Our guest for this podcast is Vonnetta West, a woman who’s walked in the racial reconciliation space for decades. She’s helping us uncover the foundational principles that will guide Race for Reconciliation. So far, we’ve discussed redefining reconciliation, avoiding tokenism, and ensuring equity. Today, we’ll focus on another important topic: walking in wisdom.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- How to uncover your blind spots.
- How to apply the knowledge you’re learning.
- How to discover the “ultimate goal.”
- Why the discomfort of understanding and growing is worth it.
- Why the nonviolent approach is the key to change.
Karin: Welcome back to the R4R Podcast. This is Karin Conlee, and I am the Executive Director of Race for Reconciliation. I am just so excited that you are here with us for this particular episode. I hope this isn’t the first one that you have listened to. If so, I want to encourage you to go back and listen to some of our earlier podcasts.
This is an opportunity that we have as an organization, Race for Reconciliation to provide one element of our platform that we pray will educate and elevate. That is one of our goals with Race for Reconciliation. As a part of that process, we have really reached out and built friendships and put ourselves in a position as a learner on this journey, knowing that this topic of racial reconciliation has been a topic and an area that people have walked in and worked in for decades. And we want to be good learners in that process and partner with people that can help us bring this positive unifying message to our country in a time when we desperately need it.
Vonnetta West is our guests that if you are joining us by video, you can see, if you are via podcast you need to know that I have just an incredible resource and just an incredible woman to continue our conversation with. Vonnetta, you’ve been a trooper. I roped you in to at least six podcasts, and maybe when we’re done, I’ll rope you into a few more. But thank you so much for being a part of this conversation.
Vonnetta: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.
Karin: Well for those of you who may know Dr. West she is someone who has walked in the space of racial reconciliation for decades. She has been a student and a teacher of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s work for almost 20 years now. She also worked at the King center. She has been a curriculum developer for them. She is a writer, a leadership consultant, runs the social media for the King center. So you come with having walked in this space and bring a lot of wisdom to this conversation.
We’ve been in this journey as you know, Vonnetta of looking at kind of the five majors. One of the things that we wanted to do from the very beginning was to define who we were and what we wanted to be about so that people knew and that people could come and join us as a part of that movement. You and I have already had conversations about the first three kind of majors that we have designated that Race for Reconciliation will focus on.
And as I was thinking about those, we’ve covered redefining reconciliation, we have covered tackling tokenism, and we have covered ensuring equity in our last three podcasts. Those were pretty heavy. Those were…there’s like some real work that has to be done on those topics. I’m kind of encouraged on a personal level. These last two are just as important but they take a little bit of a different turn. I think as I was looking at it and Vonnetta, I don’t know if this was your, if you see it this way or not, but I kind of look at the first three as the ‘what’ and these last two as the ‘how,’ how do we do this? And this ‘how’ we’re going to talk about today is walking in wisdom.
What I want to ask you, because when I started thinking about this particular major, I thought about a phrase that I’ve used for a long time. I don’t know where I picked it up, but the concept that we are all individually, horrible self-evaluators. Like, you know, we’re not generally as human beings able to look at ourselves and see our own blind spots. Right? We all have them. We don’t necessarily see them. So I thought about, you know, walking in wisdom. Well, most people that do have a heart for this, aren’t trying to do unwise things. They’re not walking around and saying, you know, how can I do this poorly? And yet, sometimes we might do it poorly on accident.
So when we think about this, you’ve walked in the space, what would you say wisdom looks like in this journey of reconciliation? What are some things that people need to know to say, okay, if you’re gonna be a part of the solution, here’s some things that would be walking in wisdom.
05:22 Vonnetta: Well, first I would say wisdom is basically the application of knowledge. It’s a soundness in how we do what we say we want to do. I haven’t always walked in wisdom or sought wisdom or, you know, lived with wisdom much less try to facilitate racial reconciliation with wisdom. So you’re right. It’s not something we would generally say, people are going around asking for. But for me, it’s essential particularly in this work because we can be what we call today ‘woke.’ Which means to me just having a consciousness or knowledge of issue, but not necessarily know how to eradicate, how to address those issues in wise ways so we have to ask.
And in my spiritual practices, when I don’t have wisdom I ask for it. I ask for divine wisdom. That’s for me, something that scripture tells me to do. If any man, lacks wisdom, let him ask~ James 1:5. So I think it’s something you ask for, you seek, it’s fundamental. It’s very important because now you can have knowledge of an issue, have information on a situation that involves race and racism but if we don’t have the wisdom to have the conversations in a way that are constructive in terms of building community, we want to be destructive in eradicating the systems, but constructive in building community.
That’s hard to balance. How do we destroy the systems without destroying each other? And it takes wisdom to do that. If we don’t have that, we’re just laying waste to each other. Just going into conversations or meetings and spaces where we’re saying, we want to get rid of injustice, but we eventually wound up being unjust and unkind and inhumane to each other because the wisdom isn’t there. So those are the first things I would say. That’s hard, you know, how do I destroy racism without destroying people who are in those systems and a part of them, and may be complicit in facilitating racism.
Karin: You know Veneta as I reflected on some of our earlier podcasts, I thought, you know, there are moments that as a white person, sometimes I would feel some defensiveness rise up in me or I want to point out an exception. To go well, that’s not true here. I mean, it might be true most of the time, but that’s not been true in my journey. I think just to your point of how to have conversations that are constructive, I think it’s important for people to be willing to be a little bit uncomfortable and expect that particularly as a white person to go, you know, of course it’s not going to be comfortable, but that doesn’t mean you should stop learning. That doesn’t mean you put your head in the sand.
And so, you know, in that way of wanting to be constructive in conversations but not destructive of people, maybe we can also ask the question from the flip side. Okay. Where have you seen maybe something that was intended to be well meaning in this space of racial reconciliation, but actually was pretty unwise? What would be some examples that you could point out. Just to give us again, something to hold up and to go, Oh, maybe I hadn’t thought about that. I could see how that would be unwise and I want to choose wisdom.
Vonnetta: Wow. Well, you know, wisdom is a result of the ultimate goal. In the previous podcast I think I mentioned the ultimate goal. One of the first things we have to do in order to even determine what wisdom is in these situations and conversations is to say, what is our goal? So sometimes I’ve seen people and I’ve done it myself, you know, towards the goal I said of building community, eradicating racism, actually foster some of the things that would build racism; you know contempt. What we want to do ideally, and what I even hope I’m doing in participating in these podcasts, it’s helping to lay waste to racism, to inhumanity and injustice. And in order to do that, we’re going to be pricked on the inside. Whenever there’s something in me that needs to change, then something starts to prick at that, and starts to pull it out and starts to destroy and get rid of things that I’ve been comfortable with for years and I’ve been a part of for years, Oh, it’s uncomfortable. It can make you cry. It can make you stressed out because it’s been with me, you know.
10: 18 So I’ve seen where you can have a conversation and you say the goal is to kind of eradicate racism, but you can either cater too much to someone not being uncomfortable or intentionally try to make them so uncomfortable that you don’t reach the goal either. So I’ve seen people just kind of create such a safe space, but you can’t get to the issues versus trying to find the wise way to communicate. That’s the main example I would use. That it’s that balance of how do I communicate with wisdom instead of saying, oh, I don’t want people to be uncomfortable.
Really I didn’t come into this conversation thinking I don’t want people to be uncomfortable. I just don’t have that perspective. I do come in saying, you know, God let me have wisdom and let me love people. Sometimes love exposes, you know, love covers things, but love exposes injustice. You know, love takes the top off of things that hurt people. So that’s important, but I think that’s the main example that I see time and time again. We had these safety pins one year, when we said we’re gonna use these safety pins. I saw them all over social media, where somebody started this thing where a safety pin represented this was a safe space for you to talk. You know, things like that. Things that for people who are living with injustice become just symbolism.
Sometimes in our effort to make people safe, specifically white people, we can actually cut off the work and make the conversation so palatable that they’re not effective. So getting rid of racism it’s going to hurt. I mean, for some people it’s going to hurt bad. Their parents taught them racism. So we sometimes think the things our parents taught us are good, but maybe I think I looked back over my life and said some of the things my family taught me it wasn’t so great, but that’s a hard place to get to.
Karin: I love what you’ve said. This is maybe a different way to say it, but what you said so resonates, you know, it’s, it’s not a problem to solve it’s a tension to manage. You know, you have to walk…this conversation is going to be uncomfortable. I think as people walk in that it’s important to acknowledge that and normalize it and say, if it’s not uncomfortable, then change is not happening because usually change requires us to get uncomfortable. So I love, I love that [inaudible] and I think it’s important particularly to white listeners to go, you know, because it’s uncomfortable doesn’t mean that you don’t need to just continue that walk. And I acknowledge myself, there are times that it’s uncomfortable and I don’t have answers. I do feel defensive like, well I didn’t do that. Like that wasn’t me. Am I supposed to apologize for everything that’s been…? I don’t know how to handle that, but to be able to walk in that space where to go, no but somebody has to be able to take ownership and be a part of the solution and I can do that.
Vonnetta: Yeah. It’s also important to Karin, if you come to me and many black people that I know are like this, I can’t speak for all black people. But there are a number of them who I actually know if you come and I’m living in a world where I’m seeing unarmed black men being killed, or I’m looking at inequities in education and health disparities that are rooted in racism. Folks started to talk to me about discomfort. Then I started to do an analogy and said, okay, discomfort and justice. We’re going to have to be uncomfortable for a little while to start to address this injustice because when you compare those things, wow. These spaces are not comfortable a lot of times for black people. They’re just not comfortable conversations, nor should they be.
14:32 Anytime somebody starts to tell me, they’re trying to create a real comfortable space for racism I automatically think you’re not going to get any results. You’re not going to have honest conversations, but you have to have wise facilitation though. Somebody who can say, hey, now let’s bring this in and bring this point in so that you navigate those conversations in a way that are uncomfortable, but not destructive to people’s dignity and to their humanity.
Karin: That is so good Vonnetta. That that is so important. We could just end it right here I think. That is so good.
Vonnetta: I’ve been in workshops and I’m looking at the facilitator, like, what are you doing? You’re killing people in here. The goal should be to get allies and advocates, to work with us and to say, not only am I working with you, but this is my work too. Like, ideally I want to hear a white person say, I’m not even your ally, this is like my work too. I am the person who believes that this needs to happen. We need to eradicate racism. So if my goal in a conversation is to do that and to ultimately build what Dr. King consistently called the beloved community then I have some hard conversations, but I’ll do it with wisdom.
Like I’m not trying to…what good would it be if you have a bunch of people who are just wasted, spiritually distraught to the extent that they can’t even help to eradicate racism. I don’t want that. I’ve never heard a lot of people say they want apologies from white people. We just want the recognition that racism exists, that it’s evil, that it’s problematic, that it’s still killing people, and it’s destructive. And then as we talked about in the last podcast, how do we honor people by working to end it. That honor is work at this point. And it takes wisdom for all of these pieces.
Karin: Absolutely. There has to be, as you look back over, even the decades that you’ve been involved in this space, I have to think that there is wisdom that we have already gained out there that we might not be using.
Karin: When I asked that question, what would you say, hey, here’s some wisdom out there, but maybe it’s not being practiced currently?
Vonnetta: You know, of course for me, that would go back, a lot of it to Dr. King, cause I’ve heard people say, you know, nonviolence doesn’t work. I always tell them, I don’t think you’ve actually tried [inaudible 17:16] nonviolence or nonviolence as Dr. King laid it out in his principles and steps because that is strategic. It’s not passive. It doesn’t lack courage, it’s actually very courageous. It pinpoints issues and works on those issues. It will highlight people who are a part of, or complicit in cultivating those issues and evils, but it does not try to destroy them. It will not focus on essentially getting rid of a person, but it will focus on getting rid of the systems those people facilitate.
If a person seems to be just inherently responsible for cultivating injustice and inhumanity it will look at that as an issue and say let’s address how to remove and how to say this person isn’t a leader we should have. But nonviolence is very strategic. It takes an issue, dissects it, gathers information. It says who needs to be a part of helping to eradicate this issue. It gathers information. It provides knowledge and educates. It’s a very strategic plan. I’m concerned that people have so misused and misunderstood Dr. King, that when they hear nonviolence, they hear something that they think is wimpy. It’s kind of just this turn, the other cheek philosophy when in actuality nonviolence confronts, it is noncooperation with evil. It stands in the face of injustice. That’s why Dr. King wrote one of his most prolific pieces from jail. He had been arrested for civil disobedience.
So nonviolence rings true for me because what I don’t want to do in this work is become what I’m standing against. I don’t want to and in trying to eradicate racism and injustice become unjust, I don’t want to, in order to face violence, become violent. In other words, I don’t want to destroy myself in saying that I’m trying to eradicate an injustice. That’s fundamentally important to me. So that’s why I believe nonviolence works. Like I don’t want to go to hell trying to say I’m leading humanity to heaven.
19:30 So I’m not a person who’s in that space where I’m consistently thinking about how to get back at people for something. I’m trying to think about, how do we get rid of this? It’s killing people. It’s harmful. It’s painful. It’s destructive. It is really terrible, white supremacy is. If you look at the effect that it’s had worldwide all over the world, you have to know it’s a spiritual evil and a spiritual problem, and then you can disconnect the people from it. You can say, if you’ve been influenced by this, then I think it’s something spiritual that we need to address, something mental. It’s an ideology and a mindset that has captivated people. For some people, they were born into families where they were indoctrinated to it.
So it’s a rooting out. So the wisdom to do that and the steps to do that, I believe nonviolence is that wisdom. But then there are other things, and there are other people that I pay attention to who I believe they have some of the wisdom too. That we just don’t tap into it because wisdom won’t allow you to go with your emotions and you just want to do. So wisdom is hard for us sometimes to grab, because wisdom is that thing that comes in and says, now I know you feel like saying that and you feel like doing that, but that’s not the most constructive or wise thing to do even to reach what you said is your ultimate goal.
Karin: Vonnetta I keep telling you we’re going to try, you know, they say the average podcast is like 18 minutes and people don’t want to listen. There’s just so much wisdom coming from you that I just, it’s hard for me to cut this conversation short. I really think that what you’re saying is a message that, that all of us need to hear. I really appreciate just the way that you have said that. One of the things that we talk about all the time is the phrase that approach trumps content. That, you know, how you say, something is often more important than what you say. Not that it’s not important what you’re saying, but if you come with a wrong approach to your point earlier, you can actually destroy people in the process of trying to destroy racism.
When you think about that idea of approach trumping content in this space, maybe give us your perspective. If I think about it relationally or professionally, or even spiritually, what would you say in the relational space of approach, trump’s content? You’ve talked about it a lot. Like what you just said really is, is speaking to that very issue, but what would be your wise counsel for someone in a relational context of how their approach is so important to consider not just the content?
Vonnetta: I believe approach is vital, but this is the first thing I would say, Karin. I would say we have to realize that people are people. And we all bring different things to the table. Sometimes in the face of these injustices, people are angry, they’re outraged. So what I’ve learned, how to do that, I actually five years ago started to actively practice that when I hear something to start to put in ways that I receive it. To put in some measures for me to be able to say, okay, I’m not going to be offended by that. I’m going to hear and try to understand where that person is coming from.
So in response to some present day injustices, I’ve heard people say, you know, F white people. In general, for me, I wouldn’t say that and I would not think that’s the most productive thing to say. However, I do understand somebody saying that in anger and outrage and then how they are kind of receiving and understanding and dealing with the emotions of a moment. So I think approach and content is very important, but understanding the human condition is also important. And understanding that racism has been permeating this country for hundreds of years. People sometimes don’t know the way to deal with their emotions. There are a millions of people, some of them out there who don’t want to filter, and don’t want to say things a certain way. Those folks too we have to have a way to say, I understand your anger. I’m not saying that in a condescending way, but people call me and they just started cursing and I’m a pastor. But what they know about me is I’m listening to their heart and I’m understanding, this is a frustrated, angry moment. And this person is saying to me, I’ve been dealing with this for a long time.
24:20 Now you have that then you have kind of educators and facilitators who are saying, let’s look at our approach to this. The approach is very important because the approach means, hey, I have this great content, but I also have a way that I understand I need to present it in order to maximize the results. Now, unfortunately, a lot of times when we are in these spaces, we’re not thinking about ultimate goals and results. So I participated in this podcast because I want an ultimate goal and a result and that’s to eradicate racism. So I’m not trying to destroy or alienate white people because I want white people to help eradicate racism. More than that in my soul I don’t want to corrupt my soul on the path to this.
So the approach then has to be as strategic as the content. It has to be. Even my approach to how I listen to people, how I approach, how I have conversations has to be as strategic. You can’t have great content and then come in and just spew it all over people. You have to have a way in these dialogues, these conversations in our strategic moments, even in our relationships, which I know there are ways to gently move people into that if I’m in relationship with them. Then sometimes there are moments where I may say, now that’s just ridiculous. If I have that type of relationship I’ll tell people you don’t want to say that. If you ask me some things I’ll say, don’t say that that way, because I know how things are received often.
Karin: Very good. Well Vonnetta, I am so grateful for the wisdom you’re bringing to this podcast. We hoped to be a place that provides wisdom. I think, you know what you have said I hope people will listen to a couple of times, honestly, because there’s a lot of depth to what you said and a lot…when I take what you just said outside of the conversation of racism, all of those truths make perfect sense. You know. If there’s something that’s important to you, let’s say it’s your marriage and there’s conflict in your marriage, you have to care enough to listen past the emotion, past the outbreak, past the rage to go, okay, what is really the core issue here and how do we solve that?
And I think sometimes we’ll do that for things that really matter to us, but then we get, if this is not a comfortable topic, then we start saying, well that doesn’t apply. So I think, you know, you have spoken something that’s true in every area of our lives. We have to be people who are willing to listen or have to be people who are willing to listen beyond the surface of what comes out. We have to normalize that people are emotional human beings and care enough to listen to hear the heart and then be willing to say, okay, what is my part to be a part of the solution? And now we’re taking all of that and saying, it is vitally important. If you care about humanity to apply that same conviction to the area of racial reconciliation.
Karin: So I really appreciate it. We’re gonna wrap this particular podcast upright here. But I do, I want to encourage you, there is so much meat in this that you might listen to this a second or third time to just really grasp some of the heart level comments that Vonnetta made that come from just a lifetime of experience in this. I’m so grateful for you. Vonnetta, thank you for joining us. I hope that we’ll continue along in this conversation. We will pick it up later.
Please go to www.raceforreconciliation.org where you can find resources and you can find out about events that we will have in cities across America. Our first one launching in 2021 in Memphis, Tennessee. Thank you again. We hope to see you next time.