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‘Just row’

White Privilege Conference draws 1,300 attendees to Eastern Iowa

by Mike Ferguson |Presbyterian News Service

About 1,300 people are attending the 20th White Privilege Conference being held in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The conference wraps up Saturday. (Photo by Mike Ferguson)

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Thirteen hundred people are gathered in this Eastern Iowa community through Saturday for the 20th White Privilege Conference. Attendees were treated Thursday to a pair of thoughtful keynote addresses and the first of what will be their choice of more than 100 workshops.

Relationships — “imbued with love and accountability” — are at the heart of racial justice work, said morning keynoter Dr. Heather Hackman, who consults nationally on issues of equity and social justice.

The trouble is that many white liberals stand on the shore watching others row in the race toward inclusion, she said. “We contribute to rowing causes, but we are safe and comfortable on the shore,” she said. “What will it take to swim out to the boat and row? After we do, we realize what a tiny patch of shore that was. How did I confuse that for a whole, full life?”

And a caveat for white people who do start rowing: “Please don’t stick a flag in the boat and say, ‘I discovered a boat!’ And don’t offer to do a spreadsheet on rowing patterns,” she said. “Just row!”

The white racial narrative, she noted — the stories white people often tell themselves — include the view they’re rugged individualists, honest and hard-working. Their time is more important than relationship-building. They own things, they’re in charge, they’re doers and they see themselves as innocent until proven otherwise.

But rugged individualism “is an incredibly lonely way to live,” she said.

While some white people may try to make an accommodation to people of color by offering a seat or two at the table of the organization they serve or oversee, “white people should just leave the table,” Hackman said. “Resign your position and make sure people of color and Native Americans are in positions of power. But we do love our seats at the table.”

Afternoon keynoter John-Paul Chaisson Cardenas, a native of Guatemala who’s worked a quarter-century in this country on inclusion, equity, human and civil rights, said he’s returning to Guatemala in about two weeks to work on a national assessment designed to help that country hang onto its youth. “It’s kind of funny,” he said with a smile, “that a country that pushed me out is calling me back.”

Cardenas discussed his work that included a stint leading Iowa’s 4-H program. Among his struggles: high school students posting social media accounts of themselves at a county fair with a Confederate flag displayed.

“We are a Northern state!” Cardenas said. “What heritage are you celebrating?”

What Cardenas called “sacred work” will “take its toll,” he said. “It is very difficult work, but it’s worthwhile. You cannot do it alone, and you cannot give it up. You must fight, you must work hard and you must not regret it … This is the time we must stand up and make a difference.”

 


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