by Ann Heidkamp, BLM2WUU co-coordinator
On Sat. April 1st, a capacity crowd of 260 people gathered at Alverno College in Milwaukee to work with Chris Crass, UU racial justice trainer and author, at the Racial Justice: The Courage to Act conference. The conference was convened by the Black Lives Matter to WI UU (BLM2WUU) collaboration of the 5 Milwaukee area UU churches. This event, planned in partnership with 15 other area faith and community groups working on racial justice was funded in part by grants from the Mid America Region Chalice Lighters program, the UU Fund for Social Responsibility, local UU churches, the YWCA, the United Church of Christ regional Mission Team, the local ELCA Lutheran Synod, and Alverno College which provided its conference space for free.
BLM2WUU came together in Nov. 2015, following the GA 2015 Action of Immediate Witness to Support the Black Lives Matter movement. Together the 5 churches have over 1500 members. By combining our ideas, resources and efforts we felt we could have more impact for racial justice within and outside of our congregations.
During 2016 and early 2017, the collaboration presented 4 “Beyond the Banner” workshops designed to acquaint our members with a basic understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement, systemic racism, and white privilege. About 300 members from all congregations attended. In conjunction with the workshops and banner raisings, we held BLM witnesses on busy streets outside of our churches. We also engaged in community protest actions around the shooting deaths of 2 Black men by area police officers and in coalition actions to end WI highest in the nation rate of Black male incarceration. The collaboration has a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/BLM2WUU full of information about local and national racial justice issues.
The Racial Justice: The Courage to Act conference was an important milestone in the work of the collaboration. This conference was designed to move people from education to action by building courage, skills, and relationships with local partner groups. The development of courage and partnerships is particularly important in the Milwaukee region - the most segregated in the United States - where many white people, especially those in the suburbs like most of our UU members, have little or no direct experience of or relationships with people of color. Many are fearful of going anywhere in the city because of the media coverage dominated by stories of crime and dysfunction. We knew Chris Crass could help us take these steps and our partner groups were also enthusiastic about having him.
Of the 260 conference attendees, 70 were members of our collaboration UU churches and another 18 came from 6 other WI UU congregations. The balance of attendees were from other partner groups, including over 80 for whom we were able to provide free or below cost or tickets, thanks to our grant funding. Some of the free tickets went to youth of color and parents of Black men killed by area police in recent years.
The highlight of the conference turned out to be unplanned. It grew out of an unfortunate incident as participants were gathering when a few of the well-meaning white participants made a young black participant feel very uncomfortable with their questions and assumptions about him. He left after talking about what happened with a leader of the ACLU youth group that invited him. The ACLU leader brought the incident to the attention of a planner and Chris Crass. They decided that it should be brought up at the beginning of Chris’s keynote session as a learning opportunity to address the way that racism permeates our culture and actions, even among those who mean well and want to work for change. The ensuing discussion was uncomfortable but impactful. Space was provided for other people of color to share similar incidents and the parents of police shooting victims to talk about how encounters with police can so easily turn deadly because of implicit bias towards Black men. The skillful facilitation by Chris, the ACLU leader, and others from our partnership groups enabled all participants to confront the impact of racism at a deeper level than is usually possible - especially in a hyper-segregated region like Milwaukee. We discussed that courage is needed not only to take community action but also to confront the racism embedded in each of us.
In the afternoon, participants could choose from 11, 1-hour workshops presented by partner groups focusing on skills for actions. Topics included, Organizing for Racial Justice in Faith Communities, Organizing for Racial Justice in the Suburbs, Engaging Youth in Racial Justice Work, Dealing with Microagressions, Organizing in Multi-racial coalitions, Dismantling White Supremacy; and Next Steps for Activitists - Using Rev. Barber’s 14 Points for Organizing. Chris Crass facilitated the final session of the day - which had participants writing action plans for personal and collective action - and ended with a rousing “Racial Justice Revival.”
The conference was designed to be the beginning of a new phase for BLM2WUU. We will continue our work within our congregations but we have now we and all the partner groups have made strong connections with each other. The partner groups have agreed to keep meeting on a periodic basis to ensure that we are all knowledgeable about and supportive of each other’s work and to look for opportunities to collaborate around action. Emails to conference participants will go out on a periodic basis to keep them informed of action opportunities and encourage their personal follow-up on the action plans they made at the conference. In addition, all conference general sessions and several of the workshops were video-taped. These sessions and other racial justice resources are available on a Virtual Library created after the conference. The link is http://bit.ly/courage2act.