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Coming to the Table: Now more than ever

Posted July 18th, 2016 by Tom

More people dying. More funerals. More tears. More rage. More division. More frustration.

Many of us feel numb and helpless in the wake of the recent killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota by the police, and the killings of police officers Brent Thompson, Lorne Ahrens, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael J. Smith, and Michael Krol in Dallas, Texas, and Montrell Jackson, Brad Garafola and Matthew Gerald in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

We struggle to figure out what we can do that will make any difference.

Our world desperately needs love, compassion, justice, truth, understanding, peace, and healing. We talk about these and other ideals every time such killings show up on social media and in the news; recorded on someone’s phone. But what can we actually DO in the face of racism, injustice, and terror? An all-too common theme heard in churches, community groups, schools, around kitchen tables, and elsewhere across the United States is a desire to have deep conversations about race that will actually make a difference but not knowing how to go about it.

In order to transform our world, we need to transform how we approach confronting the problem. Old, fear-based, us-versus-them reactions haven’t ever worked, yet we keep reverting to them. We need a fundamental shift in our approach if we are to achieve a fundamental shift in our world.

Last month, I participated in a 3-day Leadership Training Institute and 4-day National Gathering organized by Coming to the Table (CTTT), a non-profit organization I’ve been involved with since its inception ten years ago. After this week-long immersion into workshops, dialogue, and relationship-building experiences with a large group of deeply-committed people from all across the United States and Canada, I feel more strongly than ever that Coming to the Table offers valuable tools for people trying to figure out what to do. As another participant wrote,

“There are precious few forums where descendants of slaves and enslavers can engage in meaningful dialog about what the legacy of slavery has done to this country and how to move forward.”

IMG_6100CTTT has a Vision for the United States of a just and truthful society that acknowledges and seeks to heal from the racial wounds of the past—from slavery and the many forms of racism it spawned. The Mission of CTTT is to provide leadership, resources, and a supportive environment for all who wish to acknowledge and heal these historic, traumatic wounds.

And let’s make no mistake. These recent killings – like so many before – all stem, at least in part, from the legacy of slavery in the United States; unhealed wounds around issues of racism that continue to haunt our nation.

I know from experience the Coming to the Table Approach to acknowledging, understanding, and healing these wounds can make a positive difference. It’s a practical approach that seeks to create a space where people who are serious about the work of undoing racism and oppression can feel safe-enough to participate deeply; to share their stories, listen to the stories of others, and see each other as ultimately-connected human travelers in this challenging journey of life. It’s more than creating a space for people to talk and feel better and go home. The CTTT Approach requires effort and commitment; a commitment to stay at the table when the work gets messy and hard, which it does and will.

The central framework within Coming to the Table is the STAR Program; Strategies for Trauma Awareness & Resilience. STAR brings together theory and practices from neurobiology, conflict transformation, human security, spirituality, and restorative justice to address the needs of trauma-impacted individuals and communities. Traumatic events may have a range of harmful effects on everyone involved, including victims, perpetrators, witnesses, bystanders, health professionals, law enforcement or military, clergy, family, and friends. If the traumatic wounds are not addressed and healed, they will persist and have further harmful impacts, and be passed on to future generations.

Two resources that help create a safe-enough space for this work are Touchstones and the Circle Process. Touchstones are a set of principles people agree upon when beginning “deep dialogue” together. Some examples of such agreements might include being 100% present, listen deeply, be open to new ideas, agree not to try to “fix” or correct others, maintain confidentiality, expect non-closure. More examples can be found here. Touchstones allow groups of people to establish ways of “being” with each other; to create a “container” for the often-difficult conversations to follow.

The Circle Process is another way to create a container for participants to feel safe enough to be in the space; often with people they consider to be “the other,” and perhaps even perceiving a threat to their safety or mental or emotional well-being. As Kay Pranis writes in The Little Book of Circle Processes, this tool “draws on the ancient Native American tradition of using a talking piece, an object passed from person to person in a group and which grants the holder sole permission to speak.” Utilizing the Circle Process is a way of bringing people together in which everyone is respected, has the opportunity to speak without interruption, share their stories, and where everyone is equal. Pranis also notes that Circles can create a container strong enough to hold anger, frustration, joy, pain, truth, conflict, diverse world views, intense feelings, silence, and paradox.

The Coming to the Table Approach to achieving the above Vision and Mission involves four interrelated practices. Uncovering History includes researching, acknowledging, and sharing personal, family and community histories of race with openness and honesty; Making Connections to others within and across racial lines in order to develop and deepen relationships; Working Toward Healing is exploring how we can heal together through dialogue, reunion, ritual, ceremony, the arts, apology and other methods; and Taking Action, actively seeking to heal the wounds of racial inequality and injustice and to support racial reconciliation between individuals, within families, and in communities. For a more thorough understanding, download the free CTTT workbook, Transforming Historical Harms.

As Michelle Alexander recently wrote,

I think we all know, deep down, that something more is required of us now. This truth is difficult to face because it’s inconvenient and deeply unsettling. And yet silence isn’t an option. On any given day, there’s always something I’d rather be doing than facing the ugly, racist underbelly of America. I know that I am not alone. But I also know that the families of the slain officers, and the families of all those who have been killed by the police, would rather not be attending funerals.”

This work of undoing and replacing racist structures and systems – in our nation and in ourselves – is hard. It takes courage and commitment. If we are to make a difference, we need a different approach. There are many organizations and individuals doing important and powerful work to confront racism and injustice. The Coming to the Table Approach offers a way in which all the other stuff we are trying to do can work better.

When we decide, as a human family, that love, compassion, justice, truth, understanding, peace, and healing are more important than skin color and ethnicity, political parties and religious affiliation, who wins and who loses, who’s right and who’s wrong, and our fear over what we might lose when we create a just and equal society, we can transform our world. If we are ever to break free from these cycles of violence we continue to find ourselves caught up in, we have the responsibility to do the work. The Coming to the Table Approach can help.

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The Beloved Community

Posted July 31st, 2015 by Tom

CTTT logoFor the past two and a half years I have worked for a non-profit organization I’ve been part of since it was formed almost 10 years ago. Coming to the Table is a committed and growing group of people providing leadership, resources and a supportive environment for all who wish to acknowledge and heal wounds from racism that is rooted in the United States’ history of slavery.

TheChildrenI’m currently reading The Children by David Halberstam and today read a statement by which Civil Rights Icon, and U.S. Congressman, John Lewis was profoundly moved. “The Beloved Community” jumped out at Lewis in the early 1960’s. “The Beloved Community” jumped out at me from the page of this powerful book today.

From The Children – “It was not a utopia, but it was a place where the barriers between people gradually came down and where the citizenry made a constant effort to address even the most difficult problems of ordinary people. It was above all else an ever idealistic community. It became a permanent part of Lewis’s vision of what he believed he was working toward.”

I’ve been involved with Coming to the Table for the past decade because I have witnessed the barriers between people gradually come down. I have witnessed folks making a constant effort to address the most difficult problems of ordinary people. In the most difficult times and circumstances that can lead to hopelessness, Coming to the Table gives me hope.

I encourage my friends and readers to spend time at the website (here), to follow Coming to the Table on Twitter (here), and consider joining the very active Facebook page (here).

Together we can build The Beloved Community.

 

The Immeasurable Distance Between Us

Posted July 4th, 2015 by Tom

Before I signed a contract with Beacon Press to publish my first book, the working title of my manuscript was The Immeasurable Distance Between Us.

IMG_7936I envisioned the cover of my book long before publication, with an image of a young teacher from Chicago and me walking side-by-side in Accra during the Panafest Pan African Historical Festival. Visualized it. Printed it. Framed it. Then signed a contract with Beacon Press and the title changed to Inheriting the Trade.

That’s all to the good. I trust my publisher and the book has done (and continues to do) well in getting into the hands of readers.

And today, July 4, 2015, I look at the image of my envisioned book cover that still hangs in my office. And I think about all I’ve learned over the past 15 years. Earlier in my life I didn’t think much about Independence Day, or Columbus Day, or Thanksgiving… just enjoyed them, or partied with friends or family, or whatever. Now, thanks to new friends, authors and others who challenge my thinking, such commemorations have become far more complicated in my mind. I don’t celebrate them much anymore. I think about what’s behind and beneath them.

My initial chosen book title comes from a speech given by Frederick Douglass on July 4, 1852 in Rochester, New York.

“I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary. Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”

Sadly, much of what Mr. Douglass spoke about 163 years ago remains true today. Racism and injustice are alive and well. Florida. Missouri. New York.  Maryland. Since 9 of our African-descended brothers and sisters were assassinated by a racist terrorist two weeks ago in Charleston, South Carolina, 7 black churches have burned. None of this is an attack on Christianity. It is an attack on black people. If you are white and don’t understand this fact, you haven’t read my books. Please do.

You can read the full text of Douglass’s speech here. Please do. Or you can watch Danny Glover read powerful excerpts from  Douglass’s speech here. Please do.

I hope you are as troubled and contemplative about Independence Day (and certain other American holidays) as I am.

Inside Out

Posted June 23rd, 2015 by Tom

My oldest granddaughter (age 8) and I went to see Inside Out, the new Disney/Pixar flick, during its opening weekend. In connection with my writing, my study of Trauma Healing and Infinite Possibilities, and my work with Coming to the Table, this is one powerful movie. I will absolutely be utilizing clips from Inside Out in future workshops and presentations I offer.Pixar Post - Inside Out characters closeup

Riley is uprooted from her home in Minnesota (Note: I originally called it the Midwest in this post, but when my granddaughter read the draft, she said, “that makes no sense, Papa, she was from Minnesota” so Minnesota it is) when her father starts a new job in California. The transition at home and at school does not go well. We get to watch that transition from inside Riley’s mind… and those of her mother and father… as we watch the key emotions inside their brains advise and direct their choices in life. Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear jockey for position in response to the events in Riley’s and her parents’ lives.

Understanding the impact that trauma has on us physically, spiritually, psychologically, and emotionally, and knowing how deeply rooted responses to trauma are in our bodies and brains, in our instincts and emotions; watching a IMG_7703fun, engaging, animated film explore issues of memory, emotions, and trauma in thoughtful and thought-provoking ways is refreshing and useful. I’ve been talking ever since with my granddaughter when she laughs or scowls — about who is at the control panel in her brain at the moment… joy or anger; disgust, or…

An interesting and critical aspect of the film for me is the moment I realized I had been rooting for Joy to be in control all the time and eventually understanding the important roles Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear play in the richness of our full lives.

The more I study trauma, how our brains work, racism, and Infinite Possibilities, I realize how clearly our thoughts become the things and events of our lives. How we direct our thoughts, particularly in reaction to what happens to us and others, goes a long way in determining who we become and how we create the rest of our lives.

You gotta see this movie (and respond in your own life accordingly).

Thank you, Ben Affleck. Now what?

Posted April 27th, 2015 by Tom

An article I wrote, “Dear Ben Affleck, My Ancestors Were Slaveowners, Too” was published this morning.

I was contacted this past Wednesday by an editor with Zócalo Public Square, an L.A.-based not-for-profit that hosts live events and publishes daily humanities journalism.  They describe themselves as an “ideas exchange” — their mission is to connect people to ideas and to each other.

06_tracesofthetradeShe wrote, “I’m hoping you’ll consider writing a piece for us. As you probably heard, Ben Affleck asked producers of the PBS documentary series “Finding Your Roots” to not reveal that his ancestors were slave owners. I thought it would be interesting to get a response from you — as a writer who has delved so deeply into the story of your family history …and as the head of an organization devoted to healing the wounds rooted in our nation’s history of slavery. I thought you could write an open letter to Ben Affleck that essentially tells him why it’s OK (and actually really good) to dig into one’s family history, even when it involves something as painful and horrible as slavery.”

The article begins…

Dear Ben,

I’m certain being in the spotlight for not wanting the PBS show Finding Your Roots to include mention of your slave-owning ancestor has been a real pain. The unwanted headlines, the online comments, the “Dear Ben” letters must be getting old. I’m sure you want this whole episode behind you. I get that: I’m related to the most successful transatlantic slave-trading dynasty in U.S. history.

I thank you for your honesty in admitting you were embarrassed. Many white people, upon discovering enslavers among our ancestors, feel embarrassed, ashamed, and guilty. But as I learned from Will Hairston, a white descendant of one of the wealthiest Southern enslaving families in American history, “Guilt is the glue that holds racism together.”

I appreciate you writing on your Facebook page, “We deserve neither credit nor blame for our ancestors and the degree of interest in this story suggests that we are, as a nation, still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery. It is an examination well worth continuing.”

Yes it is. And I can tell you from personal experience that what you choose to do next to continue that examination is what matters now.

You can read the full article here.

Infinite Possibilities

Posted January 20th, 2015 by Tom

13My father died last Tuesday.

I flew to Orlando, Florida on Wednesday, and flew back home Sunday. I’m speaking across the state tomorrow and in Indiana next Wednesday.

Then I’ll fly to Southern California to join Mom, my sister, our family, and friends to celebrate Dad’s life on the 31st.

It feels a little like a pinball machine is going full tilt in my head with all the silver balls bouncing around at once and the bells and whistles and lights celebrating the highest score ever on “Vampire Stimuli Juggling.” WoooHOOO!

I spent much of yesterday quietly thinking.

I thought about all I experienced over the weekend at the conference; the people I met, the ideas that were shared, my daily telephone conversations with my mom, the eyes of the 10-month old baby whose eyes locked into my 60-year old eyes in the lobby of the hotel just before I caught the shuttle back to the airport to fly home.

Lindi and I watched Boyhood last night. As Mason’s life and the lives of his family unfolded before us I was filled with sadness and hope and I thought what a perfect film to watch at a perfect time.

I thought about Dad being diagnosed with cancer more than three years ago, shortly before he and Mom celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary; about the precious blessing of having him with us these past three years, which offered many opportunities to be together, to talk, to hug, to share “I love you” over and over.

I thought about how my second book, Gather at the Table, was published more than two years ago, offering my co-author, Sharon Morgan, and me the opportunity to crisscross the country since, speaking with people at universities, corporations, conferences, book fairs, churches and other gatherings about healing the wounds inflicted through racism and the legacy of slavery. Even more, our journey offered us the opportunity to build our solid friendship.

I thought about the past few months; how in July I became certified as a STAR Practitioner, authorized to integrate Strategies for Trauma Awareness & Resilience into my work. How in November I read the top ten things dead people want to tell you (ah, the timing), by Mike Dooley, the man from whom I’ve been receiving daily Notes from the Universe for the past dozen years.

I thought about driving to Southern California in December to spend four days with my parents, talking about life and death, Boy Scouts and baseball, laughing through reruns of Family Feud on the Game Show channel, setting up a new laptop to replace their ten-year old desktop that was on its last legs, going to church together the Sunday before Christmas; the church they were married in, that I attended almost every Sunday of my childhood, where we will remember Dad together at a service to celebrate his life, across the street from the hospital where I was born and where he died.

I thought about talking with Mom when we knew Dad wasn’t coming back this time, about changing my plans to immediately fly to Southern California, about her encouraging me to go ahead and attend the conference in Orlando, about my gratitude for my sister for staying with Mom throughout Dad’s passing and for several days after.

I thought about life and death and the intimate and infinite relationship between the two, about feeling as close to my father now as I ever have. About talking with my 6- and 7-year old granddaughters about what happens to Pampa after he died; about cremation and how our bodies and our spirits are both connected and separate.

IMG_3547bI thought about all I experienced during the conference, where I became certified as an Infinite Possibilities Trainer. Where I met, spoke deeply with, and held in my arms, Mike Dooley, who’s Notes from the Universe have greeted me each morning for so many years with a reminder of my power, of life’s magic, and how much I am loved. Where I learned more about our innate ability to shape our lives and live our dreams through understanding and working with our thoughts, words, attitudes, beliefs, and actions.

I thought of the intimate and infinite connections between this conference and my work with Coming to the Table, my writing, STAR, Gather at the Table, speaking appearances, and Mike Dooley’s 10-month old daughter, my children and grandchildren, my father, my mother, and how each moment offers the opportunity for me, and for you, to direct our future.

I thought about Deborah, Jeoffrey, Gretchen, Regena, Tracy, Craig, Roberto, Susan, Rebecca, Andy, Mike, and so many others I encountered this weekend; the words “I told you I would find you again” being whispered in my ear in the midst of a powerful embrace, and knowing they were true.

It’s a lot. Believe me, I know. And I’m paying attention; enjoying the game. I look forward to celebrating my father and continuing to create my future. How about you?

The Possibilities are Infinite.

Sometimes my life gets in the way of my life

Posted July 22nd, 2014 by Tom

I learned it from Lindi, my wife. We were walking. Talking. It seems like we used to walk and talk more often as we made plans for our life together. Short and long term goals. Ideas. Musings. Fears. Dreams. One day, while talking about how hard it is to do what we really want, to be who we really are, she said,

“Sometimes my life gets in the way of my life.”

Yeah. No kidding. Those ten words have stayed with me. They’ve inspired me. Haunted me. Reminded me. Read the rest of this entry »

Coming to the Table National Gathering

Posted June 5th, 2014 by Tom

IMG_7419The National Gathering of Coming to the Table took place at Eastern Mennonite University during the Summer Peacebuilding Institute May 23-25. An article about the gathering, “Desire to address, heal, traumatic legacy of U.S. slavery sparks growth in Coming to the Table group“, shares the heart of what we hoped participants would experience.

At the 2014 annual meeting of Coming to the Table, two participants read emotionally charged poems that they exchanged after learning they were descended from the same plantation in Missouri. During one discussion, a participant of European origins shared her suspicions that the systematic abuse in her family was a legacy of the psychological impact of owning slaves.

More than 150 years after the end of slavery, the historical trauma of a system that turned people into property remains throughout the nation. It’s a trauma that members of Coming to the Table are trying to address…

My writing partner Sharon Morgan and I both served on the Planning and Facilitation Committee for the Gathering. We were pleased that we were filled to capacity and that participants were deeply engaged and satisfied with the experience.

Gather at the Table authors record Gettysburg Address for PBS site

Posted November 19th, 2013 by Tom

This post was originally published at Gather at the Table

 

LincolnSilhouetteNovember 19, 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. PBS and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns launched a national effort to encourage people to video record themselves reciting President Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech, one of the most important statements on human equality in American history.

Sharon Morgan and I participated in the project, as have President Obama, Stephen Colbert, Whoopi Goldberg, Rachel Maddow, Stephen Spielberg, and many others. You can watch our video at the Learn the Address website on PBS. Or you can watch it below from the Gather at the Table YouTube page.

We hope our participation will raise more awareness of the Coming to the Table approach to acknowledging and healing wounds from racism and the legacy of slavery that Sharon and I wrote about in Gather at the Table.

And may we all now re-dedicate ourselves “to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom…”

12 Years a Slave

Posted November 10th, 2013 by Tom

12-years-a-slave-001.jpg_rgbMy wife Lindi and I went to see 12 Years a Slave yesterday. It wasn’t a film I wanted to see. It was a film I needed to see. It is harsh and searing and honest in its depiction of the institution of slavery in the United States. I hope (and encourage in particular) my white friends will watch this important film. 12 Years a Slave is now a key resource to understanding the traumatic wounds – physical, psychological, and spiritual – inflicted upon black people for the benefit of white people, and inflicted upon white people (whether directly or indirectly connected with the system of enslavement); wounds that have never been healed, have been passed down through generations, and continue to cause harm to all of us today.

My second request is you read the words of my Gather at the Table writing partner and friend Sharon Leslie Morgan. She wrote “400 Years a Slave” on her Our Black Ancestry blogsite after experiencing 12 Years a Slave the day before we did. I read Sharon’s words (click here) before we went to the theater, and again after we returned home. Her story is as powerful and haunting to me as the film because Sharon’s family lived and suffered and died in slavery and its racist aftermath. When white people make the effort to sincerely understand and acknowledge the experience and feelings of people of color as regards these historic wounds, and to understand how white people were and are wounded, and the present-day consequences of this damage, we take our first real step toward healing.

 

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Norman DeWolf | Website: James DeW. Perry