The Inclusion Center of Utah, formerly NCCJ Utah, hosts an annual adult residential retreat known as the Inclusion Summit. I had the opportunity to attend this year's summit, at Camp Tuttle in Big Cottonwood Canyon east of Salt Lake City. What follows is a description of the shape of the gathering, some of the contents and my reflections on the experience.
At its core, the Inclusion Summit is about creating a diverse community in which all voices are valued equally and in which people are invited to share their stories. It is a community in which a straight black man in his late 30s can sit face to face with a genderqueer white 19 year old and share their stories. It is a community in which the voices of straight, white men do not dominate or overpower other voices but in which the voices of white men are heard and welcomed along side the voices of persons of color, of sexual minorities and women.
Inclusion Summit attendees agree to not drive themselves; we were driven from Salt Lake up the canyon to Camp Tuttle. At first this is hard for adults who are accustomed to hopping in their car and taking off. Giving up that control - agreeing to be driven, to give up your car for a week - is the first step in creating community. It breaks down barriers and empowers people to see themselves as part of the group.
For those not familiar with Salt Lake City and environs, the city is spread along the foothills of the Wasatch Range. Extending east of the city are a number of canyons, many of which have ski resorts. Big Cottonwood canyon is home to Camp Tuttle, it's also home to Brighton and Solitude ski resorts. Camp Tuttle sits in between the resorts, nestled in a crook in the mountains filled with pines and with breathtaking views down the canyon toward the city.
Arriving at the camp, we immediately began group building activities. These activities were designed to help us get to know one another, to break down barriers to communication. One activity is a variation on musical chairs. Whoever is it stands in the center and says something like "The great wind blows for everyone who has at least one sibling." Then everyone who has at least one sibling jumps up and runs for an empty chair. Whoever is left standing is it. And so on.
We then worked on setting norms. In some communities they use the term ground rules or covenant but it's all the same - built around the question "How are we going to behave with one another?" At the Inclusion Center, they like to ask "What makes you shut down in a conversation?" then after discussion "How can the community help you when you're shut down?"
The next set of activities introduced the basic concept of identity offering probably twelve different possible aspects of identity posted on signs around the room (areas such as sexual orientation, gender, race/ethnicity, educational level, income, body type, personal history, gender identity, age, religion, and mental/psychological health). Facilitators read a series of statements and participants moved to the sign that corresponded to your answer - the question might be "It seems people respond to this aspect of my identity more than others" or "I have the hardest time talking about this aspect of my identity." This activity was a great way of opening up discussion - it allowed participants to start thinking about our identities and the various parts of our identities - and the fact that each of us has multiple identities. Someone isn't just African-American, she is a woman and a lesbian and a mother and a teacher and so on. Someone else isn't just a white man he is straight and a person of faith and so on. I was intrigued by the option of "Personal History." It's easy to think about this in terms of really hard things - addiction, abuse - but it could also apply to someone who has led a charmed life. Personal history is an ambiguous concept, but a powerful one.
The next morning, we began the first full day of the summit. We explored sexism in very powerful and personal ways. After watching and discussing the ways in which the media presents images of both women and men and the impact those images have on how we see ourselves and other people. After a short break, we came back for an activity specifically about our personal experiences. Men sat on one side of the room, women on the other. Then the facilitators read a series of statements. If it applied to you, you stood up. The statements were things like, "Have you ever been sexually harrassed by a man?" and "Have you ever been told you're not 'man' enough?" This was a powerful activity that gave rise to powerful emotions. So many of the questions created powerful shame respones. It's shameful to admit that you were treated in a way that made you feel powerless. Shame is a complex emotion. The activity brought up a great deal of pain. More than a few people began weeping as the first few questions were read aloud and they wept through the whole activity. It was a raw, emotional experience.
Day three (the second full day at camp), we explored racism. Again we found ourselves dealing with difficult, raw emotion. One activity that caused some challenge was breaking into affinity groups - people who identify of persons of color, as white, as biracial, as international - and then asking each group how other groups can be effective allies for them. Then we engaged in an activity in which the facilitators defined normal as that which is culturally accepted and not necessarily that you agree. They then read a series of statements such as "It seems normal that when a drug dealer is portrayed in movies and TV, the person is usually a person of color." If you agreed, you stepped to the center of the room. If not, you stepped to the side. Discussions about race are incredibly complex and bring up powerful emotions. For me, the key question of the day was "What are you defending?" At several points, people became defensive and that question really opened up space for deep reflection: What is it you are defending?
Thursday was rainy and cold. We spent the day working on issues of social class. Social class is harder to discuss than you might imagine. Most people seem to have no clear idea of their social class (I certainly didn't!). Class is defined by four pillars - education, job prestige, income and wealth. Job prestige refers simply to the esteem in which one's job is held - thus a lawyer versus janitor. Income and wealth are connected but separate - income is your annual income, wealth is your stockpiled income (i.e. what is your house worth, your retirement account etc). You may have high income and low wealth or low income and high wealth. This discussion was difficult for a lot of people - it brings up complex emotions about status and self worth. In a culture that too often seems to believe that being rich means you are a good person, being low income and having little wealth makes many people feel as if they're unworthy people.
Throughout the week, the facilitators used a variety of methodologies. There was large group discussion, small group discussion, affinity groups and cabin groups. The affinity groups provided some of the more complicated but also fruitful discussion. The affinity groups were divided by age, gender identity (cis male, cis female and genderqueer), and race (white, person of color, bi/multiracial, international). Within the affinity groups we would often be asked questions such as "How can other groups be an effective ally to your group?" and "What do you need from other groups to be an effective ally to them?" The affinity groups were also a space in which people who shared certain aspects of identity could (in theory) open up. Thus, the cis-male group created a space in which men coudl talk about their experiences through the lens of gender. What does it mean to be a man and how do you construct masculinity? The cis-female group could engage in similar conversations - what does it mean to be a woman and how do you construct femininity?
There were also discussion groups - small groups of about 6 to 8 people who met to debrief after specific activities. These conversations were rich and surprising. The cabin groups were simply the people staying in a cabin together. I can't speak for the other cabin groups but mine felt exhilarating - a place in which we could follow the energy of the day where it led us. It also provided a space in which we could share in a personal way that didn't necessarily happen in other groups.
During the week, we worked on the isms - years ago I learned an acronym from the Inclusion Center - a fast car goes vavoom. AFASHCAR - ageism, faithism, ableism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, appearancism, and racism. They've added a G to the first for genderism but it's fundamentally the same concept. VAVM - verbal, avoidance, violence and murder. The first of course is a list of the isms, the second the way people respond. It begins with verbal, talking about "those people", escalates to avoidance, staying away from those people, then to violence, taking action against those people, and in its ultimate expression escalates to murder, killing one or some of those people.
The intellectual framework is incredibly simple - based on the notion that some people are better than other people. Ageism says that elderly and young persons are inferior to adults. Faithism at least in the US says that Christians are better than people of other or no faith. And so on.
The intersection of personal history and other aspects of identity can be complex and difficult to untangle. Thus a white woman who is poor has greater access to privilege in many settings because of her race than would a middle-class African-American woman. The concept of privilege doesn't refer exclusively to social class - race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical ability and faith all play a role.
Throughout the week, we also worked on food justice. This work happened through our meals and discussion about food before and after meals. The chef who prepared our meals was intentional about sharing with the group how she sourced the food - IIRC, it was all locally sourced. She experimented with vegan and vegetarian options. All of which had the effect of changing my way of looking food.
By the end of the week, the group of some 40 people had developped authentic and powerful community. It became a space in which people felt able to be vulnerable, to talk about difficult issues free of cant and jargon.
Why am I sharing all this? I believe a pluralistic society is stronger and healthier, better able to adapt, when we are able to discuss important issues openly with one another. A time and space like the Inclusion Summit helps us do so when we aren't at Camp Tuttle.
Cross posted at OneUtah.