For two years I have been a member of a group of five (originally six) African-Americans and six Jews who have met monthly to listen, learn, and lean together toward social justice. That the white people are Jewish does not preclude any white persons from initiating and engaging in this kind of gathering.
Our process of give and take is partly modeled on circle practices*, which in their essence call on circle members to first build mutual understanding, trust, and acceptance before embarking on efforts, for example, to improve conditions for less fortunate neighbors or other common goals. In other words, it’s personal before becoming transactional.
Each meeting has a different facilitator (or in circle parlance a “keeper”) and theme. Our group has retained the same 11 members since it began. Once formed, the group’s membership doesn’t grow or change. It retains the same members. Twelve is an optimum size. Meetings begin with a check-in in which members reflect on the past month, what’s gone well and what hasn’t. In this way and through stories we share, we have built a community in which we have developed a genuine affection for each other.
During check-in we talk about our losses, e.g., a death in a family, and our gains. We find ways to support each other whether in sadness or joy. Throughout, we’ve been open to sharing our fears and our dreams. We can disagree (often), but still maintain our trust and affection for each other.
Mind you, it takes time and energy to build such a group. Finding individuals willing to be vulnerable, commit to meeting for two hours monthly, and stick with the group for an extended period is challenging.
We call our group “Cross River Dialogue.” The river is the Anacostia which flows through Washington, DC, and is more than a geographic reality. The east side is mostly African-American, poor, often overwhelmed with street violence, and other chronic urban ills, due largely to systemic and institutional racism. The west is the Washington tourists see when visiting here.
For me the learning can come as a jolt, like when one member exclaimed she’d like to be white for one day just to have that experience, or when another said he hadn’t planned for retirement because he never thought he’d live long enough to enjoy it.
I admit this is a micro step. But it has brought us close and united us in ways we never anticipated. You can find us attending each other’s events, testifying before the DC Council on behalf of each other’s causes, and volunteering in ways we never imagined.
We are truly a circle of trust.
*The Little Book of Circle Practices, Kay Pranis. Simon and Schuster Digital Sales. 2015