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‘Power and Privilege’ observances among Presbyterian Mission Agency Board action items this week

Consultant’s report suggests multiple changes, including antiracism work, gender roles and language use

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Presbyterian Mission Agency circle

LOUISILLE — Cultural humility training, a report on power and privilege observances among board members and committee meetings and reports are among the three days of business in front of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board this week.

Beginning Wednesday, the Board has five sessions scheduled: Noon-3 p.m. Eastern Time and 4 p.m.-7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and noon-4 p.m. Friday. Each session will be held via Zoom. The agenda includes two closed sessions, from 1:20-2:45 p.m. Thursday and from 1:15 p.m. through 3:15 p.m. Friday.

In a report to the board, Marian R. Vasser, a consultant and the executive director for Diversity and Equity and the University of Louisville, discusses what she observed during four board meetings — two in person and two virtual. Vasser’s report is scheduled for discussion at 4:30 p.m. Thursday.

According to Vasser’s report, several observations “threaten PMAB’s commitment to be fully committed to the Matthew 25 agenda.” Among them:

  • Ableism: Several times, speakers did not use microphones.
  • Antiracism/diversity/social justice efforts: Except for one conversation led by a white man, Vasser observed that conversations on these topics fell on the shoulders of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) board members and staff. “There is visible discomfort during conversations around white supremacy and white privilege,” Vasser wrote. “During the presentation of Racial Equity findings, several white attendees were visibly checked out, and likely were unaware of the findings. This was very noticeable as some even left the room for an extended period of time, returning immediately upon completion of the report.”
  • Closed sessions: Vasser was omitted from closed sessions, “which is a critical point of observation,” Vasser wrote. “These are times where power and privilege are most prevalent, as folk tend to be navigating stressful environments, leaving them vulnerable to authentic engagement. This was a missed opportunity.”
  • Gender roles: “Questions that are more emotional and subjective were consistently deferred to women, while more concrete and procedural questions were directed towards men,” Vasser wrote. “There are patterns, in terms of committee composition and leadership as well. Committees with a specific focus on nurturing, social justice, etc., are typically led by and/or reported out by women. Committees focusing more on budget and policies are typically led by and/or reported out by men.”
  • Guarding space: Vasser observed white people standing on the perimeter, “moving around and conversing freely throughout presentations. It gave the appearance of white folx ‘guarding the space,’ if you will … There was a clear sense of freedom and ownership.” When the conversation transitioned to racial justice, Vasser observed more white people staying in their seats while BIPOC members “seemed to move about more freely … It was as if they felt ‘at home’ during this discussion. It was really interesting to observe. Upon conclusion of the racial justice conversation, the dynamics literally returned to white folx moving more freely and often.” The one exception Vasser noted was that the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, who is a Black woman, “moved around the room freely. It is unclear if this exception was a direct result of the position of power or not.” Vasser recommends this finding on “guarding space” “be called out specifically … This particular trend was reported out during the initial meeting and there was a noticeable change at subsequent meetings. It is important to continue making regular announcements until the space feels safe for all.”
  • Language: Phrases including “living beyond our means” tend to be “coded as maintaining the status quo,” Vasser wrote. “This could threaten the ability to reimagine how funding is used to address inequities.” Phrases such as “our/my staff” suggest property, “which traces back to slavery.” Consider instead, Vasser suggested, terms such as “team,” “colleagues” or “associates” — or at least dropping “our” or “my” and just say “staff,” Vasser wrote.
  • Liberal white women: “While there were several occurrences, most notably were white women who repeatedly inserted themselves in the space designated for the consultant, offering tips and advice,” Vasser wrote. “While the intent may have been good, there was a clear assumption that the consultant was not skilled or wise enough to identify power and privilege without assistance.” Vasser said during one Board meeting, a white woman pulled up a chair at the “clearly isolated” table where Vasser was sitting and observing. The woman was “not at all shy about trying to read what I was typing.”
  • Lodging and seating: “The energy in the room was noticeable when staff got a chance to join the board in the front of the room for dialogue,” Vasser said of one of the four meetings observed. “Staff were visibly excited to move to the front of the room and engage with the board. The energy shifted in a positive way and was more inclusive and energizing. The energy immediately returned to the status quo after the dialogue and they were instructed to head back to their seats. I could have had my eyes closed and would have felt the energy drop significantly.” Vasser recommends combining board and staff seating.
  • Rendered invisible (people of Asian descent): Most notable for Vasser was a conversation she was having with a woman of Asian descent, who was “interrupted and disregarded by a white woman.” Vasser recommends incorporating presenters “who are experts in Asian studies with the goal of increasing awareness and cultural sensitivity around this community.”
  • Staff: Staff “were only invited to speak and participate as deemed relevant by board members, which was particularly concerning,” Vasser wrote. “This practice remained in place even during teambuilding and informal activities and was consistent in every in-person meeting.” Staff “not only add a critical lens to the discussion, they tend to be knowledgeable around day-to-day processes and details. There is a critical lens missing when staff are disengaged.”
  • White fragility: “After the consultant conducted informal report-outs at several meetings, white folx inevitably responded with resistance,” Vasser wrote. “While most were pleasant, it was resistance nonetheless.”

In a summary section, Vasser wrote that if the Board is “truly committed to disrupting power and privilege dynamics, it must be willing to acknowledge how deeply embedded hierarchies and tradition are in this organization … While this seems like a lot to digest, this is actually typical for an institution with a history directly tied to slavery and discrimination.”

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