If you are a witness to injustice, will you intervene?

Preparing to write this piece, I started with the suggestion that I address current events, such as the wrongful arrest of two men in a Starbucks for the crime of sitting in a Starbucks. Of course, identifying an event for discussion where people of color are treated like garbage in public doesn’t require digging. Here’s an example, here’s another example, and here’s another one. So many of us want to end this violence; so many want to make a difference. What can we do?

That people of color have been treated as second-class citizens, as criminals, and as less than human has been true since Europeans took over the land where the United States exists today. People of color know the truth; they live it every day. White people facing the truth comes in waves. We all know something about the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s. We know about Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus (not all of us know about Claudette Colvin, now only 78 years old, who took action before Rosa Parks). But even in this age of phones recording video and social media sharing the stories, many people consider each of the stories of violence against people of color as isolated incidents. They aren’t. They are a part of a system of oppression many call “whiteness.”

So, the first step for many of us in changing our system of racism is to recognize it is a system. It isn’t just some bad apples. It isn’t isolated incidents with incident-specific explanations. The mistreatment of people of color—and all people who don’t fit whiteness’ defined default—is, as they say, not a “bug” in the design. It’s a feature. It is part of what makes our systems work. It helps to recognize each of these incidents as parts of a larger system when we consider what we might do to work for change.

We want to believe if we saw Rosa Parks (or Claudette Colvin) being told to move to the back of the bus we would’ve stood up and told the racists to leave her alone. But, moving from being a bystander to someone who intervenes when you are a witness to injustice requires preparation. It requires education and practice.

Understanding and correcting our own implicit biases honestly and deeply is an essential step in being of service if you are a witness to injustice. If at any level of your being you think “they must’ve done something wrong if they are being treated badly” because of how someone presents themselves, you will be less likely to get involved. How do you understand and rid yourself of implicit bias? There are many, many resources available online (some to connect you to offline resources). Here are a few: 4 Things We Can Do to Minimize Implicit Bias; Four Tools for Interrupting Implicit Bias; or, How to Fight Your Own Implicit Biases.

Learn about the “bystander effect.” Know that being in a larger group of people will make it less comfortable to get involved if you are a witness. There are tools online and in your community to learn how to overcome this and other obstacles. Googling “bystander intervention” is a good start. Hollaback! offers webinars and their website has excellent, practical resources.

Talking to my friends from marginalized backgrounds confirms what I’ve learned online: one of the most important steps to actively and visibly take a stand against harassment or mistreatment of others in public settings is to make contact with the person who is the target. Follow their lead. Do they want your involvement? Perhaps your involvement might make things worse for them. But making contact, human to human, can make a difference.

Find opportunities to practice intervening. Again, Google and other search engines are our friends. Local nonprofit organizations certainly offer trainings that can help. It’s been my experience that until we risk saying something stupid and actually say something, we will remain silent—and ineffectual. We can’t let our fear of making mistakes prevent us from trying to affect change in ourselves or the wider world. We will make mistakes. But if you see someone being treated badly, don’t be the person who tries to ignore it. If you do not let the person being mistreated know you are on their side, you will be on the side of the perpetrator.


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Photo by Gerd Altmann on Pixabay

I’ll see you nice white ladies at the next Black Lives Matters protest, right?

I can’t believe that it has been a year since that man took office in this country (this author refuses to acknowledge his name and is saddened by the fact that a staggering 52% of white women voted for him and are proud to call him their president). And it has also been a year since the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, with congruent sister marches all over the world.

While the “success” of the march can be found in the non-violent way mostly (white) women and men marched, there was backlash. But how? How can women and men peacefully marching be a problem? And why would others have issue with it?

And why has there always been so much more backlash at Black people and other people of color marching or launching non-violent protests that filled streets or malls or the like?

I’ll bluntly tell you why: People felt safer because it was mainly white women marching.

As much intersectionality as the founders and organizers of the Women’s March on Washington—Bob Bland and Teresa Shook—touted, it was only after backlash that additional organizers, Tamika D. Mallory, Linda Sarsour, and Carmen Perez, were added to round out the diversity. There was even more resentment, when the panel opened up to include others and basically asked white women to acknowledge their privilege. White women felt that they were being attacked and some even decided to not participate.

All of the above, initial ignorance to the need for more diverse representation in the organization of the March, as well as white women’s inability to acknowledge privilege in relation to this movement, resulted in women of color feeling slighted, as they should. (Another interesting fact is that the title of this march was originally going to be the Million Women March, erroneously taken from a similar march on Philadelphia in 1997, the Million Women March, which was organized by and marched for by African-American women celebrating their heritage. It was then changed.)

Then there is the public’s response to Black Lives Matter. BLM was formed by three women—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi—in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin’s murderer. This group was created to try to vanquish systematic racism that has been prevalent in our world. So I ask: Why was this organization the target of so much hate from the start? BLM has been criticized as being anti-police, Rudy Giuliani has called the group “inherently racist,” and white people began to make silly sayings, such as “All lives matter” or “Blue lives matter.” referring to people in law enforcement. Umm, hi. Your lives have mattered for a very long time, it’s time to put aside your white-ass privilege and focus on lives that society has been systematically eradicating.

So how do these two groups get labeled differently? How is the Black Lives Matter movement “violent and against police” and the Women’s March on Washington a peaceful and hopeful sign? I think I know the answer, but I don’t want to beat a dead horse.

One is easy. One makes white people feel good about themselves and who they think they are and have always been. Joining friends on Saturday after brunch out with that new pink hat just crafted, posting about the movement on Facebook (challenging the external world and not the internal one). It also involves white people following and surrounding themselves with people who look like them in an almost social setting.

The other is hard and challenges who white people think they are; it shakes the core, and it doesn’t feel comfortable for them. It highlights unconscious bias and privilege. It involves white people following and rallying behind people who are different and have different life experiences than their own. But shouldn’t activism and real change feel uncomfortable and shake us to our core?

It’s almost as if being an activist has become just as trendy as a pumpkin spice latte. Rosie Campos, a writer for Medium, writes eloquently about trendy activism:

Our social activism is only stirred when it’s convenient for us. We love our lazy activism. We love our safety pins. We sit in the comfort of our homes and shake our heads in disgust as police brutalize and kill Black people. Good intentions. We post a few memes and our regrets on Facebook and call it a day. We leave it to Black people to fight their own battles.

I remember a few years back, when I was in art school (here I go again beating that poor horse), I was beginning to find all of these feminists of color, ones that looked like me and had similar upbringings. I was so incredibly excited to find women I could trust and rely on. However, as I started making work concerning these experiences—specifically centered on Latinx situations—it didn’t line up with the Eurocentric view held by my white instructors and some peers. So, long story short, it was misinterpreted, talked over, and disregarded as wrong.

The idea I presented in my work confused and probably upset some of my white peers and colleagues. They did not understand that having the privilege of being a WHITE person entered subconsciously into their brains and told them that I was wrong. It felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me. I had found my sisters In arms and then they were stolen from me.

What’s at the core here is the leaders and followers of the Women’s March on Washington couldn’t see past their privilege in a way to be inclusive to all women. To welcome and hear all of the stories, they needed to take a back seat to let someone ELSE speak. And they needed to listen humbly to that new experience, different from their own. I bring this up on the week after his first year in office, a week after the women’s marches, to show that not only has not much changed…but under his shaky hand, much has gotten worse.

Practicing intersectionality is essential to our well-being as a society from here forward. We must be inclusive to all: Black, Brown, LGBTQIA, Disabled. All of our voices need to be culled up against the tyranny they face each day. We need to be better to each other.


If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

Changing Maine and the necessity of PoC spaces

To be a person of color in Maine is to eat sleep and breathe Whiteness. Despite the melanin of our skin, we still live, move, and operate within a reality which centers Whiteness above all things.

Because PoC Mainers operate within the long-endured rule of Whiteness, we have little to no opportunities to gather together outside of Whiteness, to address things which are also very much part of our reality. Issues which are so complex, deep, and intergenerational, while simultaneously heartbreakingly basic. Love of ourselves, for example. Love of our people. A deep understanding of our history and our worth. Learning to dream, to achieve, to accomplish in a space which does not reflect nor value us.

Unresolved we push these issues to the core of our being, allowing them to fester and run, infecting, sickening and killing us.

The good news is, self-love is on the rise. PoC in Portland and around the state are coming together to create and demand spaces which can be claimed for our own. We are beginning to foster an environment where spaces for us are not only expected, but encouraged.

Portland’s Q/PoC creatives and organizers are carving out spaces and events dedicated to, made for and in support of PoC.  Theater Ensemble of Color, which uses performance, art, community inclusion and social activism to explore and celebrate diversity; Kesho Wazo, a youth-led organization dedicated to impacting youth and expanding their minds; Black Artists Forum, which has recently found new life and is committed to sustaining the growth of Black creatives in Portland; and my baby, Bloodletting, a recurring poetry night committed to lifting up and empowering the voices of queer and femme PoC, to name a few.

When PoC come together, healing happens. This is a truth which for me can be traced most palpably to “A Distant Holla,” a month-long celebration which was held in May at the Abyssinian Meeting House (the third oldest African American meeting house in the country) and helmed by Daniel Minter, a celebrated local artist.

Only one word can describe what happened at the Abyssinian: Magic. The Meeting House swelled happily with Black and brown people from Portland and Southern Maine. There was art, music, food, wine, and people. Youth, elders, and everyone in between came together to be in community with one another. “A Distant Holla” was a necessary reminder of our power and our ability.

For too long, PoC in Maine have been pressed into misshapen versions of ourselves, attempting to contort our bodies and spirits into a version which is easily digestible to white people. Afraid to take up space, believing the lie that we are not owed any. More and more we are refusing to be reduced to stereotypes, reactions and tragedies.

To sustain our efforts, we must heal. We must have space free from the harm that Whiteness brings. I believe this is what led Samaa Abdurraqib, co-founder of For Us By Us (FUBU), to reach out to Resources for Organizing Social Change, and organize this year’s Changing Maine.

On Saturday Sept. 9,Changing Maine for Racial Justice: Centering Anti-Racism in our Movements” was held at the Lewiston YWCA. The all-day conference came just as advertised. With two blocks of workshops, each featuring a session for Black/PoC, Native American/indigenous, and white attendees (with the exception of the afternoon session, where Native/indigenous attendees merged with the Black/PoC group, due to lack of a facilitator).

Changing Maine this year embraced the power that PoC spaces hold, and in doing so, created an experience which left many people changed. Changing Maine moved me. I felt nourished, fulfilled, and achy with new thought patterns and possibilities for healing. How did such a powerful experience find its way to white-occupied, previously white-organized, Changing Maine?  I reached out to Samaa Abdurraqib to ask:

LD: I understand that you attended Changing Maine in 2016; what was it about that experience which led you and For Us By Us to partner with CM this year?

SA: It actually wasn’t the previous experience I had at CM that led me to partner with ROSC. I’d heard that ROSC wanted to focus this year’s summit on racial justice, and I was concerned that ROSC–a white-led, white-staffed organization with limited resources–wouldn’t be able to create an event that felt like it was addressing racial justice in a way that would help White organizers and organizations make the shifts necessary to introduce more racial equity into their work. I was also concerned that the summit wouldn’t address the needs of Black, brown, and indigenous people in Maine.

LD: Maine is a predominately white state, and by extension, most of its organizers are white as well. You were the driving force in bringing PoC/Native-only spaces to the conference. How did you approach bringing those spaces to CM?

SA: Well…I just asked. I stressed the importance of having a separate space because of a couple of different reasons. 1) The work Black/brown/indigenous people need to do when it comes to racial justice is different from the work that white people need to do. 2) When Black and brown people are in majority white spaces talking about racial justice, they’re inevitably looked to (by white people) to help lead them through their own processes of navigating and negotiating white privilege and white supremacy. Sometimes that means that Black/brown/indigenous folks are asked to speak for “their people.” Sometimes that means that PoCs/indigenous people are asked to manage white people’s emotions as they process the guilt, anger, fear of recognizing how they might be implicated in furthering white supremacy.

LD: This year, Changing Maine had two workshop sessions. The morning session (for PoC) was Love and Dismantling Internalized Oppression, facilitated by Durryle Brooks, and the afternoon session (for PoC/Native) was Oppression & Privilege in Multi-Racial Movements, facilitated by Yamila Hussein. 

Explain briefly why these two workshops are important to the overarching theme of centering anti-racism in our movements.

SA: Durryle’s session on love was HUGELY important to the anti-racist work Black and brown people need. Being immersed in the Whiteness of Maine can make self-love difficult. Being immersed in Whiteness also makes it difficult for us to articulate our love for each other. Durryle’s session was important grounding work. We told stories to each other about how we define love and where those definitions come from (family, society, culture). We talked about what love for ourselves (as Black/brown people) and each other (as Black/brown people) actually looks like. We talked about how we can put love into action in our social justice work. Durryle gave us much needed space to talk and dream about what we needed for ourselves and each other. It was beautiful.

Yamila talked with us about how PoC work with each other when white people are not in the room. She began with the premise that, even when white people aren’t in the room, Whiteness remains in the room. She’s totally right. This session was important because it gave us an opportunity to speak frankly about how Whiteness and proximity to Whiteness continues to divide us when we try to work together across ethnic and racial differences. Her session also allowed us to speak frankly with each other about the divides that occur that aren’t connected to Whiteness (ageism, for example).

LD: With these themes in mind, how do you feel [attendees] benefitted from experiencing PoC/Native only spaces?

SA: I think attendees felt heard, held, and supported in these spaces. I purposefully asked the facilitators to keep their agendas loose; I wanted us to have space and time to be together without spending all of the time thinking about the to-do list that we might generate. One of the attendees  (a HIGHLY experienced organizer who’s lived in Maine ALL of her life) said that she’d never been in a PoC-only space before. She said that she felt nourished and supported. Hearing her say this helped me feel like I met one of my goals.

LD: After attending CM last year, and again this year, how did your experiences differ?

SA: Well…this year felt good. It felt nourishing. It felt enabling and empowering. Last year felt perfunctory. Last year, I attended CM because I thought I might learn something that would enhance my work as an organizer. This year, I was given tools to help me internally. I was given tools to help me make stronger connections with other Black and brown people. A little over a year ago, I’d made the decision that I was going to (as best I could) shift my priorities so that I gave more of my energy to supporting, loving, and prioritizing Black and brown people in Maine. This year’s CM is a step in that process.

LD: Do you have anything else that you would like to add?

SA: I am filled with gratitude for all of the Black and brown people who showed up, despite the fact that CM (and events like CM) traditionally feel marginalizing and othering. I am grateful that Black, brown, and indigenous people trusted what I and the other organizers envisioned, took a chance, and showed up. I was moved by what happened in that PoC/indigenous space, and I’m excited to see Black and brown people continue to grow, building on all of the work, knowledge, and love that has come before us and laid foundations for us to be beautiful and dope.

Bottom line: When PoC come together, healing happens. When we stretch that power into white spaces? Well, to quote Tracy Chapman, we’re “talkin’ ‘bout a revolution.”


If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.