A Wait List for White People

Published on February 18, 2021.

I was once asked to come speak at a university in Iowa where my book, Bridging the Class Divide, is taught. I agreed to come, but I asked the professor if they would also organize a visioning day for the surrounding community. He was excited about the idea and wanted to reach out to the working class and low-income community near the university. However he felt that my goal of having 50% of the group be people of color might be too challenging. “After all,” he said, “this is Iowa!” After we talked about the kind of outreach needed for this process – the playbook – he went on to organize an all-day collective visioning event of 82 people, 42 of them people of color. It was an amazing event.

The Playbook

There’s no value in preaching to the choir and there’s more to it than sending out an email or posting a flyer. You want a truly diverse group that is representative of the whole community in a way that reflects the mission of positive change. In other words, you want all the people involved who care about or are affected by the issue at the table.

Create a list that is as diverse in race, class, gender and age as possible. If you are working on one issue, such as education, look for people using different approaches, such as public education, alternative education or education reform. Or if you are working in a community, look for those who represent different issues.

That does not mean you want everybody represented. For example, if you were working on an environmental issue in your community, you would invite those being affected and others who care about the environment into the room. You probably wouldn’t invite the people who run the industry that is poisoning the community or the elected officials or townspeople who support them. But you would want the people in power, business people and townspeople who support you and want to stop the poisoning of their communities.

Think broadly about those who might be impacted. Often low-income communities are closest to the source of damage. Consider outlying schools, parks and farms that may also be affected.

Accept Ambiguity

These decisions are not always easy to figure out. For example, there may be people who want a cleaner environment for their children, but their only way of supporting their family is working at the polluting plant. They may not be the first people who come to a meeting, but once you have a vision of how to create jobs for the community as well as a clean environment, those people will more likely join in. In my first organization, Piedmont Peace Project, many people joined our group even when they knew their jobs might be in jeopardy. And many stayed as strong participants even as they or their families lost jobs and faced other kinds of threats.

A group in Seattle did something similar. They brought together a very diverse group by putting white folks on the wait list until half the slots were filled by people of color. It worked out that everyone who wanted to come was able to attend, and many said it was the most diverse experience they had ever had in Seattle. But this didn’t just happen by inviting people. It required sitting down with key leaders and helping them become invested in bringing a diverse group together from the beginning.

Trust and community building has to start before the gathering even begins.

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