by FW Sean

Over the weekend of October 21, Bremerton IWWs attended an anti-racist getaway hosted by the People’s Institute Northwest in Tukwila. The three day program focused on cultural competence to educate organizers on fully utilizing our organizing potential through diversity.

What this meant was that I got to spend a transformative weekend in Tukwila listening to BIPOC folks agitate about racism. It was lovely and it changed me. I recently caught up with one of the organizers I met at the training and we’re both looking forward to the next training because we both have now come to realize the healing that can occur when we gather in groups to talk about racist trauma. We want to do that more together.

I recommend the PINW anti-racist training because it’s an opportunity to build solidarity with minorities which is the best way to combat racism. I enjoyed sitting and listening to African Americans share their pain and they had a lot to share. The training has a lot in common with the IWW because it embraces fellow workers as free-thinking agents uniquely shaped by their experiences in the status quo, which aligns with the IWW’s practices of creating a culture of care, education, and listening. Take the training if you want to build some solidarity with people from different cultures.

I also learned about a different approach to solidarity with BIPOC fellow workers: cultural competence. The central idea of the cultural competence training is that culture is shaped by a multi-generational response to the basic human need to survive and thrive on a planet with limited and varying material conditions and that political movements are best when they are diverse. A lot of our discussions focused on cultural competence, which is the just notion that we should respect and embrace different cultures to build our movements.

We had extensive discussions on cultural competence in the education system. One of the sessions lasted about three hours and involved us all sitting in a circle sharing pain from the education system, or what it is like being a black student in America. What I got from it was this: the US education system is biased towards white people and western ways of knowing and thinking. This can cause students from African cultures centered in ways of knowing and learning, to “earn” lower grades and be sent to “special needs” classes.

I chatted with a fellow worker in the Black Prisoner Caucus who mentioned feeling inferior at school and being held back for poor grades because his way of knowing and learning was different from the European one being imposed on him. As it was explained, he was a holistic thinker forced to adapt to white linear thinking, and therefore the system labeled him as a “failure.” This feeling of being a “failure” caused emotional issues that also landed this fellow worker in prison. Other fellow workers from African cultures expressed similar feelings, shared stories of being held back in school, and other day-to-day interactions where they felt lesser because they didn’t fit into the status quo of the US education system.

But a weekend retreat with the PINW helped him understand his emotions in the context of a racist system so that he could heal and find community. The slogan often repeated was ”I am, because we are.” An acknowledgement that we are one. In many ways our country is oppressive and difficult for us to live in as workers. While this fellow worker was in prison I was being exploited in the workplace. Our traumas and oppressions are different, but we’re both workers unhappy with how we’ve been abused.

The weekend caused me to critically examine myself and our union. A culturally competent union embraces workers from all cultures in part by recruiting regardless of culture. Our safer spaces policy is a good example of cultural competence that I regularly share with left groups. However, an area of concern for me is our lack of non-English speaking Wobs and our organizational lack of recruiting materials in non-english languages.

During the Lawrence strike, sixteen different languages were spoken by IWWs. An assessment of today’s IWW shows that we are not ready to undertake a similar effort. For instance, how would a fellow worker speaking only Tagalog join the Seattle IWW branch today? In my opinion this is a sign of organizational incompetence. We should set a goal to remedy this weakness by making our One Big Union, our core principles and values, available in every language spoken across the six industrial departments just to show all of our fellow workers that they are welcome in our One Big Union. If we are the Industrial Workers of the World, we must work toward offering our core materials in all languages spoken in US industries.

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