexual orientation, class, and generational. That adds another level of attraction to folks.

What do you make of #WPCsowhite, and how are you responding to this moving forward?

What makes WPC unique is that we have issues like #WPCsowhite popping up in the midst of the conference; we have people challenging other people right there on the spot. It’s not a conference where you got this powerful well-known speaker who talks, and everybody sits there quietly and believes that whatever the speaker says is the truth. It’s the opposite of that. Every speaker, every workshop, including the keynotes, should be prepared to be challenged and pushed no matter what the subject matter. Even though it is the WPC there are elements of microaggressions, sexism, and racism. We are in America. It is society. It’s not like it stops at the door of the WPC. What I like about #WPCsowhite is that they called it out and they did it in a way that was about learning. It wasn’t about attacking or degrading, but about “Hey, you got to check your crap, ’cause even if you are at the WPC, you can still be doing some racist stuff, some sexist stuff.” I like that. It got people talking; it got people thinking. When I talk to the people who were a part of that, they just wanted me to know that part of their putting it together was that not every person has everything in check when they come to the conference, including myself. I liked the hashtag because it showed sometimes people can pat themselves on the back because they are at the conference, but they could still be causing some harm and not even know it.

How did Quakers affect the conference, and what advice do you have for them?

I think we find that folks from the Quaker community can have very different experiences, whether it’s the first time or if they are returning. I know that Quakers, just like any other religion, don’t have all their stuff together. Everybody has got some work to do. I have to say that it sends a big message whenever such a large number of folks from a religious community decide that the White Privilege Conference is a place where they want to do their learning.

The advice I would give is when they are considering coming out to WPC, that they understand this is not a diversity conference and this is a challenging environment. Every day with every workshop, we are exploring white supremacy, white privilege, and other forms of oppression. Also how powerful the experience is for you is directly related to how powerful your investment is. If you want a lot out of the conference, you got to give a lot to the conference, meaning that you got to be open to learning, open to challenging, open to being challenged. WPC is the type of conference that you get out of it what you put into it. So that’s what I say to folks when they are coming in, that they need to be open to learning, stretching, and growing.

Trevor Johnson

Trevor Johnson was the editorial fellow at Friends Journal through Quaker Voluntary Service’s second-year Alumni Fellows program. He is a member of West Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting.

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