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Considering Colonization: 5 things I learned from Denise Altvater

Thu, 2018-01-18 11:50
Building peace Ending discrimination DecolonizationNative Lives Matter

On November 16th I had the privilege of getting to talk with Denise Altvater, Coordinator as the Wabanaki Youth Program in Maine. She had a lot to offer in ourconversation that covered the importance of decolonization, anti-racism, faith, truth-telling, the impacts of colonization among those who were victim to it and those who were perpretrators, and a lot more. We posted the conversation as a series of 5 blog posts. All of the posts are worth reading in their entirety, but here is a recap and guide to that conversation with links to each post. - Christina

1. Thinking about decolonization as Thanksgiving approaches: A conversation with Denise Altvater part 1: Colonization has been built into America’s infrastructure since 1492. Denise recognizes that decolonization practices coupled with anti-racism work can only be successful if practiced together and daily. If we want to commit to healing and liberating ourselves, decolonization isn’t something that we should only be thinking about during holidays like Thanksgiving or Columbus Day. Daily and conscious practices are how we can resist and break through the very real blockages that colonization in the self and in the system presents. 

2. Decolonizing our hearts and minds as people of faith: A conversation with Denise Altvater, part 2: There is a real disconnect with the early colonization of the land called the United States that actually took place and with what people of faith teach. There are many myths that uphold colonial mindsets. It is possible to bridge that gap with videos, presentations, handouts, and workshops that focus on truth-telling. Thought-provoking practices that counter the dominant narrative have proven to open up the hearts and minds of people of faith, awakening them not only to the impacts of colonization on indigenous people, but, as a result, on the settlers, too. This is a progressive next step to getting decolonized: talking and acknowledging the truth of the past – to accept the truth of the present.  

3. Healing does not require forgiveness: A conversation with Denise Altvater, part 3:  Healing from colonization is possible, and forgiveness doesn’t have to be in the equation in order to attain it. Without healing from the genocide, theft, abuse and victimization of those oppressed, these wounds of trauma gets passed down to children and grandchildren and festers in our dearest relationships. Truth-telling needs to happen to open up the valve for healing. The process of healing will enable us to not just speak the truth of our past, but to listen to it, learn from it, share it and practice actively in the act of decolonization. In order to heal, oppressed people are not required to forgive those who oppress them. 

4. Colonialism and late stage genocide: A conversation with Denise Altvater, part 4: The aftermath of colonization has ongoing ripple effects in indigenous communities, on the reservations, in people’s communities, and within their hearts and minds. It can leave both the perpetrator and the victim stripped of their humanity and left with feelings of self-hatred (or self-aggrandizement). The genocide of indigenous people still persists in the form of inadequate health care, high poverty rates, and in many other ways. The disconnect that people feel from the earth and thus themselves keeps them from acknowledging both their humanity and their victimhood in colonization to take the next step towards decolonization.

5. Acknowledging the full truth of our past: A conversation with Denise Altvater, part 5: The history of the past is connected to colonization and its current impact that still takes a toll on each of us now. Actively facing the truth of colonization and how it still benefits privileged members of society at the expense of marginalized communities, acknowledging this truth, and taking accountability permits us to move forward toward decolonization. If we start on the path to respecting and taking care of planet earth and one another, then the nature of our relationship with ourselves and with each other will change.  


Related posts

Rights of Indigenous Peoples of the World

Acknowledging the full truth of our past: a conversation with Denise Altvater, part 5

Thu, 2018-01-11 15:52
Building peace Ending discrimination Native Lives MatterDecolonization

Denise Altvater serves as coordinator as AFSC's Wabanaki Youth Program in Maine. She has created a supportive web of connection and communication in a region where Native communities have been isolated and abused. With her leadership, the AFSC's Wabanaki Program (Maine) was instrumental in developing the first Truth and Reconciliation commission between a sovereign tribal nation and a U.S. state, and she has recently focused on offering decolonization workshops for faith communities. 

Christina Elcock and Lucy Duncan open up a conversation with Denise to explore the importance of decolonization and why it’s vital to heal from the cracks and abuses of a dehumanizing system.

Christina: With the decolonial work you've been doing, both in your program and the decolonial trainings you've been offering, I'm interested to know what action you think we need to take to end the impact of colonization and to begin to decolonize ourselves in our institutions?

Denise: Oh, God, we need to love and connect with the earth, we need to start planting things, we need to stop using plastic and Styrofoam totally. We need to start buying from local farms – organic stuff, we need to stop feeding the industrial food machinery, reduce fuel consumption, we need to start connecting with each other around decolonizing and keep thinking of ways to live in harmony with each other and the earth and other beings. We need to talk with other people about colonialism, we need to be present with what's happening in the moment.

The more we live in the present and not the past or the future, the more invested we are in our lives with each other. I think we need to be a part of this earth and stop thinking that the earth is separate and something that we think we can continue to exploit. I think we really need to stop exploiting the lives of Native people, and people need to stop using their white privilege to be personally enriched and powerful at the expense, detriment, and personal harm of Native people.

Lucy: I asked my son once, "What is decolonization?" and he said, "Oh, it's giving back the land!" And that's a really simple answer, but it's also a really deep answer because it's about giving the land back and shifting one's complete relationship to the land. It's about understanding the land as a totally different thing. Giving back the land means you don't own it anymore, it means the ownership and property model doesn't operate anymore and having a shift of understanding to, "this wasn't ours, this didn't belong to us."  Decolonization means shifting power, which the land represents, from a “power over” frame to a “power with” frame. It also means being willing to give up power so that more can claim power, voice, and agency.

I was at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. last month and went through all the [Name of treay?] Treaty exhibits. I was on a tour with this young Chippewa woman, and she showed us the original Treaty between the Wampanoags and Europeans. It depicted two pathways side-by-side in the water proceeding parallel to one another. The idea behind the treaty was "we are going to live side-by-side, not hurting each other's way of life," but what was not mentioned was that the way of life of Europeans was built on disrupting and harming the way of life of others.

I looked at the aspirational nature of that Treaty and was deeply sad; it was a lie from the beginning. I learned from the guide that Europeans learned indigenous languages in order to do harm and to create the treaties they broke with the full intention not to follow through on their promises. Why is it so hard to live out the original vision of the treaty to let people live as they desire? It’s heart-breaking, that early deception, all that was destroyed based on those early lies.

Denise: A lot of times when we try to talk about decolonization, we are afraid to talk about the full truth, because we are afraid that people are going to be hurt or are going to be angry and walk out. If that happens, then it happens, but we cannot be afraid of really bringing out the whole truth even when it's ugly. If we can acknowledge that full truth of the past, if we can embrace it, then we can embrace what's present, because what's present is part of that past.

I'm sick of people saying, "Well, that's in the past." And people saying, "Well, you can't blame me for what my ancestors did." Well, you're still benefitting from what your ancestors did, and even if it wasn't anything that your ancestors did, just the fact that you can have access to what I don't have access to, you benefit, you benefit at the detriment to me. So, if we can look honestly at the truth of the past, then we can commit to creating a more just future. We can do that by pushing through all those obstacles. That's what can make a real difference, but we really have to acknowledge and recognize the privilege and hold ourselves accountable for what happened and what is happening.

Christina: And this is the work that you're doing in your training. 

Denise: Yeah.

Lucy: I have one question around Quakers. Quakers migrated to the United States with the Penn charter and there are still Quakers who own land from the Penn charter, which was stolen land. Penn met with the Lenni Lenape on the banks of the Delaware, and things may have been more civil, though he was still settling on stolen land. Things were slightly more civil between the Lenni Lenape and the Quakers until his sons cheated the Lenni Lenape with the walking purchase, stealing acres and acres of land.

Penn was also the first enslaver in Pennsylvania and the first slave-trader, so much of the myth we have about ourselves as Quakers is not entirely true. We participated in colonization and slavery, we weren’t so much more enlightened than any other European settlers, even if we want to believe we are.

I have an aspiration that we renounce Penn or at least be willing to accept the truth about him and not just say he's so great. There is a habit among Quakers to talk about John Woolman, to talk about Lucretia Mott, to talk about Benjamin Lay, to talk about these heroic figures who were very much marginalized within their time as though they were the mainstream of the faith. We don’t claim how moribund and resistant to change the body was and how much it benefitted from colonization of Pennsylvania. We participated in establishing Indian boarding schools: Quakers thought assimilation was better than murder, but cultural genocide and bodily genocide are just two aspects of genocide. We colluded with the cultural genocide of Native peoples in this country. What do you think is important specifically for Quakers and Quaker institutions, which are benefitting from that wealth still to consider in their conversations about decolonization and working against racism?

Denise: Well, personally, I think it would be the same for Quakers as it would be for these other faith organizations to face the truth of their participation that then shapes future action. The Catholic church did much worse than what the Quakers did. There are other faith communities that have done equally as much, some maybe not so, but I think that learning more about racism and Indigenous people and educating themselves about genocide and what has happened in this country and the Doctrine of Discovery is a good place to start.

I think, if they're willing to do that hard piece of work, that they need to educate themselves and think about what their role as white Quakers are and think about what they know about Indigenous people, not just here, but around the world. They can be truth-tellers in vocal ministry, they can be truth-tellers in their Quaker communities, they can search and see how they are privileged, they can be aware of where their blind spots are, they can learn and maybe even try and find shared information because there are different ways of learning.

I think that there are really decent models out there where people can learn a lot, but it depends on how deep you want to go. I think they can practice with other partner faith organizations who have done this work because that's what we're doing. We're bringing different faith organizations together and they're partnering with each other. This Thanksgiving, as a result of the workshop that we did, three churches did a Thanksgiving presentation. They did one last year, and the church that they did it in said that they aren't allowed to do it there this year because they didn’t like what they did.

Lucy: Because it was really the truth!

Denise: Yes, but they can research their own history so they can better understand and present. They can be their own truth-tellers, which would be a really good thing. They can enable others to look at their history, they can sit with Native people and hear what we want, they can witness, they can share our concerns, they can learn about the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and then learn about the Doctrine of Discovery.

Lucy: Thank you, Denise. Robert Shetterly was right, you are somebody who tells the truth, and I know it's cost you and I feel honored to have witnessed some of that truth-telling.


Related Post

Thinking about decolonization as Thanksgiving approaches: A conversation with Denise Altvater part 1

Decolonizing our hearts and minds as people of faith: A conversation with Denise Altvater, part 2

Healing does not require forgiveness: A conversation with Denise Altvater, part 3

Colonialism and late stage genocide: A conversation with Denise Altvater, part 4

Quakers, Jews and Israel’s BDS blacklist

Wed, 2018-01-10 13:43
Building peace Building economic justice Ending discrimination Palestine-IsraelBorder MilitarizationBoycott, Divestment, and Sanctions

Last Sunday, Israel revealed their list of 20 social justice groups from around the world it was henceforth banning from the country because of their support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. For me, the list represented more than just another news item of the day. As staff person for one organization included on the list – the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) – this news struck home personally as well as professionally. 


As a rabbi who works for AFSC, I’m proud of the important historical connections between Jewish community and this venerable Quaker organization. As the US Holocaust Memorial Museum itself has noted, the AFSC was at the forefront of efforts to help and rescue Jewish refugees after 1938, “ assisting individuals and families in need… helping people flee Nazi Europe, communicate with loved ones, and adjust to life in the United States.” 



The USHM has also acknowledged that “the AFSC helped thousands of people in the United States transfer small amounts of money to loved ones in French concentration camps (and helped) hundreds of children, including Jewish refugees and the children of Spanish Republicans, come to the United States under the care of the US Committee for the Care of European Children in 1941–42.” 


AFSC became involved with a different group of refugees – the Palestinians – several years later. At the end of 1948, while military hostilities in Palestine were still raging, the UN asked the AFSC to help spearhead the relief effort in Gaza, which was rapidly filling up with Palestinian refugees. Historian Nancy Gallagher has noted refugee relief was not the ultimate goal of their work in Gaza – rather, they “had accepted the invitation to participate in the relief effort with the expectation of assisting in the repatriation and reconciliation process.” (from “Quakers in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The Dilemmas of Humanitarian Activism," p. 97) 


In March 1949, AFSC Executive Secretary Clarence Pickett offered a six-point plan to solve the refugee problem, urging “a substantial repatriation of Arabs into the State of Israel.” (p. 103) However, when it became clear that there was no international will for a political solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, AFSC formally stated that it wished to withdraw from Gaza, stating that “prolonged direct relief…militates against a swift political settlement of the problem.” (p. 104) 




I have long been dismayed at the hypocrisy of those who applaud the Quakers’ work on behalf of Jewish refugees, yet bitterly criticize them for applying the very same values and efforts on behalf of Palestinian refugees. In a recent article for Tablet, for instance, Asaf Romirowsky and Alexander Joffe, made the spurious accusation that the AFSC “as gone from saving Jews to vilifying them,” claiming that AFSC’s experience in Gaza convinced them to “get out of the relief business altogether” in order to promote “progressive Israel-hatred.” 


In light of such invective, it’s not surprising to learn that Romirowsky and Jaffe are both professionally connected to the Middle East Forum - a notoriously Islamophobic radical right organization led by Daniel Pipes that has been categorized as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Beyond the nasty rhetoric however, it bears noting that AFSC has never been solely a relief organization. From its inception 100 years ago in the wake of WW I, it has consistently promoted reconciliation and repatriation alongside direct service to peacefully address conflicts around the world. AFSC’s work in Gaza was/is no exception. 



Romirowsky and Jaffe further reveal their prejudiced agenda when they suggest that Palestinian refugees only wanted “to be maintained at someone else’s expense until Israel disappeared.” In fact, the AFSC’s refugee in Gaza took place while Palestinians were actively being driven from their homes and were being housed in hastily constructed refugee camps. It is patently outrageous to suggest that they were content “to be maintained at someone else’s expense until Israel disappeared” when they quite understandably expected to return to their homes. Under such circumstances, it was not at all unreasonable for the AFSC to advocate for their return and repatriation. 


In their article Romirowsky and Jaffe also parrot the Israeli government’s accusation that the BDS movement is “opposed to Israel’s existence.” What they refer to as “the BDS movement” is in fact a response to a call issued by a wide coalition of Palestinian unions, political parties, refugee networks, women’s organizations, professional associations, popular resistance committees and other Palestinian civil society bodies in 2005. The BDS call is a crie de cour from Palestinians to the world to use this time honored nonviolent strategy to pressure Israel to meet three essential demands

  • To end the occupation and colonization of the West Bank and Gaza and dismantle the separation wall; 

  • to recognize the fundamental rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; 

  • and to respect, protect and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194. 

Although BDS is an inherently nonviolent tactic, it is striking to note the lengths to which the government of Israel has devoted time, energy and resources in trying to defeat it over the past decade. It has spent literally hundreds of millions of dollars to this effort, enlisted a myriad of Israel advocacy organizations and has even created a new government ministry devoted exclusively to fighting BDS. And though demands of the BDS call are based in human rights and international law, it is routinely referred to as antisemitic “economic terrorism” that “delegitimizes the state of Israel.” The blacklist of organizations is thus only the latest in a long line of draconian, non-democratic responses to this rapidly growing non-violent resistance movement. 

As such, AFSC’s support of BDS is fully in keeping with its 100-year-old mission. As our recent organizational statement put it: 

All people, including Palestinians, have a right to live in safety and peace and have their human rights respected. For 51 years, Israel has denied Palestinians in the occupied territories their fundamental human rights, in defiance of international law. While Israeli Jews enjoy full civil and political rights, prosperity, and relative security, Palestinians under Israeli control enjoy few or none of those rights or privileges. 

The Palestinian BDS call aims at changing this situation, asking the international community to use proven nonviolent social change tactics until equality, freedom from occupation, and recognition of refugees’ right to return are realized. AFSC’s Principles for a Just and Lasting Peace in Palestine and Israel affirm each of these rights. Thus, we have joined others around the world in responding to the Palestinian-led BDS call.  As Palestinians seek to realize their rights and end Israeli oppression, what are the alternatives left to them if we deny them such options? 

Quakers pioneered the use of boycotts when they helped lead the “Free Produce Movement,” a boycott of goods produced using slave labor during the 1800s. AFSC has a long history of supporting economic activism, which we view as an appeal to conscience, aimed at raising awareness among those complicit in harmful practices, and as an effective tactic for removing structural support for oppression. 



This past October I traveled with other AFSC staff people to East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, for meetings with our staff there. Yes, our efforts in Israel/Palestine still continue. While we do not yet know this latest action will impact our work, we are well aware that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been denied entry into the land of their ancestors for decades. The AFSC, like the other organizations on Israel’s odious list, knows that peace can only come to this land when the essential injustice that occurred 70 years ago is justly addressed, and when the human rights of all are recognized and respected. 

Colonialism and late stage genocide: A conversation with Denise Altvater, part 4

Tue, 2018-01-02 12:13
Building peace Native Lives MatterDecolonization

Denise Altvater serves as coordinator as the Wabanaki Youth Program in Maine. She has created a supportive web of connection and communication in a region where Native communities have been isolated and abused. With her leadership, the American Friends Service Committee's Wabanaki Program in Maine was instrumental in developing the first Truth and Reconciliation commission between a sovereign Tribal nation and a U.S. state. Recently, Denise has focused on offering decolonization workshops for faith communities. 


Christina Elcock and Lucy Duncan open up a conversation with Denise to explore the importance of decolonization and why it’s vital in order to heal from the cracks and abuses of a dehumanizing system.


Lucy Duncan: Can there be wholeness without forgiveness?


Denise Altvater: Absolutely. And it wasn't easy for the people of faith group to understand that because in faith it's all about forgiveness. But they did, they understood. I showed them a picture of my daughter because they wanted to know what colonialism still looked like on the reservation. I passed it around but didn't tell them it was my daughter. This picture was taken maybe a week ago. When you look at this picture of her, all you can see is the pain of the world in her eyes. Her eyes, just, oh my God. You cannot look at that picture without just feeling so much incredible pain coming from her.


So, when passing it around I said, “This woman, when she was young, had been molested several times. When she was 15 she was put on oxycontin, from there she turned to heroin, she lived on the streets homeless in Portland, she'd been raped multiple times, she traded sex for drugs – through one of those times she became pregnant. She has attempted suicide, I don't know how many times, she's been incarcerated 22 times – many of those times she suffered incredible withdrawals where she puked and defecated herself for days and days, she currently lives day to day taking a fix just to get by.” Then I told them that she was my daughter.

There are hundreds like her. They calculated the national statistics that say that just the fact that you grow up on a reservation, you are 10 times more likely to commit suicide, become incarcerated, addicted and die an early death.


Lucy: It reminds me of the stages of genocide and in particular of one of the stages after the oppressor abuses those targeted for years, taking away the things that are the most important to those targeted and enacting years and years of abuse. The perpetrator leaves after doing such a deep job of infecting and internalizing colonization and self-hatred in the community. The pain is so deep. The harm and the wound is so deep that the perpetrator leaves and lets the community self-destruct. There are narratives that judge a community when this happens, accusations that the community is screwed up when it is just reacting to the trauma that has been enacted on it for so long. Richard Rohr says pain that is not transformed will be transferred. This didn't just happen, right? The judgement becomes another level of abuse. 


Denise: We have these reservations, and we have huge rates of poverty, we have huge rates of incarceration, we have a lack of health care. People think that we get free health care because of the Indian Health Service, well, the health centers are on what they call "priority 1," which means if you are not threatened with losing your life or a limb, you do not get referred to any specialist, you do not get referred to any kind of tests like CAT scans or special testing if you don’t have insurance, because they cannot afford to pay the bill. The only access you have is on-site care, which means dental, mental health, and an on-site physician who can see you for minor ailments, but they’re not a specialist. It means that if you have cancer it’s not going to be detected. That's something that people out there believe that we have, this free health care system for everyone, and that's not true. We have a total lack of healthcare which is another form of genocide. And then we're penalized for telling the truth.



Christina Elcock: Thank you so much for sharing that, Denise. As kind of a continuum of what you were saying, what are the other deep-lasting impacts of colonization in U.S. culture?


Denise: I think what's imposed in the system of government, a culture where land is seen as something that people have a right over. Land is seen as something that is owned and used to get more wealth by either selling it or extracting resources from it – like industrial farming, mining, tourism and that kind of thing. There's a belief that wildlife and living things are inferior to humans, that it's okay to keep infringing on their living space. The mentality is that you don't just hunt to feed yourself, you hunt for sport and entertainment. There's a separation from the beauty of things and the suffering of living beings, there's no conscience.


I think it's really sad when people don't really know themselves because they're so preoccupied with making money and collecting more stuff, they just want more, more, more. People compete with each other all the time. They think they have the right to everything. There's this mindset of superiority, of value, and profit. Making money is more valued above anything else, the systems and laws have been built and created to benefit white people and there's no acknowledgement of the harm that it does to people of color (POC) or the harm that it has done to Black people, like slavery. There has to be a separation from people, a separation of a part of themselves, from their own humanity, for them to be able to continue to act this way.


Related posts

Thinking about decolonization as Thanksgiving approaches: A conversation with Denise Altvater part 1

Decolonizing our hearts and minds as people of faith: A conversation with Denise Altvater, part 2

Healing does not require forgiveness: A conversation with Denise Altvater, part 3

Acknowledging the full truth of our past: A conversation with Denise Altvater part 5

Undoing the systems inside: Subverting white supremacy with Chris Crass

Wed, 2017-12-20 14:53
Building economic justice Ending discrimination ending white supremacyBlack Lives Matter

“My faith is tested frequently, because I want to believe in people.” 

- A participant in the workshop


Chris Crass is a longtime organizer, educator, and writer working to build powerful working class-based, feminist, multiracial movements for collective liberation. He is one of the leading voices in the country calling for and supporting white people to work for racial justice. He joined with white anti-racist leaders around the country to help launch the national anti-racist network Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), which works in white communities for racial justice. Rooted in his Unitarian Universalist faith he works with congregations, seminaries, and religious and spiritual leaders to build up the Religious Left. He lives in Louisville, KY with his partner, and their two kids. Learn more about Chris here. On November 18, 2017, Chris led a four hour workshop on racial justice. Below are the reflections that followed by Christina Elcock. 


At 12 o’clock, I entered Arch Street Meeting House to participate in a racial justice workshop designed and run by Chris Crass. Known for his charismatic and zestful talks, I came to see Chris offer his wisdom in energy, mind, and spirit.  

The seats were filled with people from a variety of faith backgrounds: Quakers, Unitarian Universalists, a Presbyterian, a Catholic, and those who identified within two faith traditions such as Judaism and Quakerism. We sat in the East Room in a semi-circle as an interfaith congregation brought together by, at the very least, one commonality – our burning desire to end racial injustice.  

Chris opened by talking about the deep-seated competitive nature that resides in The United States. It’s interesting that even in our religious congregations we are not free from social conditioning. Chris offered an example of this. He talked about members of congregations challenging each other over who is doing the most anti-racism work and who can be the “best white person” in the room. “This hierarchical thinking is white supremacy,” Chris states, “and letting go of such thinking is part of an ongoing process of getting free.”  

Despite Chris’s anti-competitive message, he still describes social justice work as a marathon, but one that we are all running together with the same unanimous end-goal. Sometimes we sprint and there is progression, and sometimes we burn out and need to rest, but while one or two of us rests, someone else will pick up the pace and run. The idea that we are all in it together is what gives this movement towards justice stability and strength. 

 In the workshop, we introduced ourselves and said why we were there. There were a plethora of answers such as: to stop hating white people, to stop being triggered by “dumb” white racist things, to get free, to be tougher and more resilient in meetings. An African-American woman continued by saying that it was hard to be in a space where she always had to be in self-protective mode, particularly against what Chris named as “well-intentioned aggression.” Chris said it is when a European-American, when interacting with a marginalized person, is aggressively nice, indirectly asking for validation of the marginalized person so that they can be redeemed and accepted as “one of the good ones.” This sociological analysis further exemplifies the very clear racial divide in American society presented even by those who are consciously going out of their way to break down racial barriers and rehumanize themselves and people on the margins. Their desire to appear to “be good” gets in the way of acting to upend white supremacy. In this dynamic they are, whether intentionally or not, reinforcing the power they possess to dehumanize someone in the first place.


I pondered over this message and felt exasperated that the social construct of race is still so excessively prominent. Even as time passes, the storm of prejudice and power still weathers over modern society unable, yet, to eradicate the ever-thriving racial hierarchy. People are still enslaved though perhaps in new ways, the lives of people of color are still extremely targeted, poverty rates are still high. The racism is blatant: it shows up in the lack of education, the lack of integration, the economic discrepancies, the greed and in the deep-rooted fear of the “other.”

Chris Crass spoke of the ongoing journey it takes to get free, but I am impatient: 

Hurry up, justice,

hurry up, peace.

Chris encouraged us to stand in alphabetical order according to the name of the person who inspired us. In small groups of threes, we were asked to share who our person was and why. I named my mother because she leads by example almost always with love. Her kindness and her gentle spirit has helped shaped me into the person I am today and into the person I am constantly striving to be.

One member of my group asked me more specifically how my mother inspired me in the framework of racial justice, and my mind went blank. I had to rephrase the question in my mind because race isn’t necessarily at the forefront of discussion in the U.K. (where I am from). Culture, nationality, class, and ethnicity are. With this in mind, I was able to voice that my inspiration came from the stories my mother would tell me of Grenada and her childhood there, it came from being able to visit and spend time with my West Indian family and from being able to find home there myself. It came from listening and dancing to soca and calypso music, it came from going to the spice and food markets and being able to cook and feast on traditional dishes. My mother was able to bring vibrancy to my cultural identity simply by making me aware of it. 

As people work for racial justice in the United States, there is a huge backlash against it. As white people work to become anti-racist, feelings of self-hatred arise in white people and thus against other white people. Chris warns that if we are to make progress, it is ineffective to organize white people if you hate them because you cannot successfully organize people you hate. We may hate white supremacy and what it does both to people of color and white people, but if we are committed to change, we must be willing to forge bonds with other white folks, helping others see how participating in white supremacy robs white people’s humanity, too, as well as devastating communities of color.  

The main message I took away from the workshop, “We need to bring the love we have for ourselves into this space and the love we have for others when dealing with the chaos and disruption in our congregations and in the world.” Chris also reminds us that wishing for more marginalized voices at meetings to guide and to help do this work is important, but not necessary. The absence of people of color shouldn’t prevent us from working to undo racism because there are steps we can still take in the right direction. Chris stated that if you are from a predominantly white state or town, there is ample opportunity to do anti-racist work.  White people can open up difficult conversations with family and friends, lobby for the rights of people of color in schooling, housing, policing, etc. and take the time to learn a history that isn't white-washed. 


Another activity Chris asked us to participate in was asking us to reflect on a time where we put ourselves and our bodies in the way of social justice that awoke within us a commitment to racial justice. To this, an African-American woman in the workshop asked what racial justice meant and instead of giving her a generic, dictionary answer, Chris asked us each to close our eyes and for silence, so we could really connect to spirit and reflect upon this question and this term that we hear so often. He called forth the power in each of us, to envision the different ways we see racial justice. When the silence was over, Chris asked us to share what we had seen in the silence, and one by one we shared ways to achieve racial justice: adequate education funding, profound economic distribution, learning true history at school, holding the innate belief that all children are our children. 

These ideas for racial justice were built inside of us before they could be built outside of us. It is apparent that to begin to undo the systems in the world, we needed to first undo the systems within ourselves.  


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5 things I learned from talking with Chris Crass


Healing does not require forgiveness: A conversation with Denise Altvater, part 3

Mon, 2017-12-11 16:20
Building peace Ending discrimination DecolonizationNative Lives Matter

Denise Altvater serves as coordinator as AFSC's Wabanaki Youth Program in Maine. She has created a supportive web of connection and communication in a region where Native communities have been isolated and abused. With her leadership, the AFSC's Wabanaki Program (Maine) was instrumental in developing the first Truth and Reconciliation commission between a sovereign tribal nation and a U.S. state, and she has recently focused on offering decolonization workshops for faith communities. Christina Elcock and Lucy Duncan talked with Denise to explore the importance of decolonization and why it’s vital to heal from the cracks and abuses of a dehumanizing system.


Lucy: There are two things I want to explore with you. One, as you’ve said, the impact of colonialism and racism lives within people of color (POC) every day. Well, it lives within white people too, although a lot of it is beneficial, right? The impacts are wealth and the freedom of movement and a lot of freedom of choice. It sends the message that white lives matter and I've been thinking about that a lot: What does it mean to have a life that you and other people acknowledge matters?


But there's this other cost which is the dehumanization of everybody involved and the dehumanization of the perpetrator. In that moment that you described with the man who was moved to tears by your stories, I heard a transformation in him: he was becoming human again. I think that in the process of colonization, white people lose their hearts, and the question becomes: how do we get our hearts back? You also mentioned how you talk about healing in your workshops. What do you say when you talk about what healing means for you?



Denise: What healing means to me?


Lucy: Yes. 


Denise: I was in a group with people of faith who have this big belief that healing means that you have to forgive. This was really predominant in this group, but I don't believe that. I don't believe that I have to forgive in order to heal because if that's not something that I'm ready to do then all I’m doing is giving that perpetrator or that dominant group a way out by getting them off the hook while I still suffer.

I have a picture that was taken when we did the Truth and Reconciliation at the Hall of Flags. Esther Attean (Co-Director at Maine-Wabanaki REACH) and I were doing the presentation – she always preseents with me because I get really emotional – she's kind of like my rock. The place was full and all the tribes were there as were all kinds of T.V. stations. But this woman from the back of the room stood up and she said: "I was a state worker back in the 50s about the time when you were taken from your home. I'm asking for your forgiveness.” I didn't know what to say and so I didn't say anything and she sat down.

Because I am a very loving and caring person, I feel like I need to make people O.K., and so I immediately and instinctively started making my way toward the back of the room. My husband and other people were there as I was trying to get to the back of the room and there was a woman who wanted me to go out back and do an interview with her, but I'm trying to get past her to get to this woman. When I get there, I put my hand on her head and I looked at her and we both started crying. We kind of had our foreheads together and somebody took a picture of us like that.

It was actually Robert Shetterly, the one who did my portrait, he took the picture. Robert and other people have a copy of that picture, and in fact a woman who was doing a radio show about forgiveness contacted me two months ago. Robert had given her a copy of that picture, and she wanted to interview me about forgiveness based on that photograph. So, I started thinking about it and I told her I wasn’t sure if I can do that. I said I wasn’t quite sure of what that photo means to me. With that said, I did the radio show and I spoke about the photo. I took the photo to the workshop with me as my visual for what healing means to me because I'd been since thinking about it. What I told them was the story of this woman and her asking me for forgiveness. I told them what I did and the result of what I did. Referring to the picture of her and I together with tears, I said, “To me, this is a healing moment, this is what healing looks like, but this is not forgiveness.”

I did not forgive her because it's not up to me to forgive her for one thing, I don't know her, I have nothing within me that tells me that I need to forgive her for anything. People have just assumed that this is a picture of forgiveness and not a picture of healing. There are many things that I have healed over, things like rape and torture. I've healed over those things, but many of the people that did those things to me I have never had to forgive them in order to heal.

For me, what healing looks like is my soul no longer has this wound bearing down disrupting my life. Healing is how I raise my grandchildren as compared to how I raised my children. Because that wound was there when I raised my children and I took it out on them. Once it healed, once I was able to let it go, once I was able to talk about it, look at it and get through it, past it, rid of it, my grandson was not an inheritor of that wound. That wound is not disrupting my grandson's life the way it disrupted my children's life.

Related posts

Thinking about decolonization as Thanksgiving approaches: A conversation with Denise Altvater part 1

Decolonizing our hearts and minds as people of faith: A conversation with Denise Altvater, part 2

Colonialism and late stage genocide: A conversation with Denise Altvater, part 4

Acknowledging the full truth of our past: A conversation with Denise Altvater part 5

Decolonizing our hearts and minds as people of faith: A conversation with Denise Altvater, part 2

Fri, 2017-12-01 14:30
Building peace Ending discrimination Decolonization

Denise Altvater serves as Coordinator as the Wabanaki Youth Program in Maine. She has created a supportive web of connection and communication in a region where Native Communities have been isolated and abused. With her leadership, the American Friends Service Committee's Wabanaki Program (Maine) was instrumental in developing the first Truth and Reconciliation commission between a sovereign Tribal nation and a U.S. state and she recently has become focused on offering decolonization workshops for faith communities. Christina Elcock and Lucy Duncan open up a conversation with Denise to explore the importance of decolonization and why it’s vital in order to heal from the cracks and abuses of a dehumanizing system.


Christina Elcock: Can you elaborate on what decolonization means for you, what it means for Quakers and other people of faith?


Denise Altvater: Well, this one man got up in our most recent decolonization workshops, after we had presented all the material and done the timeline of colonization. We did an exercise where everybody got four slips of paper in the room and wrote down four things that meant the most to them in their lives. Then somebody went around and they had to give up one of those things to that person - and they did. Some of them were really hesitant and had a hard time giving up one of those slips of paper and so the next time around the person went and took one of those pieces of papers away from them. What that represented was, "This is what Native people went through. This is the losses that they experienced.”


Christina: Wow, that's really powerful.


Denise: And then people had to talk about what it felt like to lose those things. For them it was real. Some of them became very emotional because some of them lost their family, some of them lost their faith, some of them lost their hope. We did an exploration of colonialism and we talked about understanding how decolonizing ourselves leads to considering what the deep impact of colonization was, all that people lost. We talked about the impact colonialism had on Native people and the benefits that continue to flow to white people to the detriment of Native people. Then we invited them to identify ways to counteract the taking of things and the impacts of colonialism. We talk about ways to counteract colonialism that are grounded in the teachings of their faith and some of the strategies of decolonization that individual faith leaders implement and explore in their faith communities.



It's a heavy responsibility we ask of them – the workshop is a real, deep experience for them. We really try to help them to discuss and explore the centuries of harmful impacts that colonialism has had on Native people and what role their individual church has played. You can imagine how hard that must be and then to acknowledge it through their work – it stirs up so many emotions because the harm done by the churches has been so devastating and it continues to this very day. We create a space where we honour their emotions while they are learning. We gather and explore the history and what our hope is.


What we share with them is that we want to repair the harm, we want to come to a deeper understanding and have deeper values within their faith traditions and hope that we can heal relationships between settlers and indigenous people. But we especially need to focus on indigenous people who are calling for a time of healing because the earth is suffering and people need to come together. However, before that can happen, before healing can occur, the truth has to be told and there's so much work around all us that has to be done. There are many ways we offer this truth telling: through videos, through presentations, through hand-outs, through the four slips exercise and other ways.


I do two pieces of work. My first piece is, what does healing look like to me? and my second piece is, how does colonialism still play a part on the reservation where we live? I talk about those two things and when I'm done it shifts the work people have done all day from their heads to their hearts.


One man was sitting in the back, he didn't come into the circle, he was kind of separated from the group and we were a little unsure of where he was at, if he was really invested and how much he was taking in. We had a table where we had asked everybody to bring something that was really close to them and to put it on the table and he didn't bring anything.


He'd been stone-faced the whole time. And he made me a little hesitant to talk because, you know, do you really want to talk when you think that somebody is really not interested in listening to you? That was sort of how I felt. He was kind of a big guy, he was white. When I was done talking about my own healing journey and the impacts of colonization on the reservation today, he started crying. He said that he'd been sitting in, listening and taking everything in the entire time and he was really understanding the material. He said he was taking notes and he knew he was going to go back to his congregation and he knew what he was going to say and how he was going to change how he talked to his congregation. He shared with us some things that he was going to do and he said, “it wasn’t until Denise spoke that I put down my pen and everything that I had learned moved from the top of my head deep into my heart and my soul. It was then that I knew that everything I was going to do and say had to changed.”


Lucy Duncan and Christina: Wow.



Denise: It can't just be about learning from visuals and from presenters and from workshops, it has to be from the heart. We talk about this work and we talk about decolonizing our hearts and minds. I remember when we did the Truth and Reconciliation process from the beginning, that's what we always said, that the process was a decolonization of the hearts and minds of Native people, because we needed to decolonize of our hearts and minds. It's what kept us going because that process, for us, was always about healing, it was never, ever about anything else. Even though we had to go through the process that everyone else wanted us to, it was always about the healing.


I think that's really an important piece that some people don't realize is really important in almost all the work that we try to do. I learned that in the beginning when we did the work on the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA); the white Department of Human Services (DHS) workers, knew the ICWA law that'd been in place since the 80s, but they didn't follow it. So when we did our training we got together and decided, "Hey, alright, we're supposed to train them about ICWA? Well, they already know it, what are we supposed to train them about?" The reason they weren’t implementing the law was because they didn’t feel like it.


In order for the deeper change to occur, what we needed to do was we need to change hearts and minds, so we needed to help them understand the spirit of the law. How do we do that? We get them to be moved spiritually, we get them to be moved through their hearts. So, we made a video and in the video myself and others talked about our experience of being taken from our homes and the impact of being put in white homes. This is what we used as a training tool and that's what got DHS workers to understand the importance of ICWA and the spirit of the law. It's what got them motivated to enforce and follow the law.


I learned from that work in 1999, that whatever work I do, this heart element has to be a part of it. It's not always easy to get people to understand that. They think that you just stand up and you write on a white piece of paper and you show a video and people are supposed to walk away, and yes, they have the knowledge, but do many people really, truly accept it? Do they really, truly, want to believe it? Do they really, truly want to go out and use it to change the world? Do they really, truly change anything in their hearts or their minds? You have got to answer that question. I don't think so. I think that for some people who are really, truly entrenched in their faith beliefs and believe in the importance and necessity of this work - yes, I think that's possible. Do I think it's possible for just the regular person that we're trying to reach and get onboard with that this stuff? No, I don't think that it works that way for many. Unless their hearts are engaged, there won’t be much change.


Related Post



Thinking about decolonization as Thanksgiving approaches: A conversation with Denise Altvater part 1

Healing does not require forgiveness: A conversation with Denise Altvater, part 3

Colonialism and late stage genocide: A conversation with Denise Altvater, part 4

Acknowledging the full truth of our past: a conversation with Denise Altvater part 5