Confronting Racism in Mennonite Central Committee

Friends,

At the urging of others, I am making my first YAR appearance.

I am part of a group of constituents pushing MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) to address patterns of institutional racism.  Members of the group include Tim Barr, Calenthia Dowdy, Brenda Zook Friesen, Karissa Ortman Loewen, Conrad Moore, Yvonne Platts, Tobin Miller Shearer, Regina Shands Stoltzfus. We are especially concerned about how MCC relates to staff.  There has been a decades-long pattern of staff of color leaving MCC on bad terms, a pattern which has intensified in the last few years.  Many people in this group have been in conversation with leaders in MCC about this issue for decades, and they feel that it is time to take a new approach.

At this time, we are calling for people to sign our letter to MCC leaders and to withhold half of their normal contributions to MCC until MCC makes significant steps toward real change in addressing internal racism.  (see our blog & petition).

Here are three steps that we believe would move MCC forward in its journey toward inter-cultural health:

1)    MCC follows through on its current intention to undergo an independent anti-racism audit of both existing and proposed structures of the entire institution;

It is hard for any institution (or individual) to see themselves clearly.  People within the organization are sometimes not in a position to be fully honest about their experiences as it affects their work environment and could even feel threatening to their position.

2)    the executive committees of MCC U.S., Bi-national, and Canada [make] themselves structurally accountable for their anti-racist actions to independent groups of people of color who are knowledgeable about MCC in North America and able to identify and articulate institutional racism;

Some MCC boards and executive committees have more racial diversity than others, but there is no mechanism in place to ensure accountability.  A couple years ago the MCC Bi-national board nominated an all-white executive committee, and chose to move ahead with the nominations despite concerns expressed by many.

3)    the internal MCC anti-racism teams [be] given time, financial resources, and demonstrable authority to carry out their respective missions.

So who am I and how did I get involved in this?  I myself am a white woman who was raised in Mennonite churches in Seattle and Akron, Pennsylvania.  I am 29 years old and currently live in Elkhart, Indiana.  I was a volunteer with MCC at the Oglala Lakota Nation (Porcupine, SD) for four years (2004-2007).

As white people working in a Native community, my partner and I learned some lessons the hard way about patterns of racism within MCC and within ourselves that are hurtful toward MCC staff of color.  I will name here just a few that I have experienced myself.

There is racism in how MCC interacts with money.  The way MCC volunteers are paid and the expectations for how MCC’s money will be spent for worker care assumes a certain set of values and spending patterns that come out of white Mennonite communities.

Related to the money issue is how relationships are prioritized. Frugality is a white Mennonite value embedded in MCC that is often held above relationships.  I have also observed certain white Mennonite work ethic that places value simply in “being busy” or “doing” something. This value is particularly hurtful when placed above relationships, included health and self-care.  This not only leads to poorly developed or damaged relationships between staff and with MCC partners, it also means that some people are punished or chastised for putting people and relationships first.  In many communities of color, people and family come before money and before “getting things done.”

In MCC, people of color are generally seen as “those being served” rather than those serving.  More resources and time go into developing and promoting programs that draw and benefit white volunteers rather than volunteers of color.  MCC is often seen as providing leadership development for the white Mennonite community.  For example, at one point we noted that MCC’s promotional materials for the Charlotte MCUSA gathering highlighted SALT, a program that draws mostly white volunteers, and did not mention MCC’s programs for youth of color to do summer service in their own communities.

A more obvious problem can be seen just by looking at the faces of those in decision-making positions.  Who has the power in MCC?

These are only a few examples.

But for me, the biggest problem in MCC is the way it manages conflict related to race.  MCC generally has a culture of conflict avoidance (documented in an MCC Human Resources Department culture report in 2005).  When I worked for MCC, my co-workers and I did what we could to talk with others in MCC about what we were learning about inter-cultural relationships, and how the institution at times was an impediment to our work in the community.  Based on my own experience, I feel that MCC leadership has not taken (repeated) feedback seriously enough.    As an MCC volunteer, I generally felt support from the regional MCC offices in South Dakota and Kansas, which are part of the MCC Central States region.  But I felt a lot of frustration relating to the broader MCC structure.

I frequently experienced this culture of conflict avoidance in MCC. Although people of color that I worked with in MCC were very clear about what the problems were and what needed to change, the patterns of conversation about racism with “higher ups” in MCC did not feel respectful or healthy (with some exceptions — I would like those to become the rule).  What do I mean by not healthy and respectful?  For me it felt like if there was a perceived conflict or disagreement, those with power (usually white men) would consistently avoid conversation or ignore the issue.  Because they were in positions to make decisions, this meant that they got their way without having open conversation. For example, sometimes staff would be asked for input on new policies or ones that were being reviewed.  Many times my co-workers and I would respond with our in-put.  More often than not, I(we) received no response, and the feedback would not be reflected in action or policy. Sometimes I would try again to follow-up and would still be ignored.  A number of times, agenda time would be promised to those of us who cared about an issue and then leaders would “forget” to include it, or it would be given inadequate time.  I don’t expect my feedback to be incorporated every time, but I do expect communication and transparency.

These experiences of the culture of conflict avoidance in MCC are part of the reason that I felt this public letter was necessary. I have signed this letter because I am hopeful that MCC might listen if some of us are willing to talk more publicly about our concerns.

I care about MCC and want to see it become a healthy inter-cultural organization.  There are many people connected with MCC who have a wealth of experience building authentic inter-cultural relationships.  I believe that MCC does have the knowledge and the capacity to learn new ways of relating and structuring itself that are more healthy and inclusive.  I want to do what I can to help MCC move in that direction.

If there are others who are concerned about this issue and would like to lend support, please contact me or visit our blog site http://mccantiracism.wordpress.com/.  You can sign the petition at http://www.petitiononline.com/mcc/petition.html.

Comments (5)

  1. Holly

    I appreciate your openness about this issue within MCC. I am part of a Mennonite church in the greater Los Angeles area. I did not grow up in the tradition, so I’m not familiar with a lot of the history or tradition. Anyway, I work for an organization that is struggling with many of the same issues you lifted up in your post. If you’d like to connect more off-line, I’d love to talk to you more about how a group of folks at my work are tackling the issues. We also engaged in a recent training around diversity. The trainer was incredibly effective and it created a greater sense of dialogue around the topic of diversity and racism. Here’s his website: http://www.diversitydtg.com/

    Many prayers as you move your way through this.

    Reply
  2. Josiah Garber

    Welcome.

    Reply
  3. TimN

    Karissa,

    Thanks very much for your thoughtful analysis of racism at work in MCC. I especially resonated with this part:

    For me it felt like if there was a perceived conflict or disagreement, those with power (usually white men) would consistently avoid conversation or ignore the issue. Because they were in positions to make decisions, this meant that they got their way without having open conversation. For example, sometimes staff would be asked for input on new policies or ones that were being reviewed. Many times my co-workers and I would respond with our in-put. More often than not, I(we) received no response, and the feedback would not be reflected in action or policy. Sometimes I would try again to follow-up and would still be ignored.

    I think this is something not just to consider as part of MCC, but something I can see in myself. It’s often easy to just back away from uncomfortable conversations about race or gender. And if I don’t choose to engage with them, I don’t have to. Even if I’m not in a decision making role, this tendency to avoid challenging conflict is problematic.

    Reply
  4. Tim B

    “And if I don’t choose to engage with them, I don’t have to. Even if I’m not in a decision making role, this tendency to avoid challenging conflict is problematic.”

    So true, Tim, so true.

    Reply
  5. Chris Richards

    I grew up attending Mountain View Mennonite Church in Upland, California.

    I think it says something about the way many older Mennonites handle conflict across the board that Upland is a community of 66,000 people and has three Mennonite Churches (Mountain View Mennonite Church and First Mennonite Church, which both have nice buildings, and Peace Mennonite Brotherhood, which has rotating meetings in members’ homes in the ‘classical Mennonite tradtion’)whose total population would equal the congregation of one of any of the other churches in the same city. Of course, originally, they were all the same church (back in my grandfather’s day) and now they are not.

    It is my experience that Mennonites of a certain generation and upbringing have only two ways of dealing with conflict: avoidance, either pretending it does not exist or simply ignoring those with whom one might come into conflict, and retreat. My mother fits this pattern, while my father (who grew up in a secular household that attended a Presbyterian Church, and who joined the Mennonite Church when he and my mother married) is much more ‘activist.’ In his own younger days he sought of those whom he felt were wrong and forced confrontations… this leading for sometime to a bit of stand-offishness between my family and others in the Church.

    Since I mentioned my mother, I will use her as an example. She is a tremendously good woman and far from racist. She is a teacher by calling as well as profession, and her longest running teaching job was for San Bernardino County teaching kids who had been expelled from school. While there were some genuine ‘bad kids’, many of them had been expelled for truly silly reasons. The majority of them were black or hispanic. My mother gave them personal attention designed to get them back into school or to allow them to graduate independently.

    We had a gentleman in our church who had a very old 19th century European attitude about anthropological ethnology. He was not a traditional ‘racist’, but he held views that could only be seen as racist and he had unfortunately allowed these views to color his reading of the Bible. As such, he had an unfortunate habit of butting heads with a member of our congregation (himself an ordained minister, which the gentleman with the racist views was not) originally from Ethiopia.

    The behavior of nearly the entire church (including my mother, who privately excoriated such views) was to ignore the conflict in the hopes it would resolve itself. It did not and, ultimately, a valuable and productive elder of the church left the congregation because he did not feel welcome. Not because he WAS unwelcome, but because the need to avoid conflict trumped the necessity of correcting the problem in the minds of many of the other elders of the church.

    It is only natural, sadly, that these tendencies would be mirrored in the larger frame of the MCC. We are a traditional, European faith and many of our members are proud of their ancestral connections to European Mennonites. This leads to a European consciousness that is fundamentally at odds with the more multicultural direction the larger church has taken in recent years.

    I realize this is an old post, but I could not withold my own two sense. I apologize that this is largely anecdotal, from my own experience, but it is not the sort of thing easily supported by links.

    Reply

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