Bending the Arc of Justice Together! July 22, 2020 by Noor Amanullah
Sawu bona. I see you. Ngikhona. I am here. The Zulu greeting, “Sawu bona” and its response, “Nghikona” are an exchange between two people acknowledging the presence of the other and of themselves in their impending interaction. The sayings translate to “I see you,” and “I am here.” Panelist Stephanie R. Strong referenced the Zulu greetings in a comment about accountability and speaking truth to power during La Convivencia’s first online community dialogue, “Bending the Arc of Justice Together!: A Call for Solidarity and Action.”
“I see you” and “I hear you” rightly explain the purpose of La Convivencia’s event. The June 19 Zoom event was the first in a series of conversations intended to connect people across diverse backgrounds in an interactive dialogue. July’s event focused on meaningful anti-racism and accountability in allyship.
In addition to Strong, a lead organizer with Faith in Action Alabama, the event featured three other panelists, Michelle Fan, a rising senior at Rutgers University, Dwight L. Wilson, an author and social activist from Michigan, and Rev. Dr. Robin Tanner, an ordained Unitarian Universalist Minister and social justice activist from New Jersey. The event was hosted by La Convivencia founding board members Tasneem Sultan and Lynne Azarchi. Rev. Dr. Sammy Arroyo, the pastor at First United Methodist Church of Hightstown, moderated the event.
Discussion between the panelists included their experiences with racial justice activism and their perspectives and analyses of anti-racism and allyship. Multiple panelists spoke on the relationship between their faith and activism.
Strong identified personally with the mission statement of Faith in Action Alabama, for which she is an organizer. The statement reads, “To honor God by dismantling systemic racism to create pathways of opportunity for all Alabamians.” Throughout the event, Strong returned to the topic of dismantling systemic racism and her experience taking up issues of criminal justice and mass incarceration.
Wilson, an author and local activist in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is inspired by his Quaker faith in his writing and activism. On the topic of people of color supporting other communities of color, Wilson said, “we are conquered because we are already divided.” Emphasizing the importance of cross-community support he referenced religious conflicts and stereotypical assumptions as the “artificial boundaries” keeping marginalized communities from defending each other. Cycles of oppression will continue, according to Wilson, until people “give love to people who don’t look like us.”
Speaking from her faith background as a Unitarian Universalist, Rev. Dr. Tanner explained her process of decolonization and understanding white supremacy as one that included undoing the models of leadership she has been trained to operate under. Upon acknowledging that “decolonization” looks different for everyone, she expressed that relearning the “first chapter” of America’s history is vital to the process.
To Tanner, new accountability emerges for individuals with an understanding of how borders and institutions in the United States are rooted in white supremacy. In the question-and-answer portion of the event, Tanner clarified how one becomes accountable in the fight for racial equality. She described an ability to move beyond simply expressing shame to actively working to dismantle racist systems as reflective of someone holding themselves accountable in anti-racist efforts.
Reflecting on her experience in the queer liberation movement in North Carolina, Tanner promoted the term “accomplice” for use instead of “ally,” as it suggests that everyone plays an active role in racism or anti-racism. The term holds individuals in social justice movements to a certain level of accountability not implied by the popular term “ally.”
The question-and-answer portion of the event, facilitated by Rev. Dr. Arroyo, allowed attendees to become participants via chat and audio. Panelist Michelle Fan, a college student and intern at the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, responded to an attendee navigating the line between burdening one’s Black friends or acquaintances with teaching about racism and learning from literary or digital resources without such interpersonal exchanges.
Fan answered by reminding participants that asking someone to teach about racism is asking one to revisit and unpack trauma, and is a display of ignorance to resources already available. She emphasized the importance of learning from materials and works by authors and creators from the communities one is learning about. For Fan, getting involved in racial justice requires shifting from a mindset of “what do I have to gain?” to “what do I have to lose?”. Speaking from her understanding of immigrant communities, Fan made clear that there is always more to lose, including one’s humanity and the ability to speak justice for oneself when the time comes.
Responding to the same comment, Wilson said, “It is not my job to teach white people anything, but it is my calling.” As a writer, Wilson added, he does not see a book as an organic source to learn from, and called upon those in attendance to first reflect on their own circle of friends and who they surround themselves with. Strong agreed, asserting that “the first revolution” is internal: it does not only consist of reading, but also of interacting with others.
As the two-hour event came to a close, panelists left attendees with final comments. In a call to action and closing note, Strong shared a prayer for those in attendance, praying that as they left the virtual space of the Zoom call, participants would take corresponding action to what they heard.
La Convivencia’s first online Community Dialogue was successful with the participation of panelists Stephanie R. Strong, Dwight L. Wilson, Rev. Dr. Robin Tanner, and Michelle Fan, moderator Rev. Dr. Sammy Arroyo, and the La Convivencia board. The next monthly event will take place on August 18 at 7 p.m. EST. Information will be made available via La Convivencia’s Facebook page and on https://www.laconvivencia.org/monthly-community-dialogue.html.