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Building Bridges: From Resistance to Resolve

by Dani Wilson, MSW


Independent Sector’s Bridging Fellows program, supported by Walmart, offers community leaders space, skills, and resources needed to socialize and embed bridge building as a core competency in their organizations and communities. Intended for leaders whose work places local communities at the core, the program focuses on bridging specific areas of division, including ideological, racial, socioeconomic, and geographical.

In 1997, I gave birth to my first child. When I was eight months pregnant, my husband asked if I was ready to raise a Black son in America. I had no idea what he meant. I was a 21-year-old white woman who was raised in a “we don’t see color” household in Iowa, deeply unaware of how the rage of white supremacy was woven into every aspect of our culture.

By 2020, I had four Black biracial children and decades of practice shrinking our world to what felt safer. I was not afraid to burn a bridge, whether that meant cutting off a family member, leaving a friend group, or making a scene in the principal’s office. My whiteness insulated me from many of the repercussions Black mothers often receive when they engage in the same protective acts for their family, but isolation was how I survived.

That began to change in February 2020, when Nora Bateson hosted her first Warm Data Lab host training in North America. A small group spent five days together, exploring new ways of being in relationship with each other and the world. When many of us around the globe became secluded in our homes a short time later, the Warm Data community thrived online. Meanwhile, here in America, our societal structure continued to unravel. Due to relentless systemic violence and the COVID-19 pandemic, people around the globe, including many white Americans, gained a deeper awareness about the reality of our oppressive systems, especially medical racism and police brutality. I began to see opportunities for bridging, but years of operating from a place of fear had not prepared me for them.

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The following month, our local Showing Up for Racial Justice chapter recommended Finding Freedom: White Women Taking on Our Own White Supremacy, a workshop that balances deep internal and personal work with collective experimentation and action. I registered immediately – despite my reservations about being in an intentionally all-white space – mostly because I wanted to be in a space with other white women and genderqueer folks divesting from white supremacy culture. It was deeply unsettling and painful, and I absolutely loved it.

The workshop was developed in 2016 by a queer-led organization dismantling white supremacy, steeped in learnings from and gratitude for the leadership and expertise of queer Black women. It is a response to over 60 years of asks from Black leaders for white people to organize other white people. I loved it for the learning, connection, and accountability offered, and for the impact it had on so many.

But it was also unsettling because it became clear I had not interrogated my own whiteness enough. I was mad at the world and spent a lot of time trying to reduce the harm it was having on my children, but I had not asked myself how I was perpetuating that harm on them myself. This realization – that even though I would die for them at any moment, there were times that I colluded with the dominant culture I was socialized in – was incredibly painful and critical for me to face so I could change how I showed up for them and in the world.

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I have now been through the Finding Freedom curriculum many times, once as a participant, once as a trainee, and several times as a facilitator. Each time is a beautiful and unsettling experience for which I have immense gratitude. This community, like so many others that have entered my life recently, is finding ways to exist outside of what our dominant culture expects.

We Are Finding Freedom now has four unique workshops, coaching opportunities, and a Mighty Networks community for more than 1,000 people who have completed a workshop. We are also developing a community for white parents of children of color. As a collective, our goals are to:

  1. Influence: position white women and genderqueer folks to influence other white people in our existing roles with family, friends, and coworkers around racial justice.
  2. Liberate & Transform: shift approaches to racial justice training from shaming and transactional to liberating and transformative.
  3. Organize: build skills, courage, and support networks to organize for racial justice.
  4. Dream: dream of what liberation feels like in our bodies and spirits, far beyond the white supremacist, patriarchal, and classist systems we’ve been colluding with.

We’re here to center on racial justice work and focus on resisting white supremacy as a practice, specifically how white supremacy operates in people socialized as “white” and “woman” at some point in their lives. One legacy of white womanhood is that we are often socialized to avoid conflict, and not say what we need or want. We offer the opportunity to reverse course – to confront lovingly and respectfully when things are not the way you want or need.

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We also offer the opportunity to practice ways of being that will help you stay in the movement: vulnerability, non-judgment, curiosity, investing in each other’s success, and moving through our isolation and into community. Then, figuring out what to do when there are ruptures – because there will be ruptures. This is a place to prioritize building, maintaining, and mending relationships, because that’s what organizing is.

A vital part of this work is building our capacity is to imagine what liberation will feel and look like for everyone, including white people who are currently being organized by the right, especially the far-right. What will it take for us to love them, some of whom may literally be your family? Some of whom are mine. What does it take for us to open up to them, see their suffering, and respond to it? We are still exploring those questions, but we have learned that our analysis of structural racism must include:

  • Intersectional Analysis: Our analysis of structural racism includes looking through the lens of race, class, and gender. As facilitators with various class backgrounds and gender identities, we have gotten crystal clear that we must unpack how class and the gender binary have shaped us, and how these structures are holding up white supremacy.
  • Collective Liberation: We recognize our interest as white people in getting free from white supremacy. This journey is about dislodging shame and rejecting the white savior role. We believe that collective struggle leads to collective liberation.
  • Somatics: As women and genderqueer folks, and as white people, we’ve learned well how to compartmentalize, block off, and silence the sensations in our bodies. We move toward connecting with our bodies to help us move through stuckness to action.

Looking at the course of human history and where we sit in it– the times that we are in together – we are not reckoning with events from the distant past. We are steeped in the immediate consequences of the horrors of mass enslavement and genocide. It is our responsibility to move through them together. We believe a new world is coming, and our movement is working to push the door wide open for it and bring other white people along.

By October 2021, I was facilitating Finding Freedom, yet still struggling with the “support” side of the support and accountability that is essential to building bridges and authentic community. That month, I attended a workshop with Resmaa Menekem called Somatic Abolitionism: Healing the Effects of Racism or Supremacy Within the Body with Resmaa Menekem at Omega Institute for Holistic Studies. On the third day of our collective work, I had an intense somatic elicitation after an exercise. It was coupled with the sudden fear that I had spent 20 years “doing it wrong” – that by calling people out and isolating myself from friends, family members, our neighborhood, and my children’s educational institutions, I had not aided the movement at all.

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“Protective, not defective,” Resmaa said to me. And then, “now go get your cousins.”

I fully received both the truth of his statement and the call to action. I had been making decisions based on what would best protect my children. For a time, that meant limiting who was in our lives, but my role has shifted. The best way I can protect them now is to extend myself to the people I turned away from. My time for burning bridges is over. Now, I’m learning to build them.

My bridge building is about finding a way to bring love to those fully invested in our oppressive culture without compromising who I am. It’s receiving the stories that used to bring me pain, the storytellers with grace, and staying with them while together, we find other ways to be.

It’s also about recognizing when people are building a bridge to me, and offering me the gifts of support and accountability as I continue to grow. These days, those gifts are coming from YogaRoots on Location, a community for embodied antiracist organizing and collective healing. I am midway through their 13-month Raja Yoga Teacher Training, and it has challenged me in ways I have not felt in years.

In the liberation movement, there is always more to explore. Some of what’s coming up for me in this training is surprising; ways of being or reacting I thought I had healed. Some of it is new and I am getting to know aspects of myself previously hidden. At times, it can be discouraging for those seeking justice to hear about how the journey never ends, because the journey is not easy. But it is also important and transformative and healing. The depth and breadth of relationships available to you – the love and joy and authentic friendship – that won’t end either. I promise you.

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