Board Column – An Elephant in the Room: FOCUS GOAL #3

Board Column – An Elephant in the Room:  FOCUS GOAL #3

(submitted by Kristin Hunter, April 2017)

At the annual mid-year planning retreat in January, the WES Board, Senior Leader, and a wide cross-section of WES members discussed, hashed out, enhanced, tweaked, revised, voted in and out, and finally approved WES’s new set of focus goals. (Focus goals, renewed every 12−18 months, guide WES’s activities and expenditures so they move us closer to our Ends.) Focus goal #3, in its original form, asks WES, collectively and individually, to

assess our readiness for, and develop a plan to move forward with, becoming an increasingly multi-cultural, anti-racist, anti-oppressive, inclusive congregation. [As part of this plan, include ample opportunities for those who carry relatively privileged identities (white, cis, straight, male, etc.) to examine that privilege.]

This particular goal resonates deeply with me because, remarkably, it points directly at an elephant in the room:  many of us at WES in one aspect or another are privileged historically and in current society. The second sentence, which was later edited out by the Board and Senior Leader as a practicality, reveals that an insightful part of this focus goal pushes WES to work on privilege as keenly as we work on anti “isms,” or biases.

I think almost no one escapes an imprint of implicit privilege or bias. Even the Supreme Court has its struggles, to wit, with unconscious male privilege (i.e., sexism) featured in the April 16 Washington Post article, “Even Supreme Court Justices Get Interrupted.” Authors Jacobi and Schweers show that the women justices are “interrupted during oral arguments far more than the other members of the court. …In 2015, 65.9% of interruptions [from male justices and presenting counselors] were directed at the three women on the bench:  Ginsberg, Sotomayor, and Kagan.”

We Board Trustees, too, recognize that we are not immune to our own Supreme Court-like moments of unconscious privilege. The Board recently wrestled with this issue and added this amendment to the Board Agreements (which guide the conduct and expectations of fellow Trustees toward each other):

We acknowledge that societal power dynamics can manifest during our meetings, such as reinforcing male privilege, white privilege, and class privilege. The Board agrees to be conscious of these dynamics, to address them when they occur, and to learn to avoid them. 

At times, discussion of this new agreement was uneasy, but we worked through it together and the amendment passed with the consent of all. And herein lies the crux of focus goal #3. Despite being a collegial, thoughtful, well-meaning group, sharing a commitment to equity, it took some time to embrace the amendment and work through the language and its implications.

As little as we want to accept it, we all—even my cherished Board colleagues—may still, at times, unwittingly perpetuate a societal power dynamic. For me, confronting this privilege stuff openly and honestly (and kindly) can feel like throwing a stick of dynamite into a foot bath. And, it has to be done. This foot bath isn’t serving all of us equally; it is not eliciting each other’s best.

Recently I attended a political meeting in Rockville where the treasurer thanked one of the participants for his work. The man accepted the appreciation, but it produced a totally unintended effect. The men were unaware that the women in the room were stunned because the woman partner who actually did the job was completely overlooked. However—and here’s more of the crux—the women sitting gob-smacked by the innocent interchange (including me) did not (re)act in the moment. It’s made me wonder how often we at WES let such opportunities for growth slide by.

To my mind, we (and I include myself and my fellow Trustees) seem palpably uncomfortable with causing discomfort to others, especially those we care for or work with, and especially in this situation of calling attention to an unintended expression of bias or privilege. I think this is a particularly thorny obstacle that WES, as a predominantly white congregation, faces in pursuing focus goal #3.

Just admitting to ourselves—much less out loud—that we need to work at deeper levels (we’re long past the low-hanging fruit) to recognize when we make inadvertent slights stemming from privilege and implicit bias is not fun. It is plain painful. And overcoming our innate disinclination to cause distress in order to discuss such slips can be even harder.

But how else am I, the Board, WES collectively, going to make progress on focus goal #3 if we’re too uneasy, embarrassed, or defensive to talk about the elephant? And if not at WES—our secure, safe, beloved Ethical community—then where?