Torry Dickinson Blog


Addressing Racism in White-Dominated Religious Organizations
August 13, 2012, 2:02 pm
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Helping White People Address Racism in White-Dominated Religious Organizations

I’m a white person who would like to help Whites address unexamined racial and class privilege that gets expressed in society, including in White-dominated religious organizations. Because of my commitments and interests, I attended the 2012 White Privilege Conference in Albuquerque. Participating in this conference was like going into a lively, open city where everyone was talking about all aspects of privilege.
I’ve been pushing myself to examine why—when I’ve rejected racial and class privilege in my everyday life—I’ve been able to accept the lack of diversity in my religious organization. I think one answer is that I ultimately saw my spiritual engagement as an individual and family experience, and not as a community experience. This is disturbing to me because it shows how much I accepted subtle definitions and parameters set by my religious group, even though I personally did not live that way. In fact, I’ve lived in a culturally diverse world since I became an independent teenager.
In the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, I did voice my discomfort to those in my spiritual organization, but I let the majority of members set the tone. In the early 1990s, I wasn’t the only one who noticed that something was missing. At that time two of us from my religious group started a small study group where we read about and discussed issues relating to racism. One question that came up was: why can’t the members of our spiritual group talk about racism, and why do Whites drop their eyes and try to avoid the subject when it comes up? I thought maybe it was because of guilt and because they hadn’t figured out how to see themselves as part of the solution.
This might have been part of the answer, but I think it’s more complicated. Lately I’ve been wondering if there’s something about the ways we work in terms of our processes and operational guidelines that serve to keep our group closed, limiting our diversity and spiritual richness.
It’s important to remember that people from dominant groups shape what happens in “their” organizations. Without questioning how their practices impact our spiritual group in relation to the larger community, many people perpetuate exclusion instead of inclusion. The ways people carry out particular organizational practices, which are shaped by long-established and perhaps even seemingly egalitarian traditions, could keep them from becoming a fully alive, holistic community.
It’s important to ask ourselves if we can identify ways that have limited our ability to become more diverse. I’ve been asking myself: does our reluctance to look like we could be “converting” others keep us from building diversity in our spiritual body? Does our practice of working toward unity keep us from building diversity? And how does the over-representation of white and economically secure individuals affect the ways we do things? I’ve always accepted our general rules and reasons for interacting in previously established rhythms. Now I wonder if these reasons for practicing in the ways we do can turn into barriers that limit our growth, and if the idea that “we need to practice in the way we do” can turn into an unexamined reason or “excuse” for not struggling to become more diverse, and for not working toward change.
What can we do to bring about change? I hope everyone in White-dominated religious groups puts their ideas together and tries to do things differently. We all see a lot and we all know a lot. And we’re all creative. We can come up with better ways of relating to each other, to people in our neighborhoods and towns, and to the world around us.
There are a number of levels of change. They include change in the specific worship groups, in regions, in national bodies, and in international groupings. They include change between religious groups. The include change at individual, family, and community levels.
Far more attention needs to be given to organizational change, and not just to individual change and individual responsibility. Organizational change can help us address how different kinds of privilege and feelings of entitlement can open up and transform race-, class- and sexuality-related dialogue in spiritual groups.
Making new friends and having fun together is a way to extend and develop spirituality and community. Attending diverse religious meetings and councils can help us learn and we develop ourselves. People from “building-centered” religious groups could participate in culturally diverse activities and organize gardening or other projects on their own. Intense interaction and sharing in neighborhoods is helpful. Cooking and eating together is a way to create new relationships. Inviting people to share food and joining neighborhood picnics, fairs, celebrations, and events are ways to reach out. Buying products made in culturally diverse neighborhoods and from local and international cooperative fair-trade groups is helpful. Supporting local farmers and farm coops is another way of saying, “we’re with you.”
I always think that animals can bring people together and help us show the personal side of ourselves. So maybe join or carry out an activity that brings people together in this way.
Organizing with neighborhood people as a part of spiritual life connects people in these communities. It involves making new friends and establishing strong, reciprocal friendships.
Because memories of what didn’t seem to work weigh on our mind, it helps to remember positive collective work that moved us forward. Many good relationships have been established by the activities we’ve conducted. It helps to examine the things we didn’t do well, and the things we didn’t do at all. But it hurts to get stuck in negative memories about how we didn’t go in the direction that we hoped. This memory of the not-so-positive things can make us forget all the ways that we have reached out, and all the ways we could reach out. If we concentrate on past “failures” or on “what can’t happen,” we may stop imagining what can happen and how we can make it happen. Seeing our way forward and leaping with confidence into this better future is what we need to do.
We can build on some of our activities and projects and use our connections and knowledge to work with new people on related projects.
By studying and understanding history, we have another tool that helps us move forward. Having facts about the past and present, and relating these to the future, can help everyone see new things and come up with ways to go forward.
The time to do this is now.
In terms of the unintended exclusion that has been part of my spiritual life, I now recognize that I had mothered my own kids, but I had failed to mother others. I am taking responsibility for this. I am vowing to change this in my life, starting now.
People make change all the time. And we can do it in our spiritual homes, building community as we do it.
Thank you for opening your hearts, and may we open our hearts to everyone,
Torry Dickinson, August 13, 2012



The WISR Community: Women and Men Who Are Ready to Make a Difference
July 18, 2012, 6:03 pm
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The Western Institute for Social Research (WISR) in Berkeley, CA. works with young adults, working adults and retired people who want to make a difference through social-change work. Some students at WISR are established professionals and retired (or near-retired) individuals who are working to acquire the ability to promote effective and sustainable social change. Some students enroll in WISR because it’s an exciting place to earn an undergraduate or graduate degree that relates academic study to the development of real-world solutions. In addition to completing degrees and to improving their personal efficacy when it comes to social change, students also enroll at WISR simply for personal enhancement and for taking on a social relevant academic challenge. Some students want to complete a doctorate in Higher Education and Social Change so they can apply for a promotion, seek a new position, or start what they consider to be “their life work.” And some learners at WISR are seeking a fresh, cross-cultural, hands-on learning experience that will transcend the limitations of their previous academic and professional work.

Academic programs at Western Institute for Social Research engage students in action research and prepare them to employ and develop theories of social analysis and social change. WISR faculty partly teach academic content by helping students learn, develop and employ practical skills and analytical tools, which can be used in other contexts. Because their academic study of social change has been enhanced, WISR students are better prepared to secure and maintain related professional-level employment in organizations.

WISR is a place where women and men of all ages and from diverse cultural backgrounds help each other become effective makers of social change.
WISR’s motto is “multicultural is WISR,” pointing to the reality that all learning experiences are multicultural. Many students share common interests, but their educational programs are individually tailored; this enables students to develop their own talents as the school meets their particular needs. The school’s culture is enhanced by the seminars and conferences that bring together a diverse and active group of students who come from a variety of states and countries. All of this makes for a vibrant learning community.

To see what WISR is doing at its 4th free annual conference in Berkeley on August 24-26, check out wisrville.org and see what we’re doing as part of The 99% Solution!

Torry Dickinson
July 18, 2012



Social Change
July 9, 2012, 2:14 pm
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Elements of Social Change

Once you delve into social change research and practice, you may be shocked to see how little most educators and activists understand about social change. If you are interested in making effective social change, it’s important to have an understanding of society as a historical system. It’s important to recognize that we all live in a global society and that, in some way, we are involved in every social relationship. This also means that potentially we are connected to every social movement, and that all social movements are linked together.
In order to understand social change, it’s important to have a clear framework that enables you to see the different aspects of social change. Then you can organize and categorize knowledge from your readings and fieldwork. This will help you apply this knowledge when you write or when you are working in community settings.
I believe there are two general aspects of social change. They relate to each other, but they can be analyzed separately because they are two conceptually distinct aspects of change.
First, there is the subject of how our global-historical society, or our social system, has changed over time. But even as it has changed, our social system as it has essentially stayed the same over 500 years.
Today our social system is now breaking part in some fundamental ways. It can be argued that the system cannot continue because global capitalism has begun to exhaust and use up the sources that have enabled it to go through cycles of expansion. These sources (according to Immanuel Wallerstein in World-Systems Analysis) can be seen as:
1. the global decline of pools of super-low-paid, rural working households (that increasingly send household members and often all household members to mid-size urban areas, which drives up wages and increases working people’s demands on the state and businesses);
2. the global destruction of environmental resources and the dumping of toxic wastes across the world (the loss of forests, plantations’ overplanting and their pesticides/herbicides, the impact of war, the loss of plants and wildlife for food and biodiversity,
the lack of good and historically free drinking water, the impact of wars);
and
3. the growing costs for governments and businesses to maintain order (wars, activities of global crime syndicates, and the inability to keep passing the costs of system maintenance to working people—the externalization of costs has enabled the system to grow, but now states and businesses are forced to consider picking up and “internalizing” their own costs of “doing business”);
and I’d personally add:
4. a growing critique of ideologies of the system (e.g., racism, classism, colonialism, sexism, governing through overt/covert violence in all walks of life,
just to mention a few sets of beliefs that have engaged working people in maintaining the system). Today many people question whether this historical system will meet even the basic physical needs of the world’s majority.
So one side of social change has to do with how the system has changed and yet has not shed its engine. And this engine has been the increasing accumulation (of capital, wealth and power) on a world scale by a few powerful people and small groups.
Second, there is the aspect of social change that has to do with groups’ intentional efforts to create new ways of living that meet all people’s needs and that contribute to everyone’s well-being through democratic participation at all levels.
This second aspect of social change has to do with how different groups of people work to resist the social system and to change and transform society (or parts of it). One general way this happens is by the development of alternative social pathways and the creation of new holistic, sustainable ways of living.
This intentional activity to define life by and for the world majority and its groups has been a tremendous force of social change for 500 years, and it has shaped how the system has developed. But, until the last few decades, it hasn’t seemed that groups of people and different global movements (working together and on their own) have had a chance to really establish new ways of living for large parts of the word and for most people. Now, it seems, that there is that chance for major transformation, particularly since the system may have reached its
limits in terms of endless global expansion.
Most social change analysts consider one or more areas of alternative or sustainable development. But they rarely look at how all movements grow off each other and help each other to reshape the lives of all people. Each movement provides some answers and visions for a better world. But they are incomplete without all the others.
One challenge is that movements often grow out of the divisions that the system has created: women’s movements may address gender, sexuality movements may address heterosexism, anti-racist and anti-colonial movements may address national to global aspects of racism, environmental movements may look at some aspects of sustainability, and nonviolence movements may look at certain aspects of violence but not most aspects of violence. This means that we need to work together to create a comprehensive vision for the future. For example, most nonviolence movements in the U.S. don’t look at the violence perpetuated by the social system, especially as they hit the world-majority populations, and they don’t appreciate the diversity of nonviolence movements.
We need each other more than we ever have. In order to frame an overall discussion of nonviolence or any other concept that forms of the center of one’s analysis, I think it’s important to develop your own framework of “the whole.” For example, how do you see society perpetuating violence as it works in its usual way (both today and maybe in the past, too)? How do you see people working to minimize the violent aspects of the system? How do you see people working to change the system by creating alternative ways of organizing social relations between individuals and groups? How do you see people bringing about long-term changes in institutions and in governance at all levels (including in families, neighborhoods and at work)? How do you and others envision a society that will work for the historically disenfranchised and for world majority?
I think it helps to read World-Systems Analysis and Historical Capitalism by Wallerstein to get a sense of how the system has worked for 500 years. I’ve found this framework and his analysis to be very useful when I develop social change projects.
If you look at the analytical book I wrote and edited with Robert Schaeffer, Transformations: Feminist Pathways to Global Change, you can see how we look at how social movements in relation to how the historical system has developed. Our book is about how movements intersect and interweave with other movements. It suggests that all forms of violence and inequality need to be addressed together.
If you pick up Transformations, you might read the sections and chapters that interest you the most and just skip around. You will find a lot of writers and thinkers who are associated with movements that many might see as pushing “on one main front.” But all fronts of change are interconnected. And we can make social change more effectively when we learn from all of our connections.
By bringing together knowledge generated by movements, researchers, and practitioners, we can help deepen our understanding of collective social change. This is a very important way of creating sustainable change with others and for others.

Torry Dickinson
July 5, 2012




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