Detroit Spirit and Roots Reflection

Photo taken by Andrea Ferich. Created by participants bringing with them their ancestors to this place.
Photo taken by Andrea Ferich. Created by participants bringing with them their ancestors to this place.

Kate Foran reflects on Detroit Spirit and Roots, a project of Word and World and local organizers in Detroit.

An ancestor chose to survive because they saw this—you, us—coming. – A Detroit Spirit and Roots Participant, to the young people of color at the table

Some 11 years ago: my husband Steve and I are interns for Word and World, living in Greensboro, NC and working under one of the founding W&W board members Nelson Johnson. Word and World is struggling (as one way or another most organizations do) with white supremacy culture. We have a diverse board and we have rigorous goals for anti-racism and anti-oppression at our week-long schools. Everyone is making a good faith effort to unpack internalized privilege and internalized oppression, to “do our own work.” Still, as can be expected when you’re organizing so many moving parts, tensions run high and everyone brings their own default cultural assumptions to the table. At the time (and still) Nelson is involved in many organizations nation-wide. Steve and I ask him if he has ever been part of a truly multi-racial organization. He thinks long and hard for a minute and says no. He says the closest he’d ever come was with the Communist Workers Party, where ideology was so strong it trumped other dynamics. He says Word and World is different because at least folks are willing to have some honest conversation about race. But, he said, his experience as an African-American organizer is that white people either take over or they leave.

Flash forward 11 years and Word and World is working toward a Detroit school and our small (yet committed) board does not reflect the diversity that we have striven for, and our last few offerings have attracted mostly white people. Our process with local Detroit leaders has led to the conclusion that a solely Christian school will not work in Detroit. We seek to build the school around Indigenous and Hip Hop spirituality on equal footing with Christian tradition, but still we encounter the ways white organizing pushes other people out. We have the choice either to forge ahead with a Word and World vision or to drop the school (to take over or to leave). But look, a third way opens up. Word and World can follow the leadership of people of color and be guided by their agenda. In this case it means letting go of a lot of what had defined Word and World—its Christian-rooted focus, its exacting bible study, its plenaries and social analysis courses, content and curriculum. But it becomes clear that if hanging on to those “load-bearing beams” in our structure means alienating our relationships, especially the relationships of folks doing the hard work of organizing together on the ground in Detroit, then it isn’t worth it. The humble, powerful leadership of local organizers Will, Bryce and Lydia–their generosity of spirit and willingness to hang in there– leads us through some choppy waters to the newly imagined Spirit and Roots gathering. Here some 60 local organizers and movement activists gather with local resource folks to get to know one another, explore the spiritual resources for movement and liberation, share ritual, and to do some collective action against the water shut offs in Detroit.

At Detroit Spirit and Roots I am in the first trimester of pregnancy and feeling all the nausea and fatigue that goes with it. I keep reminding myself that discomfort is a part of growth, and it does not signal danger. A number of times in group conversation the propensity to cater to “white comfort” is called out. But the most productive of spaces we share together over the weekend are pregnant with discomfort and possibility. Maybe, just maybe, gatherings like Spirit and Roots are a way out of the pathology of white supremacy culture. Maybe they are the beginning of the fulfillment of our ancestors’ dreams.

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