Case study - Me and White Supremacy Reading Group

by UTS Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion
The University of Technology, Sydney, is a public research university. The University employs the equivalent of approximately 4,400 full-time staff. The University’s main campus is located in Sydney, NSW.

What was it?

Responding to concerns raised regarding systemic racism within the university, as well as the Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion’s (CSJI) role in contributing to anti-racism discourse in the broader community, the Social Impact Team (SIT) at the Centre, a team of approximately 9 members, decided we wanted to work on being actively anti-racist. The program was first conceptualised as an entry into better understanding what leads to racism, what it looks like and how to be anti-racist.

In 2020, the Social Impact Team collectively agreed to form a reading group to work through Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy. This book was originally a 28-day personal reflection challenge posted on Instagram. Saad introduces ‘The Circle Method’ early in her book, outlining a process for working through the book in a group. The team decided to cover one theme per week, reflecting individually on the content and questions outlined, then meeting weekly to discuss and share our observations, questions and understanding. This was a 6-month commitment from the whole team. Discussions within the Social Impact Team explored how we could build a shared language for speaking about and responding to racism.

Who did it?

The Social Impact Team is a small team in the Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion at UTS. The SIT Team is responsible for operationalising UTS’ Social Impact Framework, delivering co-curricular and extra-curricular programs that amplify and grow social change within UTS. These programs deliver social impact by: connecting UTS communities to external communities and services, supporting internal capacity building, supporting student leadership, and uncovering and communicating the social impact originating from the UTS’ teaching, research, and practice.

Our team had different attitudes towards and responses to the content of the book, but there was a collective agreement that the book created a framework and space that allowed for personal reflection. The meetings felt distinctly different to typical anti-racism trainings or programs. Instead, they felt much more like ‘personal work’, where a safe space was created to initiate challenging conversations about privilege, white supremacy, and systemic racism.

New members joined the SIT team over the year and accommodations were made to help them catch up, including review sessions and giving them time to read the missed chapters. New members reported that in addition to the learnings of the book itself, joining the sessions also helped them become closer to their work teams, even throughout lockdown, and understand the values developed and shared by the team. As one new member reports, ‘Since the first day I joined these sessions (just one week after starting working) I already felt it was a safe, honest and very reflective space and I felt completely free and comfortable to share stories and support others in this journey’.

What was the impact?

The Social Impact Team, including both new and former members, continue to explore and expand upon learnings from the Me and White Supremacy sessions. Members approach their work practice and their projects, through an anti-racist lens, understanding the commitment required for sincere allyship.

Members report having developed new skills in cultural competency to assist in working with Black, Indigenous and People of Colour communities (BIPOC). These have led to more authentic relationships.

Members also report having undergone deep personal reflection in understanding and navigating white supremacy and its impacts on BIPOC communities.

Further, the consistent approach to the meetings brought the team closer at a deeper level.

What happened next?

After completing Me and White Supremacy, our team has continued weekly sessions to work through various podcasts. We have worked to keep the conversation and learning going, recognising that change is an ongoing process and cannot be expected overnight.

Other groups within the Centre have developed reading groups, working through Saad’s Me and White Supremacy and taking on board the learnings from SIT.

How could others learn from our experience? Recommendations for your own group:

The Me and White Supremacy reading group involved all staff levels, including management. The Me and White Supremacy reading group created a neutral space where all staff could come together and effectively contribute as their whole self. The involvement of the manager and their ability to create a safe space was critical to this. By embracing their positional power and acknowledging their responsibility to ensure the wellbeing of their team, the manager was able to practically give space to this work. This was done through authorising the allocated time required for the reading group, and role-modelling to create a culturally safe workplace. Once the space was created, the group operated under a flat structure where responsibility was shared among the team, through a predetermined schedule of rotating host and guardian roles at each meeting. Due to Covid, the meetings were run over Zoom and the use of the raising hand function helped to ensure that each member was respected and heard.

Key lessons learned that helped the meetings run successfully:

  • Valuing lived experience: Recognising the emotional labour required for people to share their experiences, the perspectives of people with lived experience of racism were not required or expected to be shared, but highly valued when they were. This was key to keeping the conversation practical.
  • Considering timing: The weekly meetings were initially run in the morning, but they were moved to the afternoon following concerns about their high cognitive and emotional load. Being flexible and adaptable to the needs of the team was important to provide the space for the team to meaningfully participate in the meetings.
  • Facilitating debriefing: Moving to the afternoon also facilitated organic debriefing sessions between staff following the sessions at the end of the workday. Members benefited from having a trusted person with whom they could have an informal debrief.
  • Committing to learning: The questions and content in the book carry a high cognitive and emotional load. It took commitment from all members to ensure consistency, even when we were feeling less than optimal.
  • Inviting participation: It was important that participation at the meetings was voluntary, as engagement with the group and the ideas discussed required a willingness and commitment to both oneself and the wider team.
  • Creating safety: Our team was close-knit and many team members have lived experiences of racism, or experience conducting research about racism and anti-racism. As such, there was a high level of trust and prior knowledge which helped create a safe space to work through the book and have these conversations.
  • Allowing reflection: Our team had different attitudes towards and responses to the content of the book and represented diverse experiences and perspectives. Even so, at its core, there was a collective agreement that the book created a framework and space that allowed for personal reflection.

Key challenges

  • Creating culture: The team continue to weigh the benefits and challenges of mandating work of this nature. We see greater value in leadership creating culture and spaces that permit teams and individuals to explore questions around anti-racism work, rather than mandate the work.
  • Securing buy-in: The group needs a majority of people committing to the work, who set anti-racism work as the norm, which in turn creates safety to explore in sincerity.
  • Building a growth mindset: The process is not uniform. Team dynamics as well as personal experiences of the process ebb and flow each week and it takes time for a growth mindset becomes accepted. A period of defensiveness in the beginning could impair potential for growth.

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