Sparks of Actions: Reflections on Minneapolis, the Movement for Black Lives, and Group Relations
By Suma Jacob and Geralyn Williams
In the last four years, my work in group relations has been stretched to address the complexity and chaotic uncertainty of our information age within this methodology. Tasked with directing conferences, I ran a “Hierarchies of the Collective series”, knowing we had to create space to bring our collective bodies and spirit to join the realities of our evolutionarily molded minds. My greatest challenge is to bring this integration to my daily medical and educational work systems, where I see structural racism entrenched deeply with financial and political interests of white body supremacy. If you have not read, “My Grandmother’s Hands” by Resmaa Menakem, he skillfully adds body to this term. He illustrates how we hold recurring and ancestral trauma in our bodies, individually, culturally, and collectively.
In the last few weeks in Minneapolis, we witnessed George Floyd’s cold and brutal murder by police on the street that I once drove to take my son to school. My own body cried out with the worst asthma symptoms it has ever had, as my neighborhood burned to the ground and my neighbors created watch groups to protect each other and address the fear of outside infiltrators. The work we do in group relations leaves no question why my breathing was affected. I grew up experiencing painful racism in segregated Chicagoland and it drew me to group relations work. As an immigrant child of Indian origin, I was called the N word by people in our neighborhood, racially profiled by police, and told to go home to Iran or whatever country the US was currently fighting. Group relations provided a space for me to view the microcosm and the macrocosm. It is a place where truths are voiced, the other is explored, and the unseen in our bodies becomes seen.
What is my role and what is our task are questions that are constantly with me. It is amazing and terrifying to watch white people suddenly wake up and see the racism that I have seen all my life. In witnessing powerlessness, leaders are quick to call out our task to dismantle structural racism in our medical departments and educational institutions. I am excited by these calls to action but cautious given what I’ve learned about groups and through big systems roles of being a physician, scientist, and educator. Where will we get if we ignore our bodies? Is it like changing the laws in the 1960s but leaving the hearts and minds of so many Americans unchanged.
Ta-Nehisi Coates says it so clearly: “But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” As my colleagues send around reading lists, I fear an intellectual but disembodied response will perpetuate racism by leaving much unfelt and unseen. We will cross off action items on our task list, but ignore where all this started and where it continues to live in our bodies. In our collective hierarchies, we continue to protect white bodies above all from feeling any discomfort. We need to be willing to feel our collective embodied suffering in order to work through it.
As a psychotherapist with developmental expertise, I know our necessary body work lies beneath words and it is not easy or welcome. It requires going back to our ancestors in a country that constantly demands that we only look forward. I also know it is not my role to be a psychotherapist or token person of color as our organizations are challenged to change structural inequities. Group relations has taught me to be aware of the roles I get pulled into and the roles that place me at a risk for being the scapegoat. It has also taught me to see others being pulled into dangerous roles, and has allowed me to practice responding. Although I have a valence to overextend, I choose to take on the role of mentoring minorities so they develop their own voice and navigate or leave toxic systems. I also embrace roles that focus on group level work in order to facilitate systems level insights. None of this is possible without friends, family, and colleagues who understand. I know that I can reach out to them when the burden feels too heavy and I need to step away from a role or task.
Joining many in my community, I watched George Floyd’s memorial service to be with my city in our grief. I got a clinical work-up and new treatments for my asthma. As the fear grew in my body, I knew that I was avoiding looking at the destruction and rubble in south Minneapolis. So, I went with my family to see the remains of the police precinct, post office, stores, pharmacies, and some of my favorite minority-owned businesses. I am thankful that buildings where people resided were almost entirely spared. I am grateful for the citizens that took their brooms to clean the streets and mobilized food banks for neighbors now without ways to get groceries and supplies. Group relations has given me the gift to see how profoundly we are interconnected. We now need to do the hard work to take what we have learned, apply it, and give more to our communities. To me, I practice group relations like I practice meditation and medicine. It is a way of seeing, a space of listening, a call to speak, and a spark to act with an increasing awareness of what comes deep from our bodies.
Similarly to my colleague, these last few weeks have added on to years of trauma and change existing in my body. As a descendant of the enslaved African diaspora, I know all too well the generational trauma that has been passed down as my family has fought, survived and thrived in a nation that sees Black people as second-class citizens. The recent awakening to this fact and the task of racial justice in many parts of society is due to communities, Black ones in particular, reaching a combustion point after years of murder, injustice, discrimination, and degradation at the hands of police, politicians, leaders, and our neighbors. In Minneapolis and around the country organizers, protestors, and community leaders are expanding and deepening our task. We are called not only to hold police accountable for their brutality, but also to reallocate funds and oversight to center community well-being in proactive rather than reactive ways. The spark to act that group relations can galvanize is being utilized in communal pressure for change.
That spark for change has been flickering for a very long time for me. By being born in a Black female body my very existence is a push for change, although I didn’t fully realize that until learning about group relations in graduate school. My awakening is centered around the Movement for Black Lives and #BlackLivesMatter. I was in my senior year in college when the movement began. After a summer, fall, and winter of viral videos of black death at the hands of police and vigilantes; the lack of investigations, indictments and charges for the deaths of Mike Brown, Aniya Parker, Eric Garner, Ty Underwood, and Trayvon Martin broke my heart. It became clear to me, as I prepared to graduate, that degrees, compliance with laws, and simply living my life is not enough to protect me from a system that values my life as less due to the color of my skin. I found myself at protests, supporting friends in their organizing, and challenging my classmates and professors. However, the spark seemed in danger of being snuffed out as I tried to be the ideal activist on top of schoolwork and a personal life.
The dominant narrative around activism within the racist system our society operates is very binary. You are either the archetypes of Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. You are either peaceful or violent. You are an activist through protesting and marching or through voting and governance. These roles are highlighted by the system in order to force dichotomies and narrow the tasks we take up for justice. This allows the system to deploy resources in targeted ways to sustain the status quo of injustice. And as a young person I bought that narrative and had trouble with burnout as I tried to force myself into roles that weren't mine. I let myself be pulled into roles and taking on tasks that others would have me do. Thankfully, I found community and elders that showed me that the roles of the movement were more expansive than I thought and the tasks that support justice were many too. One way of understanding the multitudinous roles to create social change is Deepta Iyer’s Social Change Ecosystem, which lays out 10 core roles that collaborate to create social change; Healers, Artists, Storytellers, Bridge-Builders, Frontline Responders, Caregivers, Disrupters, Visionaries, and Builders. These roles are all necessary to move groups beyond toxic formal leadership hierarchies, for groups to function healthily, and for change to be enacted.
As I shared, the burnout was taking a toll on me then and I’ve had a cyclical relationship with the condition through my graduate work and even now as I work in higher education. It took a lot of trial and error, counseling, and reflection to recognize the power of healing and care in movement work. A quote that is tattooed on my soul is Audre Lorde’s “ Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” More and more I feel the call of the roles of Healer and Caregiver and ponder the tasks I could take up. In this highly virtual and digital moment, groups and movements find themselves connecting, learning, and working online. The opportunity for access and education on the broadness of role seems more essential now as inequality is being broadcast on our many screens, people are taking part in two weeks of national protests, and we sit with the uncertainty of a global pandemic. In my online education I have found many examples of Healers and Caregivers at work. One such example is The Nap Ministry, an organization that posits rest as resistance and a radical tool for community healing for Black people. In this moment where tension and anxiety is an almost constant state for my black body, the call to rest is euphoric and highly welcome. Rest in this case is an anti-racist, anti-caplitatlist, communal resource.
As we begin the third week of community action against police brutality and for Black lives, many of us are examining our roles, wondering how to engage, and how to contribute to the work of justice. It is imperative, in my view, to understand there are many ways to do that work and to leave ourselves open to the possibilities of role and task. Group relations is a space and a practice for understanding this. For some the question will be, “How shall we begin?” and for others “How do we continue?” If we are ready to feed our sparks, the blaze of our work is waiting.