David Morris, the University of Westminster’s Assistant Interfaith Advisor, has launched a White allyship group for Westminster colleagues in support of the University’s implementation of its Black Lives Matter Commitment Plan, following recent events which have reignited the Black Lives Matter movement.
After the murder of George Floyd, David and his colleague, Yusuf Kaplan, released a statement of solidarity from a faith and spiritual perspective, but he felt like he needed to do more. He says that a lot of people are aware of racism, but the feeling of sympathy often fades away, and people go back to their more comfortable lives.
The University’s 15 Black Lives Matter commitments motivated David to launch this group as he wants to contribute to the work required for the commitments to come to fruition. He wanted to put something in place that could facilitate longer term engagement between White allies who might not otherwise have a chance to connect.
The allyship group aims to form a safe space for colleagues to connect, explore their privilege, and deepen their allyship. As well as launching the group for colleagues at the University of Westminster, David wanted to do this because he wants to learn more. As the facilitator of the group, he can establish the process, but also be a part of the learning.
David drafted a plan for four allyship group sessions and sent it to Yusuf Kaplan, Interfaith Advisor, and the co-chairs of the University’s Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) Network. Once they had approved the plan, it was distributed by the BME Network, Women of Westminster (WOW) Network and the University’s Internal Communications team.
In the first session, which has already taken place, they started out by working on building trust as David felt that it might be difficult for people who do not know each other very well to start discussing sensitive and challenging topics.
Later in the session, they discussed a podcast, featuring Resmaa Menakem, a trauma specialist focusing on racial injustice, and Robin DiAngelo, known best for her book ‘White Fragility’, which all participants were invited to listen to before attending the session.
The group also practiced engaged listening, where they split into pairs on Zoom, and each person spoke for five minutes, without being interrupted. This practice aims at giving people a chance to listen deeply without interrupting, noticing how thoughts, opinions and personal experiences come to mind.
Being able to place attention on what the other is communicating rather than what we want to say can increase the ability to stay present when feeling uncomfortable; a skill which can be important when discussing a subject like racism. Sensitive topics heighten emotions and so allowing people to practice listening without interrupting and resisting parts of someone’s story was important to David.
Talking about some of the challenges of the session, David said: “I think the most challenging part is balancing our natural hopefulness that we can make changes with a realistic and honest analysis of how deeply rooted institutional racism and personal racism goes.”
He added: “I find conflict challenging and being a facilitator also means I have to stay somewhat objective. Many people, including me, find it difficult to contradict somebody else or to perhaps raise an issue with what somebody has said, and so our second group session is going to focus on the practices of ‘calling in’ and ‘calling out’.”
He also spoke about some of the session’s highlights, saying: “By the end, people were responding to each other. There was a sense that we were beginning to communicate, and I think that’s actually quite a big deal because some of this brings us a lot of fear and heartbreak.”
He later added: “We are coming together with a kind of heartbreak, but it is inspiring for me to engage with people who are courageous enough to examine the ways that they are caught up in White supremacy. However, there is always the risk of getting caught up in our own emotional responses and centering White experience, so I think one of the ways we can support each other in allyship work is to compassionately point back towards taking action.”
When asked about what he would like to happen after the four sessions conclude, David said: “I’d like these sessions on allyship to become a permanent part of the University culture. In terms of goals it would be to become more active in supporting the implementation of the 15 commitments that have been made. It is also to become more anti-racist as part of the University of Westminster culture, so to bring White allyship into our workspaces, and to bring it into our work but also our personal lives. I do hope that it becomes something that survives these four sessions.”
Talking about possibly becoming a network at the University, he said: “I will be asking participants to discuss how we might do that as a group, not necessarily to make decisions myself but to make consensus-based decisions which could lead us to form a network. That’s one process at the University which is growing.
“I am also going to do further allyship groups like these to start from the beginning again, and they may change because I might learn a lot about what didn’t and did work during these first sessions, so I am also hoping that participants can give me honest feedback.”
New White allyship groups are expected to launch from January and they will be advertised closer to the time.
If you would like to participate in a White allyship group, contact David Morris.