Basebuilding Call Notes: Accountability Across Racial Lines, Part 1

SURJ Basebuilding Call on Building Accountability Relationships Across Racial Lines, Part 1

Sept. 29, 2015

Click here for audio from the call (Content starts at 34 mins, 15 seconds)

Click here for SURJ's Accountability Statement

1. Carla Wallace, Basebuilding: Welcome. The SURJ Basebuilding Team supports work of local groups  to expand our capacity to organize white people to take action for racial justice. We host a monthly call on a theme or issue that is coming up in local work.

Tonight, our call is focused on accountability across race in work for racial justice. We will hear  about SURJ national accountability practices, hear some stories from folks doing this work locally, hear about what is working and what our challenges are.

We approach this with a humbleness of what we've yet to learn, and deep appreciation of what you all do for racial justice, recognition of risk taking and powerful leadership of BLM, Not One more and other people of color led struggles from around the country.

2. Dara Silverman, National Coordinator: SURJ's founding directly related to being accountable to organizers of color and black leadership asking: Where are the white people? Echoing the call from SNCC leadership back in the day, directive for white people to step up and work with other white people, especially white people who are poor and working class.

Defining accountability in this context: Not about asking for permission, but about communicating, checking-in, saying "Here's our strategy, what's your feedback?" SURJ is really grounded in accountability, it's about communicating and coordinating across our movements.

SURJ nationally practices accountability on 3 different levels:

Personal and Collective accountability: Leadership team-each has a group of 3-5 people of color that we check in with every six months or on as needed basis. What we do in those conversations is not ask for permission or what we should do: but here is our strategy, what's your feedback.

People in accountability circles believe in strategies that SURJ is using: white people organizing white people for racial justice, basebuilding and building broad and deep base of white communities to be engaging in this movement moment and be engaging in this work with poc led movements.

Organizational: Accountability council, made up of about a dozen people of color organizers who are part of groups and movements, who we at SURJ are accountable. Diverse in racial and ethnic backgrounds, also in terms of work that they do. Intergenerational. Not a group that meets, but agrees to some core principles: agree to our shared values. Approach the work from an organizing perspective: building base, building powerful, winning demands to build a movement.

Accountability to Organizations, Campaigns, and Movements. Movement for Black Lives, Black Lives Matter. Also in relationship and in conversation with folks from Not One More, Black Youth Project, Ricardo Levin Morales, Indigenous movements, people who have been grounded in this work for decades. As we move forward on campaign work: work around the 2016 elections, and #takeitdown campaigns to remove symbols of the confederacy, genocide, and slavery, we are going to be continuing to build relationships based on that work in areas where it's happening locally regionally and nationally.

We see all of our work grounded in accountability. One of pieces we need in moment is to build strong connections across race--more mechanisms for communication, having conversations, and coordination across movements.

3. Jimmy Wells, Basebuilding: we hope to showcase practical ways that affiliates groups across the country are putting SURJ's values into practice. How groups are building accountable local relationships.

a. Jason David, AWARE - LA/White People for Racial Justice, activist working group of AWARE-LA

White People for Racial Justice: primary accountability relationship is with LA Black Lives Matter. Some have had relationships individuals, core members of group. But have built relationships showing up when request for allies went out. Acting as allies when called upon and in ways asked for: supplies, presence at actions, buffer as multi-racial ally group, want to keep aggressive bypassers at a distance, rides, legal defense funds, statements.

The more that we have shown up and acted as allies when called upon, deeper relationships built and feedback on strategies on organizing in white communities. Intentionality in checking in. Piece around humility, being open to accountability discussions, open as individuals and collectives. We've been working on building trust at a basic level.

AWARE's work: lessons- accountability exercise shaped through relationships, alliances, and actions. Not a hypothetical exercise in perfect anti-racism. Not getting stuck in circles of inaction.

Dialogues in beginning: dialogues is not the work. Not the substitute for action or meaningful relationships. Reached critical mass, raised issue of accountability. Building trust with people of color led organizations. Needed stamp of approval--some of this rooted in lack of trust in ourselves, than in authentic dialogue in efficacy of our racial justice work. Advisory board--were looking for a stamp of approval. Board came back to us and rejected that idea and rejected notion of one sided accountability--they were seeking genuine alliance and partnership.

Basic accountability guidelines are really helpful. White people need to learn non-oppressive ways of relating, defining racism needs to come from people of color. But there are negative consequences when accountability is unhealthy or one sided. Inauthentic communication, walking on eggshells, coming from unhealthy place of distancing ourselves from white folks and needing validation from people of color.

Difference from being accountable and making mistakes. We need to bring a sense of our stake in this. Values of listening, humility, non defensiveness are important. but accountability practices that help us bring our full and honest selves to the work.

b. Ben Laughlin, Phoenix SURJ

Phoenix SURJ's primary accountability relationship is with Puente, an immigrant rights organization.

SURJ chapter emerged out of work in 2010, after passage of SB1070, anti-immigrant bill in Arizona. White folks showing up to support Puente's work; doing things like water distribution, childcare, etc. Showing up in these ways essential to building a relationships.

Work in AZ is underfunded, small, takes more bodies to help make things happen. PHX SURJ has shown up through childcare, driving vans to detention centers, trained in past to help with legal paperwork, water at events. Relationship because it feels not theoretical, folks are connected.

Now looking at mutual interest piece and working to build a campaign together to get Arpaio out of office in 2016. Arpaio is a terrible sheriff: deportations, inhumane jail conditions, refers to his tent city as his own concentration camp--52 percent of country budget spent on public safety and only 1 percent on education. PHX SURJ developing campaign to organize white folks to vote him out from place of mutual interest. Focusing on working to organizing working class and por white folks to work with Puente in future, as part of broader vision.

c. Carol Kraemer and Carla Wallace, Louisville SURJ

Carol: As a white working class lesbian from Louisville, I returned home and found the Fairness Campaign, which is a LGBTQ organization, founded in struggles for racial and economic justice. Through this work, I was able to come to anti-racist work. I met Reverend Louis Coleman, a minister doing work for years against police brutality and lack of contracts for people of color in work. White queer folks began showing up on picket lines every day to fight for better contracts, we were saying prayers with him, began to be in relationships together. We continued to protest for months at a police station after the police murdered a black man. White folks and people of color marched and strategized together, we organized and went to jail together. This created a foundation for me for the accountability relationships that I have today.

Carla: I remember decades ago talking about how to get more white people involved in the work. The work, and founding Louisville SURJ has been itself an act of accountability. We are very clear what our part of the work is – answering the call to organize more white folks for racial justice.

In the beginning, we had a multiracial conversation about founding of LSURJ. One piece of feedback from people of color was, are you asking permission from us? Folks of color said, you don't need to ask permission, you need to move on with it! Forming the group was an act of accountability.

One piece of work has been around the Cordish Company in downtown Louisville, which is an establishment that profiles young people of color in downtown spaces. Black organizers doing the work for decades asked for white folks to open the door, to use our privilege in that way, to set up a meeting to sit down with the Cordish Company.  

Most recently, we launched a door to door campaign and talked to 103 white people 2 hours about racial justice. We got 30 of them to take BLM signs! We chose to canvass in a blue collar neighborhood. This profoundly changes what it feels like to walk down those streets, for us and for people of color. Our accountability is in doing this work. We make mistakes, and we keep going.

4. Q and A:

Annabeth in Georgia- How to move from dialogue to action?

Jason- We did this in AWARE-LA. We started with dialogue groups and with taking action individually, but dialogue pushed us to collectively take action. I suggest--find an event happening that you can show up to and support. Form working groups to keep supporting local action and also think about strategic role for white folks.


Sharon Smith in NC- I am a person of color working with SURJ in Asheville. What is SURJ doing to support indigenous struggles?

Dara- Support looks different in different areas around the country. Nationally, we are looking to do work commemorating massacres of indigenous communities – in collaboration with local partners. Want to recognize that this happened, and partner with indigenous folks as part of our #takeitdown strategy. We will be working on campaigns to take down monuments that represent colonialism and also working to challenge mascots, work folks have been doing for years.


Julia Clemmons in Washington, D.C.-How many people form accountability relationships locally? I know relationships takes time to build. Is it the leadership team building the relationship or everyone in the chapter? Any recommendations?

Carla- Some folks in organizations already have relationships. Relationships happen for everyone when we're joining in action and folks are showing up. People of color organizers have lots of experience with us white folks showing up a couple of times and then dipping out – so it takes time. They know that some of the white folks will show up and then not or need to step back. But some folks do have the deep relationships and that helps make everything else smoother. We end every SURJ meeting by standing on the street corner with Black Lives Matter signs. This helps develop accountability when people of color find out about it, and helps bring in more white folks. 

5.Small Groups: Questions-

1. What has been successful in building accountability relationships in your area? What's worked?

2. What questions about accountability are you still sitting with?

6.Small Group Reportbacks:

Robin- It's hard for me to even think about accountability. My brain goes crazy trying to think about following the leadership of people of color--how do we do this?

Dara- On our call last year, Maurice Mitchell spoke about white anxiety and not letting our anxiety about getting things wrong get in the way of us showing up. He said: "Your anxiety is not about my liberation." Many people of color leaders have given us feedback to stop asking what to do--go do it (organize white people for racial justice) and if you mess up, we'll let you know. What people want is us to be full partners and to bring other white folks into the struggle for racial justice.

Crystal- Is there an accountability checklist?  Also, how do we avoid co-opting a movement if we're not asking for permission?

Jason- I'm sure there's good lists out there, but we also have an intuitive sense. We know how to be accountable to good friends and people that we care about. There's a basic humility, non-defensiveness in doing our own consciousness-raising about history of white supremacy. These things build strong relationships. Co-opting is a real concern, but we can't wait around to act. But do check in to have an accountable alliance and come up with strategies, pose different ideas and ask for feedback. But don't stop yourselves from coming up ideas about how to do this work.

Carla- Part of white culture is fear of getting it wrong. It's one of the reasons SURJ's core value is accountability through action: we cannot be accountable without taking action. The call is for us is to bring more white people into racial justice work. We need to meet them where they're at and help them to move like we've all had to. Waiting for permission drags people of color down, we have to do this work.


Lyndon – I work for an LGBTQ organization in New York that has been around for 45 years.  Many years ago, a LGBTQ people of color organization started in reaction to our organization doing a really terrible job. It was started and run by white cis men. The new org provides really important culturally relevant services. Our staff is about half white, half people of color. This other organization would be the most natural for us to do accountability with. Even though current staff have pretty good relationships with folks in organization, there is a difficult history. Most of the relationships are not organizational, but individual. Despite recent work, so many years of difficulty. Any advice or recommendations?

Carla- In the Fairness Campaign, relationships that we had were with people of color led organizations believed in our work as Fairness. SURJ relationships are with people of color led organizations that believe in our work of organizing other white people as SURJ. Also, all of us are committed to transformative change, we share values. In order to build together, there have to be relationships where you really believe in building a strong multiracial movement together.


7. Carla Wallace- Closing. Appreciations to presenters, facilitators, note takers, tech folks, small group facilitators, and everyone that made this call possible.

Next call on Tuesday, October 27th at 5pm PT/8pm ET on accountability in cities and towns without strong or large people of color-led organizations.