Friday, April 24, 2009

The Social Justice Leadership Retreat

When I first attended the Social Justice Leadership Retreat in the spring semester of my first year at college, it seemed as if that was when foundation crucial to my now full-blown passion for social justice activism and education began to form. I learned the term “white privilege,” about isms, homophobia, met a transgendered person for the first time, how to be an ally and deconstructed my Christian identity.

I remember talking about it with some of the community advisers in my residence hall before I left for the retreat and I felt really apprehensive. I could tell from the somewhat vague description that it was going to be a challenging retreat for me, one because it was semi-camping, and two, because I wasn’t going with anyone I knew. I arrived and got placed in a cabin with random people and although I don’t keep in touch with many of the people who I was on the retreat with, I do remember a lot of their stories and run into them in unexpected places.

The Social Justice Leadership Retreat was a great place for me to start my social justice journey, it was the first time I was heard “ally” and saw White men and other white folks who were strong anti-racist activists. I was struck by the men and women that I met, and that understood racism, and for once in my life, I wasn’t met with resistance and denial when talking about white privilege and racism. Instead there was a safe space, an all-inclusive community of people who and listened and cared enough to work against injustice and oppression.

At first, I didn’t really think about how all connected we are, and I thought the white men were so brave and progressive for being feminists and that the white folks so understood because they were anti-racists. Now, after some education and thinking I understand that injustice against one identity will come back to harm another identity in some way, and I am constantly being reminded of this thought process.

Thinking back to the three years I dedicated to the Social Justice Leadership Retreat I don’t view my time spent facilitating, creating, organizing, and attending retreats as activist experience – but I am sure that the skills I have learned will come in handy in the future. I learned how to listen and really hear what people are saying, I got better at public speaking and talking about my personal stories and to make myself vulnerable and trust others.

The retreat really was a great place for me to start my social justice journey, and while have critiques about it such as – it’s put on by an organization that is comprised mostly of White folks, and the main organizer is straight, white, male, married and as he likes to say it, “holds all the cards,” there is a lot about the structure and facilitation of the retreat that at times can be very problematic. Attendees have told me before that it felt like a forced emotional experience, that the retreat was purposefully designed to break you down before building you up – it was – and that the intensity of the retreat almost felt disingenuous and designed to bring out the most intense emotions from participants.

Being in the room, at the table so many times when the retreats were being designed sometimes this comments did come up, and sometimes we as the steering committee addressed them, and other times, it was acknowledged and then passed over, because it was argued that the intense environment must happen for the emotional tone of the retreat continue and grow – that way the participants are in a better place to contribute and be a part of a life-changing experience.

The malleability of the retreat, participants, facilitators, and the politics surrounding the entire thing was interesting for me to observe, participate in and eventually be pushed out of. Politics and bureaucracy is something that I definitely came to know more about after spending a summer in New York as a community organizer.

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