Why "meeting people where they are" falls short every time
By: Natalie McCabe Zwerger, Suri Seymour, & Dr. Sophia Bolt
In the work of promoting equity and racial justice, a lauded guiding principle has often been to “meet people where they are.” While this approach may work to bring in people who are just beginning their own racial identity development and anti-racist journeys, this approach often falls short when “where people are” can vary drastically within a space, and within one room of people receiving the same professional development.
Paul Gorski, in writing about avoiding equity detours, speaks to the flawed approach of “meeting people where they are.” As he states:
“The hard truth is, racial equity cannot be achieved with an obsessive commitment to ‘meeting people where they are’ when ‘where they are’ is fraught with racial bias and privilege. Students, families, and educators experiencing racism cannot afford to wait for us to saunter toward a more serious racial equity vision. They cannot afford to wait, in particular, for all white educators to ease into racial equity commitments at a pace of our choosing while they suffer the consequences of our casualness.” (Gorski, 2019, p. 58)
As Gorski notions, the undercurrent in the sentiment of “meeting people where they are” is most often signaling the meeting of white folx where they are. It begs the critical question - how do equity, racial justice, and other DEI-centered professional development engagements cater to whiteness, and the comfort of white folx, particularly at the expense of safety and liberation of Black and Brown folx?
Furthermore, when those just beginning their anti-racist journeys dictate what happens in spaces meant to be used for growing capacity to foster equity and racial justice, there is only so much progress and impact that can occur. It is similar to asking folx who are ready to study calculus to sit through a class teaching basic geometry. And oftentimes, those ready for a calculus level of inquiry and reflection are BIPOC folx who live in the harms of racist and inequitable systems, policies, and actions every day - the same systems, policies, and actions often just starting to be unpacked by their basic geometry level classmates. Thus, a space steeped in good intention becomes one that further perpetuates the harms the professional learning session attempts to address.
Knowing the harm of using a “meet people where they are” as a “one size fits all” approach, the next question becomes how to mitigate this harm when conducting equity and racial justice professional development sessions with folx of varying degrees of capacity and lived experiences. At RE-Center, we ask the stakeholders of our partnerships the essential question of: How does who I am impact how I lead, teach, engage, & relate to the community I serve? Folx will have different entry points to answering this question. Some may be entering this reflection from a colorblind space, while others are entering with varying levels of awareness of how they are situated in historical and contemporary oppressions and how their ideas, relationships, and practices are informed by their positionality.
This is where the use of affinity spaces, as well as small group work, become essential to mitigating harm and avoiding the centering of whiteness. In particular, we find the practice of racial affinity spaces to be useful. As Ruth King (2018) explains in Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism from the Inside Out:
“There is no shift in consciousness around race without the grit that relating to each other makes possible. However, given the unintended harm caused from unawareness and cumulative impact when we gather across races, we need a different way, or perhaps an alternative way, to explore the ignorance and innocence of our racial conditioning and racial character with others of the same race. I recommend racial affinity groups (RAGs) as an ongoing forum for investigating and transforming our individual and collective racial conditioning.” (King, 2018, p. 143)
The RAG work that King describes is deeply personal. As she explains, RAGs provide a structure for exploring what has been forbidden, forgotten, and unhealed. In a RAG of white folx, for example, they can discover together their group identity and cultivate support in sitting with their discomfort, confusion, and numbness that can often accompany white racial awakenings. Additionally, they can discern white privilege and supremacy and their impact without the (often expected) aid or dependence on their BIPOC colleagues. Instead, white RAG participants are able to practice accountability with each other and to engage in deep, critical, and loving reflection about their whiteness and white identity. In turn, away from the white gaze, BIPOC racial affinity spaces can cultivate conditions to foster connection, exploration, critical reflection, meaningful activation of liberatory practices, and open discussions about their district, school, or organization’s progress in operationalizing its anti-racist commitments.
It is after time spent in facilitated affinity spaces that white folx, who through their vulnerability in their RAG have developed their stamina to engage in critical conversations around race, are better equipped to join their BIPOC colleagues in dialogue about what truly needs to happen to create equitable and racially just environments. As Ruth King writes:
“A RAG brings us into clear intention and is a critical step in developing, from the inside out, racial intimacy, literacy, and skillfulness. To separate into same-race groups, in this sense, is not intended to divide us but rather to leverage the fact that, in a relative reality, we are racially divided. In a RAG, we use separation to more deeply understand this conditioning. RAGs are fundamental to transforming habits of harm and to healing racism. Regardless of how you identify racially, no one is exempt from the need to intimately examine racial conditioning.” (p. 144)
In addition to the practice of RAGs, small group work can be used strategically to pair leadership with certain staff members who need to be pushed on their thinking. We have seen those in leadership positions feel challenged in calling in those whom they supervise for their problematic and harmful perspectives, practices, and actions. By way of small groups, we as facilitators can curate the conditions for leadership to use their positional power to challenge their staff members and have a dialogue around the question: How is the impact of my commitment to equity & racial justice evidenced in my work? It is important for leadership to be able to model for their staff members, especially the resistant ones, their own reflection around this question before holding staff to do the same. When it is a BIPOC leader modeling this for white staff members, we as facilitators can support them in reflection so that white staff move with acknowledgement of the inherent power dynamics in historical exclusion of social identities. BIPOC leaders enter with lived experiences that inform their positional power and the ways it can be undermined by whiteness. The modeling of critical self-reflection activates a space to acknowledge history and power at play in current efforts to be more equitable and inclusive.
Ultimately, in our facilitation practices in professional learning engagements with partners, in order to stay accountable to our values, namely advancing justice, the “meet people where they are” approach fails - it prioritizes white comfort & whiteness over actualizing equity and racial justice. As Gorski (2019) writes in thinking about work with schools and districts:
“We must prioritize equity over the comfort of equity reluctant educators. We move on racial justice first by honestly identifying and addressing all the ways racism operates in our schools, and then we bridge the equity hesitaters to our equity vision. We refuse to equivocate on racial justice. We find the will to implement, and hold one another accountable to, policy and practice changes today, rather than waiting for an elusive consensus.” (p. 58)
We do not shy away from laying bare the historical and contemporary repercussions of oppressive systems and white supremacy. We do not let folx hide behind their discomfort, AND we facilitate harm-reduction practices that allow for folx with varying capacities of critical reflection to process the material we present. With this, RE-Center uses a framework for equity and racial justice that requires bravery, invoking a variety of community agreements including: focusing on impact over intent, using “I” statements, accepting non-closure, and leaning into discomfort as an opportunity for growth, amongst others. These agreements allow us to hold ourselves and partners accountable to the furtherance of deep learning and manifesting of values.
Ultimately, for systemic change to occur, all stakeholders must build the capacity to utilize an equity lens. This lens is one through which leaders and staff are supported in critically understanding their individual and collective roles in disrupting and dismantling inequity and promoting racial justice. Through this lens, decisions and actions are made to: 1) center the organizational value of equity, 2) mitigate the influence of bias, & 3) elevate the experiences, needs, and voices of folx from historically excluded identities (McCabe Zwerger, 2022). “Meeting people where they are” in professional learning engagements will not curate the conditions to develop this lens. Instead, as Gorski writes, our approach involves working to “bridge the equity hesitaters” to an equity vision as we openly and collectively confront with our partners the ways in which they either betray or uphold the values of equity and racial justice.
Gorski, P. (2019). Avoiding Racial Equity Detours. Educational Leadership.
King, R. (2018). Mindful of race: Transforming racism from the inside out. Sounds True.
Natalie is a white Puerto Rican, cis hetero non-disabled educator, advocate, non-profit leader, & mami with significant class privilege.
Suri is is a a white, queer cis-woman who is committed to the daily practice of anti-racism. She is a mom/step-mom/foster mom and partner, and social & racial justice facilitator, coach, and strategist.
Dr. Bolt is a white, cis hetero non-disabled researcher & policy analyst.