Dear Netroots Nation

Karen Gaffney, who led a training at Netroots Nation this week in St. Louis – an #NN16 Voter’s Pick – has been teaching and training about race, including whiteness, for years. She’s been an English professor at Raritan Valley Community College in NJ since 2003, where she designed an introductory course on race. She works on racial justice with The Meta Theatre Company at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, the Hunterdon County Anti-Racism Coalition, and through her blog “Divided No Longer.” Cross-posted from medium. Promoted by Rosi. 

Thank you for taking some important steps towards racial justice by responding seriously to last year’s Black Lives Matter protest, but this can only be the beginning. Please don’t get complacent. As a white person who just ran the training on “Moving Beyond White Guilt: How to Talk to Whites About Systemic Racism,” I know we only began to scratch the surface. Here are a few suggestions to help make sure Netroots in St. Louis is not a token and that Netroots in Atlanta sustains and builds on this year’s emphasis on racial justice:

Listen and follow through on the recommendations by This Week in Blackness (TWIB). During one of the TWIB broadcasts, Elon James White suggested that since the Executive Director of Netroots is stepping down, this is an opportunity to be intentional in committing to racial justice by hiring a woman of color as the new Executive Director. Hiring an LGBT black, Latina, Asian, and/or indigenous woman would be a step toward centering marginalized voices. I started listening to TWIB two years ago, and if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have known about the racist hostility against Black Lives Matter protestors last year by some conference attendees and complicit silence by others. TWIB’s analysis and insistence that white people talk to other white people about racism prompted me to propose my training this year on this issue, and more than 90 people attended. But again, that was just the beginning, and we need to keep listening and following through on the powerful racial justice critiques shared by TWIB, including their specific recommendations for Netroots Nation.

Think more carefully about how simultaneous breakout sessions are planned in the context of justice. The first block of breakouts had concurrent sessions on Wise Latinxs, #BlackWomenLead, and conquering Islamophobia. While all of these voices need to be central at this conference, why were they competing against each other for the predominantly white attendees? Doesn’t that inadvertently reinforce the way these groups are often pitted against each other by our dominant culture? Why have the audience reproduce that division by making such choices? Perhaps rethink the structure of panels vs. trainings, and reorganize tracks to focus on topics (or eliminate tracks entirely).

Revitalize the DFA Scholars program (or create something similar) for Atlanta, but focus it on young activists from marginalized communities. Designate some spots for young Atlanta activists, and other spots for young activists from around the country. When I was at Netroots 2 years ago as a DFA scholar, being part of a cohort like that provided a fantastic network that I still have. Young activists in particular don’t often have the financial resources to travel and pay for expensive conferences, and they’re our future, so we need to invest in them and support them. Perhaps organizations and groups supporting Black Lives Matter, GLBT youth, and more could nominate young activists for such scholarships.

Work more intentionally to support local activists. In St. Louis, there were actions organized by the local group Hands Up United that overlapped with the Netroots conference. When Netroots participants joined them, were we really helping them or just helping ourselves feel better? Was our participation in these actions just a photo op for us, as one speaker asked? That concern made me wonder: How do we distinguish between genuine support and some form of “activist tourism”? How much advance work had been done to find out whether this group really wanted an influx of predominantly white activists not from the area to join their marches? Is there something else we could have done to support them that would have been more welcome and effective? Please think about this for Atlanta.

Embed accountability into the conference.
While the conference is great for old friends to catch up, there are many missed opportunities. It’s too easy for white activists to come to Netroots, attend a few sessions that may challenge them, and then return home without sustaining that challenged mindset. How can Netroots help participants establish accountability partnerships or groups, whether they are based on geography, profession, specific goal, or something else? Participants can then leave the conference knowing they need to be held accountable to other participants either in person, over the phone, or online.

Provide opportunities and support for white people to push themselves to talk to other white people about racism. It’s not comfortable, and it’s not easy, but it needs to be done. And when I say talk, I mean really talk, ideally in person. Anyone can respond to a meme online, but that’s unlikely to make a sustained difference. Instead, I urge white people to take the time to speak with family, friends, and neighbors about racism and white supremacy. As I explained in my training session, I find that white people are not taught to see what I call the “Racism Machine.” There are several obstacles that block their view, including myths that racism is over and that race is biological. I shared a few strategies in the training for beginning to chip away at these obstacles to help white people begin to see the danger, enormity, and complexity of the “Racism Machine.” My blog, Divided No Longer, at includes many interdisciplinary sources of various types to help support this work, and I’m developing this further in my book in progress, “Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox.”

I’d like to conclude by acknowledging the impressive work of the many organizations featured at Netroots Nation, including: This Week in Blackness, Higher Heights, Democracy in Color, NetChange, Not 1 More, BiNet USA, GetEQUAL, Black Excellence Tour, Color of Change, SURJ, New American Leaders, 18 million rising, Green for All, Environmental Action, Center for Media Justice, MPower Change, United We Dream, Repro Action, Rewire, Sister Song, Trust Black Women, California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, Freedom University, Hands Up United, Love Not Blood, and Good Jobs Nation. Also, thank you to elected officials fighting for justice: Maria Chappelle-Nadal, Keith Ellison, and Jan Schakowsky.

Thank you,
Karen Gaffney

Follow Karen on Twitter: @dividednolonger
Photo credit: Deciminyan

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