Hand Wringing and Reckoning

We are pleased to announce the winners of the 2016 RCWMS Essay Contest. The theme was “Experiencing White Supremacy.” The first place winner is Danyelle O’Hara of St. Paul, MN, for “Hand Wringing and Reckoning,” which first appeared in our March newsletter, and is republished below. Second place goes to Karen Erlichman of Pacifica, CA for “Layers of White Privilege.” Many thanks to this year’s judges: Marcy Litle, Marcia Rego, and Rebecca Welper. The judges report that they were touched by the thoughtful honesty expressed by all the writers as they tackled this challenging subject. We send our thanks to all who entered our contest!

Hand Wringing and Reckoning
by Danyelle O’Hara

Recently, I was involved in completing a large collaborative report. I edited the full document after coordinating multiple partners to make their contributions. When the product was signed, sealed, and delivered to its final destination, my supervising colleague sent an email to all parties involved in the project thanking them for their contributions. He did not thank or recognize me—publicly or privately—for the key roles I played in producing the report.

I noted the oversight, but I don’t think my colleague did until one of his email recipients sent a “reply all” thanking me. Awkward. Even more awkward was when my colleague made an ineffectual attempt to recover himself by hitting “reply all” to the previous message echoing the thanks to me. If we’d been in a conference room together, I would have crawled under the table.

This kind of thing happens all the time doesn’t it? Spouses, family members, friends, and colleagues—we all sometimes fail to thank the people who do the most.

What also almost always happens for me, a life-long African American woman, when I am on the receiving end of such an experience with a white person in a position of authority, is a chain of events. First, a rush of shame. Indignation and anger invariably come later, but the raw immediate emotion is shame. Next, an almost uncontrollable impulse to assuage the feelings of the person who has slighted me. Mindboggling, but I’m telling this like it is: I take responsibility for ensuring that a person who has forgotten me, ignored me, dissed me, etc. doesn’t feel badly for their behavior.

This time, though, I made a conscious decision to respond differently.

I didn’t count the number of times following the awkward emails that my colleague lauded my excellent work on the report. It came up in every follow-up email and phone contact we had. I felt badly about my colleague’s omission, to be sure, but much more strongly, I felt a resolve to not involve myself in making him feel okay about his shoddy treatment of me. Not rush to his rescue and deliver what he needed from me in the wake of his omission: to know that he wasn’t as bad as his behavior indicated he was. And maybe he wasn’t. But I chose to let him determine that for himself. White people often want me to bail them out of their bad behavior, and I usually do it because I’m conditioned to and because it gets me the response I seek—to be the well-liked and approved-of Negro.

Being a well-liked, approved-of Negro is a painful and ironic requirement in my liberal, nonprofit, philanthropic, social justice, do-gooding, down-with-the-people, challenging oppression, and dismantling racism world. Although we like to talk about “the revolution,” reality is that funding for it comes from mostly white pockets and my standing in the field depends largely on approval from those people. Not always, but often. People of color carry all kinds of burdens for liberal white people to make them feel good about who they are and their place in the world. We carry those burdens because there could be consequences if we don’t. My professional well-being is largely tied to rewards available to me if and when I do my part to uphold the world as my liberal white colleagues want to see it.

I find myself wondering what W.E.B. Dubois would call this particular burden. There’s something reminiscent of the term Dubois dubbed “Double Consciousness,” where black people know what white people are thinking almost as well as we know what we are thinking. This was imperative during slavery to save one’s black ass, literally. The parallel today, because power and resources are so often controlled by white people, is about saving my job, or maintaining access to white-controlled opportunities. I have to know the white mind in order to navigate the realities they have framed and the resources they control.

The rescuing burden I am talking about is related to Double Consciousness, but it’s not the same. It’s still about staying a couple of steps ahead in order to stay in the good graces, but it’s also about covering and protecting the white ass when it is bared to me. Not only am I undermined, not only do I forgive the poor behavior, but I then make sure the liberal perpetrator doesn’t feel badly for their bad behavior. I do this because the perpetrator feeling badly for their behavior would indicate that they had, indeed, behaved badly. And that does not correspond with the masquerade that they are liberal and progressive and down with dismantling oppression. That they don’t perpetuate the oppression they say they seek to dismantle as easily as they breathe. Or do they? They shouldn’t be made to contemplate that possibility. That’s my job, to make sure they don’t have to.

What I’m talking about here might be unique to the nonprofit, activist, socially progressive world, where white people see themselves as beyond racism. Their image of themselves is as of allies, helpers, people who are making the world better—the good guys. When that image is called into question, it’s a crisis because there’s a whole career, public persona, discourse, and sense of self at stake. It’s obviously a fantasy, but just as obviously, it is where so many people live in terms of self-awareness. One of my roles as a woman of color, if I want to continue reaping the rewards of access to opportunities, is to do my part to make sure this self-image remains intact.

So what happens when I choose not to play the game? What happens when I decide not to rush in and assure my colleague that it’s okay he failed to acknowledge me; assure him that no one even noticed, and if they did, they knew it was unintentional; make it clear that it wasn’t just me who produced the report, there were a lot of people involved; remind him that we all make mistakes and in the realm of mistakes that could be made, this one was pretty minor? In short, what happens when I don’t rush in and hold him while he reassembles his image of himself? I think we go into free fall. We don’t know how to be; there is nothing to uphold the structure, and my colleague has to be with himself and whatever his omission of me means. And I have to be with the possibility that I’ve moved off the preferred list onto the shit list.

Some months ago, a commentator on NPR, self-identified as a black man, talked about being out with a couple of friends one evening in Baltimore after the civil unrest there. The fact that this guy is on NPR and the way he talks suggests that he’s had a certain kind of education. He’s a freshly scrubbed, well-educated, possibly middle class man. And you assume he keeps company with similar kinds of guys. So, three of these freshly scrubbed guys out one evening in Baltimore. A white police officer comes and tells them to move along. The police officer then makes reference to the fact that he smells something illegal and implies that it is coming from these men. The men are perplexed because this is not what they are about and soon thereafter it becomes clear that the smells are coming from someone else, a white guy. After everything is sorted out, the police officer says something along the lines of, “Hey guys, sorry about that. You know how it is, right?”

The three men let their silence communicate to the officer, “No, we don’t know.” In the NPR piece, the commentator talked about how he chose not to take on his regular “job” of rescuing the well-meaning white police officer out of his racist blunder. The commentator talked about that moment of what I call “free fall”—that moment when no one knows what to do because we are so unfamiliar with the situation and there is no recognizable social scaffolding to hold onto. The commentator saw the moment and chose not to be the good Negro, not to cover the well-meaning racist white person’s ass. He chose dignity for himself and responsibility for the white police officer.

The commentator decided not to perpetuate the cycle of oppression that day. The cycle of white liberal racism that has white people continuing to step on people of colors’ necks and expecting us to make them feel okay about it. The cycle that has people of color explaining that we understand and reassuring white people who commit acts of racism that they’re not so bad, they’re not like those real racist people.

He didn’t. And I didn’t with my colleague because, really, how is that cycle any different from any we’ve been whirling in for the past five centuries?

I let my colleague do his hand wringing and flustering. I let him send his emails and make his protestations. I said nothing. I had nothing to say. I didn’t understand, so why say I did? Rather, I let my colleague reckon with himself. I don’t know if he did, but at least I didn’t have a hand in robbing him of the opportunity. And in robbing me of my dignity.

Danyelle O’Hara works with nonprofits and foundations on issues related to land, natural resources, and rural people. In the rest of her life, she is a mom to two amazing children, a partner to their wonderful father, and a writer when the spirit moves her. She lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

End of Year Update

Interfaith 2015 altarThis fall was so busy, we barely had time to catch our breath, much less catch anyone up on what we’ve been up to! We hosted five separate writing workshops (several lasting over multiple sessions), the second annual “Herons Walk on Water’s Edge” (an intergenerational eco-spiritual retreat), programs for Elder Women, book readings and discussion groups, and of course the inspiring fourth annual “Homegrown: NC Women’s Preaching Festival.”

This fall we also received generous funding from the Kalliopeia Foundation and the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, to support our current programs and expand programs for younger women, LGBTQ individuals, and racial justice. We’re very excited about sharing more about these new plans as they continue to develop.

Just before the winter solstice, we celebrated our 21st “Annual Interfaith Celebration for 12360246_10153176442887466_3165758883176770399_nCommunity, Spirit and Change.” Those who gathered felt a sense of connection and gratitude as we sang and shared stories and rituals from various traditions. We spoke of sorrows of the past year and hopes for the coming year. As a country we’d been reeling from tragic events around the globe and nation, but this gathering reminded us not to react with fear toward people of other races and religions. Instead, we joined together to build interfaith bridges.

We are so grateful to have spent such a creative, enlivening, and connecting year with all of you who have attended programs, read the newsletter, dropped by the office, and made donations to support this work. May 2016 bring even more deepening, exploration, and growth!

Maura Wolf May 2015 East Coast Book Tour: What Matters Most

Maura reading croppedAt the end of May, Maura Wolf will be touring the East Coast for intimate and lively readings from her new book What Matters Most: Everyday Leadership at Home, at Work, and in the World.

About the Book
What matters most today? In the midst of striving for success and reaching for fulfillment, how do we deal with the issues that emerge in our day-to-day experiences? In What Matters Most, Maura Wolf uses forty-two vignettes from her own life to find meaning in the ordinary. She presents specific practices and asks intriguing questions, inspiring readers to consider the choices they make every day.

“Maura Wolf is as thoughtful and earnest on the page as she is in conversation. Here’s a book for anyone who has ever longed for purpose and clarity and greater meaning in every day.” — Kelly Corrigan, New York Times bestselling author of The Middle Place, Lift, and Glitter and Glue

About the Author
Maura Wolf has spent her adult life being curious about how people and groups can change for the better. She brings this curiosity to her teaching, consulting, and coaching work as well as to her home life. Currently, she teaches leadership at Saint Mary’s College of California and coaches people through Inbalance Coaching. She lives with her husband, son, and daughter outside San Francisco.

Click here to order What Matters Most from RCWMS.

Find the reading closest to you:

Princeton, NJ
Wednesday, May 27, 7-8:30pm
Home of Diane & Bobby Hackett
Click HERE to RSVP.
Please join us for an informal, fun evening of conversation and reading with Maura Wolf, author and leadership coach from San Francisco. Short stories will be read and guests will be invited to do their own reflection and storytelling on themes like Getting on the Balcony, Presence and Working with Conflict.
Feel free to bring a friend.

Washington, DC
Thursday, May 28, 6:30-8pm
Home of Ann Zim
Click HERE to RSVP.
Come enjoy a casual evening of conversation, reflection and connection with San Francisco-based author, Maura Wolf.  Maura will share stories on topics like – Getting on the Balcony, Working with Conflict and Transitions – and invite guests to share some stories of their own.  The crowd with be a rich mix of interesting people.

University of Richmond
Saturday, May 30, 2:30pm
Tyler Haynes Commons, Room 305
As part of the alumni weekend activities, alumni and guests are invited to join Maura Wolf, W’90, for a special interactive reading and signing of her book, What Matters Most: Everyday Leadership at Home, at Work, and in the World.
Advance registration is requested: https://uronline.net/rw15/alumni/non-reunion

Durham, NC
Sunday, May 31, 2pm
Okun/Stern loft
Click HERE to RSVP.
Join Julia Scatliff-O’Grady in a lively conversation with author Maura Wolf, who will read from her new book, What Matters Most: Everyday Leadership at Home, at Work and in the World. We will take on issues such as what gets in the way of living out our deepest values, how we use storytelling to get to deeper wisdom, and what we want to remember in the present moment. We anticipate a lively and meaningful dialogue.


A Writing Quilt

At RCWMS, we love providing time and space for women to be creative together. One of the ways we’ve done this is by sponsoring weeklong writing retreats at Pelican House at Trinity Center, Emerald Isle, NC. For over a decade, women have been nourished by quiet days of writing and evenings of community sharing. While we are always happy welcoming new writers, some participants return year after year.

We also love new projects that are inspired and cross-fertilized by our time together. An example of this is the recently completed quilt that Marcia Rego got the idea to create after several visits to Pelican House. A woman of many talents, Marcia is originally from Brazil, has a PhD in anthropology, and teaches in the Thompson writing program at Duke. In her spare time, Marcia creates beautiful and meaningful quilts. This is what she wrote about the project before heading to the beach again at the beginning of May:

“I’ve been to the Pelican House retreat four times (and going to my fifth one), and every time I go, I bring a quilt project to work on in the evenings, during “share” time. Last time I was there, it occurred to me that it might be a cool idea to gather pieces of clothing from all the women writers who go to the retreat. I got lots of fabric in the mail, from people I haven’t even met – so that was really cool. It took me a while to get started because I had a busy semester, but I had fun trying to figure out what to do with such different (and often clashing) colors and patterns.”

Well, she certainly figured it out! Despite the wide range of fabrics provided by previous Pelican House writers, Marcia was able to piece them together into a beautiful design. You can observe her process in a delightful time-lapse video that Marcia’s husband, Hermes, created. And consider joining us on a future week of quiet and writing at the beach. You never know what might come of it!

Rebecca Welper has an MFA in playwriting and teaches writing workshops at RCWMS.

Moments Magnified

photo“Evocative, sensual, suspenseful.”

That’s how Carol Henderson described strong writing to 25 women who gathered on the first day of spring for Carol’s annual Resource Center weekend writing intensive. Many of the women were veterans of Carol’s writing workshops and dove in eagerly. Entitled “Moments Magnified,” the two-day workshop encouraged participants to write powerful vignettes about their lives, and leave with drafts of short pieces that would later begin to connect into a larger whole.

To inspire deep and thoughtful writing (with a dash of humor) Carol read earthy poems and threw out juicy prompts. In the light and airy Colony Hills Clubhouse, pens scratched and keyboards clicked, as participants reached into their lives for narrative themes that cut across time and memory.

A deeply personal writing journey for many blossomed into a community experience as well. Quiet writing periods were broken up by opportunities to share freshly generated writing. After finding inspiration and encouragement from each other, the writers would turn back to their own notebooks and computers for yet more writing.

The whole weekend was brought to a sweet and celebratory close with several participants’ readings, which shared beautiful, painful, and brave moments in their lives. The writing indeed turned out to be evocative, sensual, and suspenseful – moments magnified into something greater.

photo (1)

Masks & Mirrors

IMG_20150315_140226What happens when you bring together a yearning at RCWMS to showcase someone’s art, a gorgeous venue, and the idea that a day should be designated to celebrating women in the arts? “Masks & Mirrors,” that’s what. “Masks & Mirrors: Works By Mary Jane Rivers & Friends,” which opened on March 15 at Cassilhaus, a home and gallery between Durham and Chapel Hill, NC, is sponsored by RCWMS and Cassilhaus.

Mary Jane’s abstract forms reflect a vibrant conversation between the conscious and unconscious. Her paintings portray the dialogue between the masks we present to the world and the vulnerabilities that peek out from behind those masks. Her works are mirrors of an interior landscape. This exhibition features a selection of her work, along with paintings by Marcy Litle and wildlife sculptures by environmental artist, Bryant Holsenbeck.

IMG_20150315_174210During the planning stages, and inspired by the model of SWAN (Support Women Artists Now), scheduled each year in March, Mary Jane determined that this celebration of her work should also showcase the work of local artists in other media. To include more friends, as it were. This decision blossomed into a series of associated events, including a rousing concert featuring Randa McNamara on March 19, an upcoming evening of readings by local writers, and a participatory jazz improvisation during the show’s closing.

The opening on April 15 and performance on the 19 brought out lively and enthusiastic crowds. You can find photographs from the exhibition and some of the events on the RCWMS Facebook page.

The exhibition runs through April 19, with gallery open hours on afternoons of March 19, 26, April 2, 8, and 16. (Please contact masks.mirrors@gmail.com if you need directions.) Mary Jane Rivers and Marcy Litle will be present during gallery hours, happy to chat or to leave visitors alone to contemplate the artwork.


Art Weekends at the Beach

IMG_4911During the last week of February, a large beach house on Emerald Isle—with a magnificent view of the sound in one direction and a one-block walk to the beach in the other—was filled with pencils, pastels, acrylics, watercolors, charcoal, pens, and blank canvases. By the beginning of March, a revolving cast of women had explored, rediscovered, and deepened artistic expression and soulful connections. Inspired by the sometimes icy views, the women filled sketchbooks and canvases under the warm and wise guidance of veteran artist and teacher Sue Sneddon.

IMG_4929Some participants were returning to the beach for the advanced “Making Your Art” workshop, and some ventured out the following weekend for their first RCWMS event, “Finding Your Medium.” After the workshop, one of the first-timers, Kate, shared her joy in re-connecting with an important part of herself:

What a gift! “Finding Your Medium” with Sue Sneddon was magical for me and helped me to recover my artist soul. I have been yearning to learn how to paint, but I have been carrying within me the discouraging reactions of several art instructors who had convinced me that I was no good at it. Several weeks ago I stumbled onto the RCWMS website and discovered “Finding Your Medium.” What drew me was the first line of the course description, “I can’t draw a straight line.”

I am an introvert and have always felt intimidated making art in front of other people so it was a HUGE leap of faith to sign up to spend an entire weekend with a group of strangers at a beach house making art together! I had to talk myself into going several times before the weekend started. I told myself I was going to give up painting if I came home feeling discouraged.

What happened was the opposite! What I experienced was a group of kind women who were supportive and non-critical, and in this environment I discovered that art is fun, joyful, and a gift that all of us possess, including me. I gradually began to relax, and as I got lost in the various art mediums, I discovered that my young artist inside has lots to say and express. I am very excited to continue painting and to allow my artist soul to flourish.

Sue Sneddon is so much more than an extremely gifted and accomplished artist. It is who Sue is as a person–her warmth, her “realness,” her gentle encouraging spirit, and her unique ability to draw out the “vulnerable child artist” in each of us–that makes her a really great teacher.

At RCWMS, we so are grateful to work with talented artists and teachers like Sue Sneddon, and open-hearted women who are willing to risk, explore, and grow. We hope you will join us for a workshop or program soon!

Rebecca Welper has an MFA in Playwriting and has taught writing workshops at RCWMS


2015 RCWMS Essay Contest Winners

We are pleased to announce the winners of the 2015 RCWMS Essay Contest, “Embodying Faith.” First place goes to Rebecca Lanning of Durham, NC, for her essay, “How to Pet a Porcupine.” Second place goes to Sarah Woodford of New Haven, CT, and third place goes to Lauren Kilbourn of Chapel Hill, NC. An honorable mention goes to Lucille Gaither of Cheverly, MD. Click here to subscribe to our print newsletter, South of the Garden, and read the winning essay in our March issue.

Many thanks to this year’s judges: Marcy Litle, Jocelyn Streid, and Rebecca Welper. The judges report that they were touched by the thoughtful honesty and inspired by the great variety of this year’s submissions. Here is a behind-the-scenes-look from one of the judges, who reflected on what it was like to be on this side of the submissions process.

I thought it would be pretty easy to sit down, read through the submitted essays, and come up with my favorites to compare with the other judges. But as I read through each essay, I was struck by the beauty of the lives being shared with me. It felt like each essay was a gift from these women’s souls, with all the prickly parts, the aches, the longings, and sweetness. I started to wonder what it meant to pick winning essays. It felt like I was being asked to assign more worth not only to the pieces themselves, but to the lives and women behind the words. That didn’t feel right.

I realized this perspective came in part from having been hurt in the past when putting forth my own work. But while reading the essays submitted to the RCWMS contest, I was filled with gratitude to be let in on a small slice of these lives. I felt inspired reading each essay, no matter which ones we ultimately deemed most fitting for this year’s theme. As I found myself hoping that each one of these women would keep writing and sharing their important truths, I was reminded that we never know how we will touch others, but when we share authentically, we do. Thank you to everyone who submitted an essay for this reminder. I’m hoping you and many others keep sharing.

Befriending Death

What would it look like to befriend death?

That was the question presented to a circle of women on at the first session of a series of workshops sponsored by RCWMS on January 18th. Titled “Befriending Death,” the series seeks to explore how we may spiritually, mentally, and emotionally grapple with the realities of death – our own, and others’.

Led by Anita McLeod, Betsy Barton, Stacy Grove, and Jocelyn Streid, the group met in the warm and sunny living room of a private home in Durham. This past Sunday, twenty women gathered together over tea and treats. The workshop opened with the lighting of a candle and a reminder that when women circle around a fire, they participate in a centuries-long tradition of wisdom-gathering. At the beginning Stacy Grove centered the group with a simple flute melody, and Anita McLeod asked participants to honor the community they formed—by maintaining confidentiality and withholding advice and judgment, each member would contribute to the creation of a safe space.

Over the next three hours, participants shared their own experiences of illness and mourning, fear and acceptance. The afternoon included poetry-reading, silent meditation, journaling, and conversation. In small groups and as a whole, the women discussed how previous encounters with loss shaped their perception of death and how they hoped the workshop might allow them to reimagine their relationship to this final transition. Several spoke of how personifying death as a female figure offers a new way of thinking, and explored the use of the term “Sister Death.”

As one leader explained, “You can’t befriend what you can’t imagine.” As such, the group engaged in an activity that had originally been conceived by RCWMS board member Jehanne Gheith for a class she taught at Duke University. Participants took a few minutes to sketch their ideal death, thinking about where they would be, who would be there, and how they might feel. The session ended with a communal reflection on the truths, questions, and challenges the women had encountered during the afternoon.

Participants lingered after the closing of the workshop, chatting with old friends and exchanging contact information with new ones. They will convene again in a few weeks to continue the conversation. Good things take time, it seems; befriending death isn’t just about facing it—it’s also about learning how to be in relationship with it.

Jocelyn Streid is a graduate of Duke University and an intern at RCWMS.

Epiphany Labyrinth Walk, January 6, 2015

IMG_20131003_155551In the Christian tradition, Epiphany is the celebration of the visit of the three wise people to the baby Jesus.  Epiphany comes from ancient Greek meaning “manifestation” or “striking appearance.”  We use the work in English to denote a striking revelation.

We invite you to walk a labyrinth this year on Epiphany and to let the experience reveal to you whatever it might.  You may want to carry a question with you on the walk or simply be open to whatever appears to you.

We have checked with a few of our favorite labyrinth locations and have listed them below. You may find others through your own networks or at: http://labyrinthlocator.com/

January 2-8, 2014, 8:00 am-10:00 pm
St. James Room, Trinity Center, 618 Salter Path Rd.,
Pine Knoll Shores, NC 28575
Canvas Eight-Circuit Renewal Labyrinth created for an Eagle Scout
Project by Ben Brake and gifted to Trinity Center in 2010.
Contact: 888-874-6287

January 5-6, 2015, Thursday, 6:00-9:00 pm
and Friday 9:00 am-4:00 pm
First United Methodist Church Cary, 117 S. Academy St.,
Cary, NC 27511
This is a modified medieval 7-circuit 24′ Octagonal Canvass labyrinth. Enter the church thru the West Templeton building entrance (educational building) and take the stairs to Room 200 on the second floor.
Contact: Rev. Judy Stephens, Judys514@nc.rr.com, 919-815-8836

January 6, 2015, open all day
Millbrook Baptist Church, 1519 Millbrook Rd., Raleigh
Outdoor 11-circuit Chartres labyrinth. This lovely outdoor labyrinth will be available all day for individuals to walk. Inspirational materials will be available.
Contact: Carolyn McClendon, 919-247-4240, office@millbrookbaptistchurch.org (Groups may use this contact to arrange a designated time.)

January 6, 2015, 12:00 noon-8:00 pm
St. Francis United Methodist Church, 2965 Kildaire Farm Road,
Cary, NC 27518
Outdoor labyrinth will available for walking during daylight hours.
Contact: Joan Purcell, joanpurcell4@gmail.com