SURJ Launch Report

Updated on 12/23/2015

Setting the scene

On Thursday evening, December 10, 2015, over 300 people filled The Vault in Durham to launch the Triangle chapter of Showing Up For Racial Justice. The energy in the room was charged and thrilling and electric, as people flooded through the door to fill the space with our bodies, our voices, our vim, our vigor, our laughter, our chatter, and our desire for racial justice. Music maestro Jonathan offered a playlist of the music of Nina Simone, Charlie Mingus, John Coltrane, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Mos Def and more to background the hugs, hellos, smiles, and curiosity of people gathering and milling and getting ready for the evening. Radiant Rachel got us signed up and name tagged and steered to tables of deliciosity provided by legions of valiant volunteers each bringing an offering to literally and metaphorically feed the crowd. Anticipation kept rising until finally, at 6:30, Noah and Genna, our excellent emcees for the evening, encouraged the room to quiet.

And the evening starts

Noah and Genna invited four people from the crowd to start the evening with a recitation of quotes to ground us in our purpose.

White supremacy is an overwhelming crisis for humanity, one that is making it impossible for any and the species. It has not, and will not, be resolved merely by Black and other non-white people fighting for a change – it must be unlearned, relinquished by those who walk with the privileges of whiteness.”

— Adrienne Maree Brown


“The fact is this: white folks are going to have to deal with the real problem of racial injustice in this country, not black people, white people. That means you. You have to have community meetings. You have to have the speak-outs, teach-ins, and tough heart to heart conversations with your fellow compatriots about the importance of valuing black lives. You have to engender the empathy and will to tear down the house you built. Otherwise, the blood is on your hands.”

— Jared Loggins

“First and foremost, as we move into organizing work in white communities, I think we need to remember who we are and what we are about. Virtually all of us came out of the Black freedom movement—that is, our lives have been shaped to a large degree by this movement. We are what we are today because we became convinced that we can never have a good society in this country (or in the world) unless white people overcome their inherent racism, and build a unity of black and white to work toward mutually important goals. In other words, our work in the white community is in large part a search for a situation in which there can be a meaningful black-white alliance.”

— Anne Braden

“We need you defecting from White supremacy and changing the narrative of White supremacy by breaking White silence.”

—  Alicia Garza,
co-founder Black Lives Matter and Special Projects Director at the National Domestic Worker Alliance

Noah then acknowledged the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, whose land we are on and offered the names of other Nations whose homelands are in what is known as North Carolina. This is about honoring, survival, decolonizing, and solidarity.

We were next invited to reflect on  who made it possible for us to be  here this night, and Noah lit a candle, in the Jewish tradition of the yahrzeit candle (or candle of remembrance), for those lost in struggle or who are no longer with us. We were invited to speak the names of those on our hearts and minds, which we did all together in a muted chorus of celebration and grief.

Setting the SURJ stage

Then Noah and Genna grounded us in what we need to understand about the purpose of this SURJ chapter, including:

  • SURJ wants lots of white people to come to the work, because as white people we have a responsibility to join the struggle, bring in more white people, and move into smart, strategic, powerful action with People of Color.
  • SURJ is not a caucus space – we are one of many parts of multiracial movements for liberation; anyone who supports SURJ’s values and goals is welcome.
  • We don’t have all the answers; in fact we have more questions than answers. Some of these questions include: What does accountability to Leaders of Color look like in a real way? What are the gaps that white people can and should be filling in terms of organizing against white supremacy? How does a SURJ chapter fit into local organizing efforts? How do we make sure we are supporting rather than diverting resources from People of Color-led organizing? What does it really take to take down the Right and white supremacy?
  • We are living in the contradiction that we are both thrilled to launch this chapter and we are not actually ready to launch. On the one hand, we must act while being accountable with a spirit of abundance and on the other hand we need to move at a pace that allows us to engage with the questions above.
  • SURJ is not designed as a home for white people to rest. It is a space to move deeper into action for racial justice.

Celebrating the hard work that got us here

We then celebrated all the people who made the evening possible. Yay to the Vault (the people who run the space), Vivette Jeffries-Logan for teaching us about the Indigenous peoples who were and are here, the launch team, the food providers, the note takers, and all who have been working to bring this evening and this chapter into being.

Sharing story

Then the amazing Aiden shared his story of how he got involved in the SURJ chapter and launch, placing himself and all of us in the larger context of the Black Lives Matter movement and the fight against the rise of the right.

The solicitous Sarah then led us in a story sharing activity, where she encouraged us to find another person we didn’t know and take 3 minutes each to answer the question: what brought you here tonight? We set about finding each other, standing in pairs, sitting knee to knee in chairs, or on the floor, and filled the room with the loud and satisfying buzz of story sharing. Because we were 300 strong – too big a group to ask to share out – Sarah offered to share out some of the reasons we might be in the room and encouraged us to snap fingers to indicate agreement.

As she read these statements and others, the space filled with clicks and claps indicating our mutual interest for gathering together for racial justice: I’m here because I’m inspired by the #BlackLivesMatter movement, I’m here because I’m disturbed by the neo-confederate movement, I’m here because of the racialized nature of mass incarceration, I’m here because I’m concerned about the impact of racist policies and rhetoric on poor and working class white people, I’m here because I believe in immigrant justice and that all religions and all refugees should be welcomed in the US/NC, I’m here because my liberation and humanity is inextricably bound to others (among others)….

Then Sarah invited those in the room who have been working for racial justice for 50 years or more to stand and one beautiful and resilient woman stood and we all clapped and hollered our appreciation. Then those of us working for 40 years or more stood, then 30 years or more, and on it went until we were clapping and hollering for those showing up for racial justice for the very first time on this night. We could feel the roof raising and the four walls bulging with the joyousness of our collective history and possibility. One kind of glorious.

A quick history of SURJ

The scintillating Sam then offered a primer on the what and how of SURJ, explaining:

  • SURJ is a national network of over 100 chapters and affiliate groups, working in alliance and solidarity with People of Color-led and multi-racial groups and communities focused on social justice to organize other white people to join racial justice movements across the country.
  • SURJ started when Pam McMichael at the Highlander Center, along with Carla Wallace at Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, and a few others, answered a call from People of Color in 2009 (in the wake of backlash arising from Obama’s election) who said “we need white people in this moment to be organizing other white people to visibly oppose the rise of the neo confederacy.”
  • SURJ started as a network with 13 people from around the country. Using conference calls, the group worked on developing resources about how to talk to white people, to churches, to rural communities and developed a series of action kits (see SURJ website to access these resources).
  • Then a year ago, after the killing of Michael Brown, SURJ held a call to address what white people could and can do to support the Black Lives Matter movement; over 1,000 people registered for the call.
  • Now SURJ is a national network running to catch up and experiment with how to support local groups on the ground. This includes supporting people in campaigns to go door to door, to putting Black Lives Matter signs in yards, to working with faith leaders, working class, queer, trans, and rural groups to figure out how we talk to people and encourage them to take action, disrupt the rise of the right, and show we are making a new way.
  • To find out more, check out the website at:

SURJ values

At this point, tenacious Tema introduced the values by inviting us to reject any white supremacy pressure to be cool and instead sing together, off key and loud. Sarah and her beautiful voice returned to lead us in a chorus of “You are my sunshine,” which we then followed with three rounds of “Call in, call in, take risks, take risks, enough for all of us, mutual interest, accountability, accountability” sung to the sunshine tune. The enthusiastic voices of 300 filling the room was, in a word, fantastic!

Tema then explained each value briefly and invited one completely phenomenal person after another up to give an example for each value; many thanks to Patty, Russell, Robin, Jenn, and Bridgette. Together they explained the values this way:

  • Calling in: we want to bring as many white people into taking action as we can while building a culture of love and accountability (rather than one of shame and blame).
  • Taking risks: we have to take risks in solidarity with the risks that POC take every day living their lives with full dignity; the only real mistake is to avoid learning from our mistakes; and as Maurice Mitchell, #BlackLivesMatter leader, says so eloquently, “your individual anxiety about possibly getting things wrong has nothing to do with my liberation.”
  • Accountability: we think of accountability as working in collective action and relationship with People and Communities of Color, each other, and SURJ values while remembering that People of Color have been calling on us to organize our people for many years!
  • Mutual interest: we need to understand that our freedom is bound up in the freedom of People of Color and that means showing up again and again for racial justice.
  • Enough: there is enough to go around, the problem is how resources are distributed in ways that cause us to fight among ourselves rather than for and with each other. We must make sure that we are raising and and creating and redirecting resources to Communities of Color as we resource ourselves.

We then sang three more verses of “Call in, call in.” (Note: We discovered later that the song “You are my sunshine” was written by a segregationist Louisiana governor, so we will be shifting to another tune in the future – Amazing Grace, anyone?)

Interim Leadership

Next, the dynamic duo of Beth and David introduced the interim leadership team and explained the role they will be playing in the coming months. Interim leadership team members are: Beth Bruch, Kristen Cox, Robin Criffield, Jonathan Henderson, David Neal, and Noah Rubin-Blose. Yay team!!

David opened by explaining how there is no “I” in interim … knowing full well that of course there are two … his tongue in cheek way of emphasizing the “interim” in this leadership team.

He noted that the team’s charge is:

  1. Maintaining momentum
  2. Keeping an eye out for the functioning of the chapter – primarily by keeping lines of communication open
  3. Holding space for deepening our collective vision

And its primary responsibilities are to:

  1. Create a framework for accountability for the chapter (both accountability to POC-led organizations and struggles and accountability to SURJ values)
  2. Form a longer-term leadership team and chapter structure – with input from the collective
  3. Figure out fundraising – with the SURJ value of matching donations to POC lead organizations
  4. Troubleshoot

David also made a point of saying that the interim leadership team recognizes the incredible talent present in the room. The plan is to draw on this bounty of brilliance to accomplish the goals listed above. He finished by noting that the team will be holding the tension of creating structure without getting bogged down in process.

The team also described a couple of ways they see accountability playing out. These include:

  • Following the National SURJ model where a cohort of Leaders and Organizers of Color along with white leaders and organizers provide formalized guidance among all who share SURJ values
  • Putting together a list of local POC-led organizations committed to social justice (the list includes 45 so far; see the Triangle SURJ website) to help us understand who and how to be accountable in terms of action and resourcing
  • Continuing to build the list so we know who we need to talk to and work with. An invitation was offered for people to add to that list (taped up on the wall)

Program Team

Naming the artificial barrier between program and action, the charismatic Kristen named some opportunities for people to plug into program team work. These include:

  • Attending dismantling racism trainings, both phase 1 and 2; these are sponsored regularly in the Triangle by Organizing Against Racism and Dismantling Racism Works
  • Help with plans to pull together an organizing training
  • Join in on the next Durham Reads book club series hosted by SpiritHouse (who was in the house and said more about this later)
  • Hosting a living room conversation series: these can cover a wide range of topics including how to call in our friends and families to racial justice work, anti-racist parenting, countering Islamophobia, and more
  • Coming to a planning team gathering on January 14 from 6-9 at the Temple Building in downtown Durham

Kristen then invited us to fill out the interest/information cards prepared ahead of time to collect people’s names, contact info, and interests.

Action Team

Fantastic Fern suggested that the very first action any and all of us could take is to reach out to a friend, neighbor, family member and tell them about this night and then bring them to the next event. Fern then explained that the action team is still in progress, holding accountability conversations that will guide where we go next, noting the importance of continuing to talk and build trust with Communities of Color that in its turn builds the foundation to take action.

Some actions that the team envisions (based on what other chapters have done and are doing) include:

  • Forming a rapid response group ready for local and national calls to action
  • Figuring out how to send information to the larger group when we need to organize a large number of people
  • Developing issues-based campaign work, including, for example, responding to the rise of the right, gentrification, and more

Questions and Answers

The emcee pair of Noah and Genna shared with the crowd that given the size of the crowd and the time and limited energy after a couple of hours of meeting, they did want to at least document the questions people were holding. Ten or so people called out their questions:

  • How will you be able to connect us when organizations ask us to show up?
  • How are we reaching out to the Moral Monday movement, especially in churches, synagogues, and mosques?
  • What are some strategies for calling people in?
  • How can we help make sure that Black and other POC voices are heard when choosing a new police chief in Durham?
  • Is this a Durham group or a Triangle group?
  • How do we give credit to those who have been doing the work for a long time without become self-congratulatory?
  • How do we go deep with a group this big?
  • How do we create a space that grows the leadership of working class and poor white people?
  • How do we track legislation that promotes racial justice?
  • How do we partner with local university groups?
  • How do we have influence when our cities and counties choose new police, sheriffs, judges, school boards, etc.?
  • How do we elevate youth voices?

These questions (and more) will be raised, considered, and worked through as we pull together strong program and action teams, as the interim leadership team clarifies next steps, and as we begin to figure out how we are all going to work together.

This calling in of questions was a great strategy for both offering space for people to raise what was on their hearts and minds while acknowledging the limitations of what we could actually pull off by this point in the evening. Bravo for the questions and bravo for the strategy!!

Calling In and More Questions

As volunteers passed out big yellow sticky notes, the beauteous Beth extended an invitation for people to write their thoughts about:

  • What are you most fired up to work on? OR
  • What you are concerned about? OR
  • Questions?

These were collected and a group of quick-thinking volunteers put them in categories up on one wall as the fab Nikki Brown from SpiritHouse came up to announce their next Durham Reads book choice, Collective Courage by Jessica Gordon. This third in the Durham Reads series will kick off in February 2016 and Nikki shared that the hope is book clubs will speak to the question:

  • What does it look like to work together so there is enough for all of us?

She also shared that SpiritHouse will be selling books on a sliding scale, so if we’re sponsoring a book club, we can come to them for books as needed.

Money, honey

David returned to talk about how fundraising is always part of our work. He reminded us that many white led efforts are well resourced while too many People of Color-led efforts are under resourced. Rather than pass the hat, he asked us to make a contribution directly to one of the 45+ People of Color led organizations listed on the wall (and on the website). He instructed us that when we give, we should “feel” the donation, meaning it should be big enough that we have to take notice. We are reminding people to do this with links to the different organizations in our follow-up communication and on the website.

Final Report Out

Beth returned to report out themes on the yellow sticky notes, which included (among a much longer list): how to be an ally to Black Lives Matter, mass incarceration, school to prison pipeline, how to organize other white people, immigrant rights, destruction of public education, rise of the right, police violence, and how to create a vibrant chapter that will have lasting impact for decades. These themes are being gathered and will be reported out on the website once we have a complete list.

Appreciation and Closing

Noah and Genna offered appreciation for our evening together and then Patty led us all in a rousing and foot stomping rendition of I’ve Got The Light of Freedom.

I’ve got the light of freedom
Deep down in my heart.
And it’s deep, deep,
And it’s down, down,
Deep, down in my heart.

Hear Charlie King and Karen Brandow’s version of this song »

As people left the room and the evening, a couple of volunteers stood at the door to make sure we collected the information sheets that we asked people to fill out earlier.

So much fun to share this incredible evening with you. Thank you for your presence. What will we do together to change our legacy of violence?

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