It was standing room only Thursday for many of the early afternoon workshops at the White Privilege Conference at Monona Terrace Convention Center, evidence of registration estimated at 2,400 attendees from Madison, the Midwest and beyond.
That’s probably a record for the 15 years of the conference, said Stephanie Puentes, a presenter and volunteer coordinator with WPC. Workshops offered by the most popular presenters fill up fast and many are asked to repeat their presentations, she said.
And despite some “noise” on white supremacist websites and controversy over public funds spent to register local public workers and students, the conference, which seeks to educate participants about the workings of institutional racism, got off to a smooth start, Puentes said.
Sue Robinson, an associate professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication, found the sheer number of people participating in the conference inspiring, she said in an email. But that’s not all.
“The courage of people speaking out inspires me. The demonstrated and suggested ways of advocacy in the face of ubiquitous white-dominated structures inspires me. The incredible articulation of wisdom encapsulated in these rooms inspires me,” said Robinson, who added she paid her own way to the conference. Finally, she wrote, “the awesome and important work I am hearing about in every workshop - from both presenters and attendees - inspires me. I feel empowered and humbled as I take the knowledge from here and try to apply it to what I see happening in Madison.”
What about moving theory to action? Puentes said that the conference devotes time on Friday afternoon to “accountability” sessions, where attendees brainstorm on action ideas. Some communities that host the conference also schedule local follow-up sessions, she said.
Isadore Knox, director of the Dane County Office of Equal Opportunity, praised the “Black Male Think Tank,” a day-long session he attended.
“It’s good to focus on how systemic racism exists and how we function with it,” Knox said.
Too often discussion about African-American males focuses on the statistics around disparities like low rates of high school graduation or high rates of incarceration, Knox said.
“We really need to focus more on the relationships that create those disparities, so we can address them instead of looking at them as foregone conclusions,” he said.
For example, rough talk and movement by African-American boys playing basketball may be viewed as threatening by some, but more likely is just posturing and a way of relating, he said.
“I would parallel that to school situations where teachers who are not culturally competent see behaviors they see as antisocial, but might be just how those boys react," he said.
That session, for African-American males only, is meant to provide a rare forum for them, Puentes said.
“There are not very many spaces where a large number of black men can gather – see themselves reflected in one another – and build community, build relationships," she said.
WPC also provides opportunities for people of various other demographic groups — “about any slice you can think of” — to meet with each others who share their identity and experience to talk, Puentes said.
Many experiences of the conference include people from diverse race and gender backgrounds.
“It’s an intense experience,” she said. And to process what they are hearing, some people benefit from time with a homogeneous group to talk it through.
It was a diverse group of activists who gathered for a workshop entitled “Engaging and Reframing Resistance,” by Rev. Jamie Washington, a consultant on multicultural organizational development. Provocative and entertaining, Washington offered incisive tips on how to recognize and transform the institutional resistance that sometime saps activists working for change.
“Resistance is a systems dynamic,” Washington told the group, not an individual response. It crops up to protect a valued status-quo that is threatened by change, he said. “If you are not experiencing resistance, you are probably not about to change anything.”
He counseled activists to learn to anticipate, identify and embrace resistance – and to use it to learn about other perspectives – and then incorporate those insights to transform the energy of resistance into energy for change.
Developing the skills to not become defensive in the face of resistance is a way to avoid “the dangers of social justice arrogance,” Washington said.
“It is easy when you are passionate and feel you are on the right side, to show up as if you are above everybody else,” he said.