I’ve loved Gaia House since my first retreat here in 2011. I value highly the literal and metaphorical ‘slowing down’ journey from London to rural Devon; the serene, beautiful buildings; the simplified routines of being on retreat and the positive experience of silence as a nourishing presence.
My lived experience has also included a continual noticing that Gaia House is a predominantly white community. So last year, when I read a Trustee recruitment flyer specifically inviting people from ethnic minority backgrounds to apply, I did so. These few words of inclusion made me feel visible, valued and welcomed for my ‘difference’ as a woman of colour.
I duly became a Trustee in early 2020. In March, the Covid pandemic had started and our organisational attention was focused on immediate operational concerns. In May, the brutal police killing of George Floyd inflamed a global surge of protest, anger and controversy as well as of solidarity and renewed self-reflection on ‘… and what difference can I make?’
My personal response to this question has centred on American activist Angela Davis’s statement ‘In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.’ What can I do within myself, in my relationships with others in general and also specifically within the Gaia House community? I have learned much through participating in a course exploring how organisational leadership is often invisibly driven by ‘white’ cultures, practices and expectations of compliance. Observations from white people on this course repeatedly remind me how viscerally difficult it is for people who do not themselves experience racism to truly recognise how pervasively damaging that experience is for those who do. How can you know what you don’t even know that you don’t know? We are learning together how the Dharma practices of mindful enquiry, of sitting with difficult emotions and of creating anti-racist responses using skilful methods and compassion can support this journey in practice. We can use these means and framing to address the trepidation associated with personally leaving the familiar territory of being ‘non-racist’ and moving into being ‘anti-racist’.
I am beginning to name and frame a sense of compassion in myself towards the experience of ‘not knowing’. I can’t possibly ‘know’ everything, and nor can others. I don’t have to beat myself (or others) up with shame or guilt about ‘not knowing’ – compassion is a more skilful and accepting starting point. But I do have a responsibility for learning to ‘know’ and then for putting the ‘knowing’ into practice. I don’t have to perfect the world, but I am not free to desist from contributing to improving it. I am not free to restrict my intention to liberating only some beings from suffering, but all beings.
What am I doing differently? I’ve done an hour-long, online training course on unconscious bias and I’ve read Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book called Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. I’ve found myself bringing new ears to listening to the radio. I hear a programme discussing reading a book from every different country… and I think this could offer me exposure to currently unfamiliar cultural ways of seeing the world. I hear another programme on how to use crafting activities as a form of ‘gentle’ protest and respectful activism… and I start to see how quiet, smaller activism can also contribute effectively to creating change. I’ve watched videos from teachers of colour on the Buddhist magazine website, Tricycle, that have prompted new Dharma learning and self-reflection on teachings for uncertain times: Viveka Chen and Ruth King.
Finally, I am contributing to the Gaia House community journey of moving from being non-racist to becoming anti-racist. We are already non-racist in that there are no formal barriers to participation at Gaia House for people of colour. I want us to move beyond the limitation of ‘not seeing’ ethnicity or colour because this is a type of ‘not knowing’. I want us to move beyond being a ‘multi-ethnic group in waiting’ for people of colour to show up here – we will need to take intra-personal, interpersonal and organisational actions to make this happen.