Blog

The Power of Play

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.

An Antidote to Isolation

(written in January 2022)

This morning, walking around Jamaica Pond as the frigid wind whipped off the ice, smiling to bundled passersby, I was thinking about isolation. Boston winter can be plenty isolating on its own, but add a pandemic and all of its attendant losses, including the loss of our ability to safely be together physically, and the isolation compounds. Anyone else with me, feeling the weight of loneliness this season in particular? 

The thing is, what I’m learning from my role as a faculty member for Racial Rec is that white supremacy culture is the foundation for so much of our isolation. We long to be real with each other, and white supremacy culture urges us to avoid conflict. We long to risk vulnerability with each other, and white supremacy culture pressures us to appear like we have it all together or, for real ancestral safety reasons, to protect our hearts and bodies. Racism makes isolation and estrangement seem like the normal order of things, particularly in cross-race relationships, no matter how much our humanness and our longing recognizes that there’s something vital missing. 

Racism makes isolation and estrangement seem like the normal order of things, particularly in cross-race relationships, no matter how much our humanness and our longing recognizes that there’s something vital missing.

That’s why I’ve started to think of our “I Get You Now” activity as an antidote to isolation. In “I Get You Now,” each person works with one other person for ten minutes to identify and “work” something about their partner that they would like to understand better. If someone has been showing up consistently late, “I Get You Now” is a time to lovingly call them in and wonder together where that’s coming from. It’s also a time to get to know people better in a loving one-on-one setting where mutual self-reflection and vulnerability are centered. Some rounds, young people choose their own partners because there’s something they want to work on with someone specific, and some rounds it’s more serendipitous. Connections happen across different identities and also with people who share multiple identities. In each conversation, adrienne maree brown’s principle of Emergent Strategy guides us: “there is a conversation that only these people at this moment can have. Find it.”

Throughout my years as a teacher, I often thought about how vulnerable we ask students to be on a daily basis. Risk being wrong in public. Risk making a mistake that others think is stupid. Risk other people misunderstanding you or treating you unfairly. Risk allowing yourself to grow. Risk learning, period! While teachers do their very best to create classrooms where young people can take healthy risks, I’m sure we all have an experience of getting hurt at school. It’s a high risk environment, and it’s not always able to be safe. 

That’s what moves me so much about witnessing these young people risking multiple rounds of “I Get You Now.” It is deeply vulnerable to make yourself available for a conversation about who you are and how you show up. It requires great risk, and great capacity to receive feedback, trusting that it comes with love. It flies in the face of the ways that white supremacy culture tries to separate us, urging us to avoid conflict, gossip behind people’s backs rather than working with them directly, write people off. And also, we know that that vulnerability, and the ability to trust that others will call us into relationship, accountability, and authenticity, is the only pathway to true intimacy, true connection, true community, and strong relationship. 

We know that that vulnerability, and the ability to trust that others will call us into relationship, accountability, and authenticity, is the only pathway to true intimacy, true connection, true community, and strong relationship.

Sometimes the conversations need to be ongoing, spiraling deeper over time. But most often, the young people came back from their pairings glowing. “I totally get her now,” they say, and, “I learned so much about myself through that process.” This past week, one young person shared, “I feel so close to the people I’ve paired with, and less with the people I haven’t yet. I want to do this with everyone.”

In these isolating months of another pandemic winter, compounding the isolation that white supremacy culture creates, I continue to feel deeply hopeful when I witness what’s happening at Racial Rec. Deep connection, vulnerability, accountability, listening and speaking from the heart, relationships founded on the trust that we can call each other in, back into integrity and back into belonging. I wish that medicine, that antidote to isolation, for the whole world.

Working Our Commitments

by Emma Thomas, Racial Rec Faculty and MDiv candidate at Harvard Divinity School

On a sunny fall afternoon last Wednesday, our 2021 Racial Rec crew gathered, masked up and thrilled to be together, in the Southern Jamaica Plain Community Health Center. It was the first time since we began this season when young people and faculty could be together in the same space. Despite the challenges of reading each other’s facial expressions behind masks, we dove into some powerful work together: workshopping and questioning and dedicating ourselves to our Commitments.

As a classroom teacher and facilitator, I was excited to see how this process would go. I’ve often witnessed or facilitated spaces where the group constructs their agreements from scratch. Sometimes, that cocreation can be a good process, but many times it results in lots of time workshopping the wording of a particular agreement that doesn’t do much to build trust in the group. 

Significantly, agreements also carry a different energy — a tentativeness, perhaps even an assumed adversarialness (“we came to an agreement”) — than commitments. Committing to something makes space for it to be a constant practice, full of mistakes and learning. It is more robust, longterm, and active than agreeing to something.

So right away when the process of workshopping our commitments started, I knew it would be different. Abigail and Dennie asked us to form two concentric circles facing towards each other so that we were paired up. One by one, they revealed each of the commitments, pausing to allow us to discuss it in partnerships. How did it land with us? Did we see any major challenges or obstacles to committing to it? Were there big questions coming up for us that needed clarification before we could commit? Before moving onto the next round and switching partners, we would go around the circle, each of us signing on or naming our obstacle or question. Young people brought insightful, challenging, self-reflective questions and concerns, and our discussion deepened the dimensions of each of the commitments. This felt so different from classroom “agreements” I had seen in the past, where students sometimes begrudgingly agreed to something they didn’t really see the importance of. More than anything, in our Racial Rec circle, the young people’s integrity and building of trust in each other and themselves shone through; if someone had an issue with one of the commitments, they named it and we dug in together, weaving our web of interdependence and realness with each other in the process. 

Moving away from niceness, disembodiedness, and a worry that we’ll be disposable if we say the wrong thing, we move towards realness, relationships, and belonging. Moving away from punitive culture, we move towards truth, honesty, and the ability to repair our connectedness when it’s harmed. Moving away from perfectionism, we recognize that each of these commitments is a commitment to PRACTICE, recognizing that we’ll mess up or fall short and then can try again.

Which, of course, is just what these commitments were inviting us into. The young people were already practicing them. When I first encountered the list below, I was present to how these commitments invited really different kinds of practices than what white supremacy culture has trained us all in. Moving away from niceness, disembodiedness, and a worry that we’ll be disposable if we say the wrong thing, we move towards realness, relationships, and belonging. Moving away from punitive culture, we move towards truth, honesty, and the ability to repair our connectedness when it’s harmed. Moving away from perfectionism, we recognize that each of these commitments is a commitment to PRACTICE, recognizing that we’ll mess up or fall short and then can try again. All of these commitments are possible within the strong container of belonging and engagement that Racial Rec creates, and I’m so excited to see how they transform us over our year together. 

  1. You commit that this group will always be safe (no one is yelling / screaming or throwing chairs), but you also commit to feeling the discomfort.
  2. You commit to saying what you feel and feeling what you say. You can’t control how it may be received.
  3. You commit to hearing what comes back as a result of what you have said, as it needs to be. 
  4. You commit to the fact that your ability to be true and honest is not conditional on the reactions of others. We can’t make it all seem nice.
  5. You understand that you may hurt other people, but recognize that this happens all the time in the “real world” and that here it can actually be addressed. THEREFORE…
  6. You commit to making the implicit explicit

Thanks to the young people of the Racial Rec community for showing us what it looks like to build trust by digging in, being real, and trusting the strength of our relationships and our container together.

Welcome to the Racial Reconciliation and Healing Project

Racial Reconciliation and Healing. The title itself struck an emotional nerve in me. When I first began as the Program Coordinator for the Racial Reconciliation and Healing project, I was at the peak of my stress from racial trauma on my college campus. This stress was in addition to the stress of waking up as Black woman everyday in the United States.

I was involved in campus and community activism. I wrote. I marched. I chanted. I did all of these things, but none of it seemed like it was enough. Well what I know now is that I needed to incorporate my heart into the fabric of my activism and get clear about my role as a Black women in racial justice work. The RRH model taught me not only is healing possible, but it is necessary.

My hope is that you also can take a piece of our framework and apply it to pieces of your lives, communities, and organizations. It start with us.

In Solidarity,

Taylor