We are so blessed at Racial Rec to be led and accompanied by Bashier Kayou, a veteran youth worker, racial justice facilitator, and master of play.
For two sessions this March, Bashier led the young people of Racial Rec in a variety of games, designed to surface teamwork, problem-solving, insight, and adaptation. With the simple tools of tape, rubber floor spots, and our bodies, we played.
Play is such a powerful practice. Mr. Rogers calls it “the work of childhood.” Other theorists of play see it as an antidote to brittleness and fixed mindset, because it allows us to try things out and see what the impact is, tweaking if we need to. I’ve also come to see it as a holy insurrection against capitalism and white supremacy – joy and pleasure and emotional investment for their own sake, apart from productivity, often apart from any visible “purpose.” Play is healing to relationships and to our own souls. And in the case of the games Bashier offered us, it also revealed some powerful learnings.
In one game, young people were given rubber floor spots, probably about 20 of them, and told that they needed to make sure everyone got across the room without touching the carpet. At the end, they needed to collect the rubber spots. The catch was, if at any point they stopped touching any of the rubber spots, a faculty member could come and take them.
The strategy started off with young people lifting their knee up, holding the rubber spot against the sole of their foot, and stepping down onto it. Then the first in line would do the same movement to place the next one, and those following her would make sure to step on the rubber spot she was about to leave. The coordinated effort was a joy to watch – lots of communication, teamwork, laughter, groans when a rubber spot got taken.
Towards the end, when it came time to pick up the rubber spots as the last two young people were moving across the floor, the movement paused. One of the young people was working with a back injury and couldn’t move in the same way that the previous strategy had demanded.
At first, we watched the young people advocate for changing the rules, making an exception for this person because of their injury. Couldn’t the rules just stretch to accommodate them, making it so that they didn’t have to keep their feet connected to the rubber spot at all times?
Bashier shook his head no.
And then something wonderful happened. The very last person, who didn’t have a back injury, suggested that they each just put their feet on a rubber spot and waddle / slide their way across the floor like penguins. Everyone left on the floor tried it. It worked much better for the person with the back injury, and here’s the thing – it also worked so much better for everyone else. Rather than contorting their bodies and struggling to keep a hold on the rubber spots, they were able to dance their way across the room using both feet.
In our debrief of this game, we had a powerful conversation about what that moment represented. Here were some of our takeaways:
- If something doesn’t work, you don’t have to keep trying to make the original plan work
- Our path to salvation is not linear. We have to iterate and change and play to get there
- When you design for people at the margins, the design works better for EVERYONE
- We’re successful when we try to access our joy
- Mess around and find out – don’t overthink it
- Time and speed – sometimes we need momentum, sometimes we needed to slow down
- The people who went ahead of us paved the way. Then we get to follow in their footsteps and iterate, see what’s not working and change it. We are grateful to our movement ancestors.
- Leadership can look many different ways, take many different forms. Get in where you fit in.
- There is a difference between accommodation (advocating to temporarily change the rules because one person is struggling) versus designing society / games / anything with marginalized people at the center
- A young person used the example of school-based accommodations. Students with IEP’s are often “allowed” to have accommodations like extra time on tests or access to a quiet workspace. Whose learning wouldn’t benefit from those things? What might happen if instead of offering them as accommodations, we began to create those supports as a norm?
- The power of accompliceship and solidarity. It took more than just the person working with the injury to come up with a design that would work for everyone. It also took his partner, the very last person, seeing that it wasn’t working well for him or anyone else, and playing with a new design.
- White supremacy culture, capitalism, patriarchy are not working well for ANY of us. What happens when we start to recognize that? “We don’t get free until we’re all free.”
It’s been a couple of weeks now since we played this game as a group, and I know I’m still thinking about it. And this was just one of many games we got to play and learn from together over the course of a couple of weeks thanks to Bashier’s leadership. There is such power in play.