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Vol 42 No 1, Winter 2020

Building a Community of Social Justice

By Ellen Morrison, with the help of past and current board members

Photo by Kerry Kehoe.

Editor’s Note: I felt so moved by my experience at the 2019 PAWMA camp’s white ally lunch and wanted to find out more. In this sociopolitical climate I felt like it was so important to talk about how we can show up as white allies. During the lunch PAWMA campers had a choice of sitting at the people of color table, the white ally table, or the tables that were available for those who opted out. I wanted to dig into the motivation and work from the board. I interviewed Ellen Morrison (board member) and then Ellen had a call with a few outgoing and incoming board members in order to create this article.

How did the idea of the white ally lunch come about?

The white ally lunch came about in our planning for PAWMA 2019 when I revisited a moment Aminta Steinbach, Tyler LePard and I had during Camp Sealth 2018. As she was leaving to join the people of color (POC) lunch, Aminta asked us a powerful question: “Wouldn't it be radical if when the people of color lunch happens, we could as a community acknowledge in that moment our absence when not part of our community?" The question was profound because it asked Tyler and me to stop and notice what was happening in the room. I remember the first question that came to mind was, ‘What are the white folks doing and thinking when their people of color friends are gathering in community?’ I noted that, like me, many may be impacted by the change, but were not talking about it. Turns out this was true for many. It also prompted both Tyler and me to reflect on what this question meant to us and heed a call to action about having a conversation about race at PAWMA. When Tyler and I started to talk about how to be responsive, we created a proposal that we hoped would build community and provide a space for an intentional conversation about allyship. We were joined by Lynn Kesler and Leslie Lippard in the planning.

How did the subcommittee plan for the white ally lunch?

Our first step in planning was to do work on the board’s readiness. It was not yet a norm for the PAWMA board to create space during our training weekend to invite a conversation about race, racism and racial justice. In inviting these conversations, questions arose about how the community would respond: What does calling it a white ally lunch mean? Will people wonder why we are talking about race and not other forms of identity and oppression? Are we replicating the same division that we are trying to avoid? How will I answer these questions if they come up? We had rich conversations and acknowledged that even with some fear, it was right to make it happen.

Ultimately, we trusted the community as we drew on the strength of our relationships and reasons for having such as forum: to build intentional community and make space for a dialogue about how to be an ally with other allies. We also drew on our theme, Breaking Down Walls, and were propelled by the question: how does our martial arts practice prepare us for being allies?

Also key to the planning was making the white ally lunch, like the person of color lunch, voluntary. We also supported the groups by assigning each table a facilitator and creating conversation prompts:

  • Why did you decide to attend this lunch?
  • How does your martial arts practice prepare you to be an ally/work toward racial justice?
  • What questions do you have about being an ally?

What was the feedback?

After talking with the facilitators and hearing participants’ reflections, we found the feedback to be overwhelmingly positive. People expressed appreciation for the opportunity to be invited into conversation about how martial arts and self defense training prepared them for allyship. Examples included being prepared both physically and mentally for action, learning to raise our voices, having the courage to stand up to authority, having an embodied practice for staying in a fight rather than shutting down and standing in relationship cooperatively. It sparked conversations about how our schools can pick up the conversation, ensuring our self defense programs speak to oppression, and about PAWMA’s role in providing bystander and other types of training. One person said, “I am, metaphorically, able to sustain the punch in the gut of racism, and lean into the conversation rather than recede.”

Additionally there was appreciation for the relationship building and for making the space for white folks to be in intentional conversation around race and racial justice. Many of our members do anti-racism work in their communities and were thankful to have the support of others in the PAWMA community. For some, the political times had increased the visibility of white privilege and white supremacy, and being amongst trusted training partners for this dialogue was comforting. Tyler noticed at the table she was facilitating an enthusiasm for jumping into the conversation, generally reflecting on the fact that more white people are being called to center racial justice.

There were also people who expressed discomfort, causing some to participate anyway and others to opt out. There was an important question that arose asking: “Why create the separation at PAWMA?” Professor Sonya Richardson, former PAWMA board president and current elder counsel, reminded us that the POC lunch at PAWMA was started in 2013 at the suggestion of then PAWMA Vice President, Nikki Smith. Following in the footsteps of NWMAF, the POC lunch at PAWMA is a place to create community amongst martial artists of color and a time to honor the importance of these connections. Professor Richardson wrote that, “I participated in women of color (WOC) gatherings at NWMAF each year I attended camp and found it helpful in building friendships as well as better integrating with East Coast based training sisters. I am delighted that the number of folks who self identified as WOC and took the time to join others during lunch/meals has grown greatly over the past six years (at PAWMA).” Emmy Defigueiredo, current board president of PAWMA, expressed that the white ally lunch interrupts something important: “the idea of intention means a lot to me - that there’s something happening with the POC group and not the white group is reflective of society and the dominant narrative. The white ally lunch was a shared acknowledgment that fighting racism is everyone’s work.”

What is next and why is it important we continue this practice?

For me co-organizing the white ally lunch was in itself picking up a baton of my own training lineage. The significance of anti-racism work carries forward the history of Kajukenbo’s response to racial strife, and more recently, Professor Coleen Gragen’s commitment, and Professor Sonya Richardson’s leadership. I am hopeful that building community amongst other anti-racism allies may start with lunch and a conversation and has the potential for greater action.

In a meeting between members of the outgoing and new board, Mollie Wolf, PAWMA Treasurer, expressed the sentiment that the new board is committed to supporting the POC and white ally lunches as well as ensuring other anti-oppression practices at PAWMA. “Racial and social justice work is an inherent part of our training,” she said. “PAWMA as an organization, as well as many members’ individual practices, are about creating a world we want to see. We can’t separate this work from our training.”

PAWMA is indeed a powerful community with a rich history of pushing boundaries and standing up for justice. While the form of allyship work may change shape, the potential for new traditions are on the horizon, supporting both what we bring into our communities from PAWMA, and also what one brings to PAWMA to ensure we are an evolving, reflective and inclusive community.

Were you at the white ally or POC lunch? Do you have any feedback on the lunch or what you’d like to see going forward? Please send feedback to info@pawma.org or camp@pawma.org

Want to Learn More About White Allyship?

Here are a few resources that informed our work together:

Photo by Kerry Kehoe.

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