“Knee on My Neck: Slavery’s Ghost” – Report back from participants

This past June and July, the Reparations Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of New York collaborated with Roots & Branches: Programs For Spiritual Growth and Rural & Migrant Ministry (co-sponsor) offered a five-week virtual retreat, “Knee on My Neck: Slavery’s Ghost”, in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and the subsequent protests in the U.S. and around the world.

The webinar announcement invited Dio New Yorkers to education, conversation and action: “Since the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, protests have sprung up across the country demanding real change. Is this the time for that change? Is this the moment that will lead to a lasting difference? It CAN be. Let’s not let it slip by. Embedded in the institution of slavery are principles that are the foundation of successive oppressive institutions in American culture today. The invitation called upon participants to “explore, understand, and strategize ways of transforming those corrupt principles intended to benefit a few, into life-affirming policies for the good of all.”

“Knee on Neck: Slavery’s Ghost” was created by The Reverend Masud Ibn Syedullah TSSF, Founder and Director of Roots & Branches, assisted by The Reverend Chuck Kramer, Rector of St James, Hyde Park & Member of the Reparations Committee. Beginning on Juneteenth (June 19th), the holiday marking the end of slavery, it featured five webinars, each consisting of lectures, videos, and other supportive resource materials. The sessions helped participants generate plans and strategies for their parishes, the Diocese of New York and the wider Episcopal Church to embody and bear witness to policies and actions affirming and supporting black people and all people of color. Each session featured a presentation and teaching segment, followed by small group breakout sessions so that participants could discuss their experiences with the webinar’s theme and share together how their experiences and emotions could help to overcome racial injustice and promote healing and reconciliation.

In case you missed it, all five of the webinars can be viewed here: “Knee on My Neck: Slavery’s Ghost”.

At the end of the five weeks, 81 participants shared their feedback in a follow-up survey:

  • 59% of respondents “strongly agreed” and 29%” agreed that KOMN was “highly informative”
  • 81% felt that the “presenters were very knowledgeable of the content”
  • 51% “strongly agreed” and 40% “agreed” that “the program design was well-structured”
  • 75% “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that “the length and pacing of each session was just right for this Zoom format”
  • Out of 64 responses, there were calls for more “discussion” (61%), “visual stimulation/videos” (28%), “lectures/lecturing” (25%) or other suggestions (17%)

70 participants responded to “I found the following topic(s) to be most challenging for me”:

  • Confession
  • Case study evaluation
  • Switching to RMM though related was a real disconnect for me — too long.
  • Confessing to bias and asking for forgiveness
  • identifying my own racism
  • The discussion and confessions in break-out groups during Session 4 constituted the most challenging for me. If one was to make that moment truly “meaningful,” one had to be fully willing to be honest with others and vulnerable in the “presence” of others. It brought the idea that “there is no health in us” into very high relief. I continue to feel the after-effects of that moment, uncomfortable as they were, yet I am grateful that we were given the opportunity to do that.
  • This will bear further pondering (which I will continue to do). One challenge was the break out rooms (not a topic, but even so…), and a bit more structure to those would have been helpful.
  • African American light vs dark skin tones.
  • The most challenging day by far was the day we shared our sins. However, I also found coming up with actionable plans to be challenging.
  • the entrenched nature of police brutality, the bald greed of generations of white leadership that sought to keep black citizens oppressed, incarcerated. It was hard to find the words to talk about my white privilege without sounding priviledged.
  • Talking about it freely with others who have not been through the program. I am so immersed in understanding all of this but cannot find ways to share it all .
  • They were all challenging, I think that the idea that the policing and government of this country were DESIGNED to control people based on the color of their skin completely caught me unprepared. That parents of Black and Brown boys have to live in fear and have “the talk” makes me weep. It is so important now to set the record straight and make changes.
  • Reparations
  • not the topic, but in breakouts, watching white people interrupt black people and realizing that has been me many times in the past
  • The definitions of racism, bigotry, prejudice, etc.
  • The last session — on how to come up with an action plan. I think we could have had another session just on this. The breakout was very helpful here. It would have been great to let it sink in and then come back to engage in a planning session of one concrete action that we might commit to following through on in our home parishes.
  • Details of history that I didn’t know. Challenging by hearing painful details that we all should be made aware of. Hard to hear / see but well presented.
  • Watching the history of slavery (so much I was unaware of).Determining what action steps our church will become motivated to take especially admist this pandemic.
  • History
  • Personal revelations
  • Definitions of Racism and how to use them
  • Session 2: the influences of slavery…eye opening
  • The first session (which was really excellent by the way) was the most challenging for me because I did not know where this would all end up.
  • case studies and Dr. Reed
  • I did not find any of the topics challenging.
  • Actually defining how to take action or where the action is best applied to do the most good is the hardest thing. This retreat was a little helpful, but just a toe in the water kind of help. Richard Witt’s persistence and vision are a reminder of how it can be done.
  • Sessions three and four
  • How to follow up with action: the suggestions and discussion were helpful.
  • How very entitled we are
  • Systemic racial directives in the police department.
  • none
  • how to apologize for my implicit racism
  • White privilege (’cause I’m white). Hated to think of my willful ignorance.
  • Legal redress/reparations/restorative justice.
  • The last topic – red-line districts and what we can do to mitigate the long term effects of this overt policy of the past.
  • Some inconsistencies/conflicts in strategies for change: personal transformation to social change; institutional transformation to personal transformation. There seems to be differing views about where to begin.
  • The US cultural & western world-wide racism & colonialism culture.
  • Presentations of the history. So little time! And because I didn’t know some of what was being presented in detail, I found myself Googling during class! If I had experienced this Apology retreat in person, rather than on Zoom, I would have felt lost.
  • Focusing on systemic impediments rather than personal behavior
  • This was not challenging but I liked the deep dive on the amendments to the constitution and thought Rural Migrant Ministry documentary was very powerful as it also showed deliberate perpetuation of white supremacy in this country by institutions.
  • History of policing vs protecting. YouTube lecture series.
  • Sharing of personal experiences was difficult but helpful for our group. There was a lot of honesty.
  • White fragility
  • The penal system
  • Where do we go from here
  • I would have appreciated a conversation/presentation on reparations
  • Racism and discrimination.
  • I found today’s breakdown Into small groups and the questions asked were right own. What can we do considering the problems we talked about?
  • The case studies in the last session were especially challenging for me.
  • White innocence. It is still perplexing to me (i am white). Racial issues are so obvious. I acknowledge i did not see the extent of institutional racism holding back the gains against racism on individual levels. But still, is hard to understand how white people can say they didn’t realize the racism in our society .
  • Institutional racism
  • I thought the break-out session about our own guilt and complicity in racism was the most challenging — in a good way. I thought the section that treated definitions of racism might have been a challenge for some others to whom discourse around systemic racism is new.
  • The film regarding White Fragility. The overwhelming racism and inequalities that continues to exist all these years later.
  • striking a balance between sharing personal (interior) knowledge/ignorance and discussing community (exterior) action steps
  • Expressing my own racial bias because my experience with non-white is so limited.
  • personal repentance (especially working on it in the relatively brief discussion we had), and what we will do to make a difference (always where the biggest challenges are)
  • Confession. I needed more time for thought to be able to express what I wanted to say.
  • Professor Wornie Reed’s lectures were incredibly informative.
  • Where are the resources to begin the process. People need a lot more guidance with how to hit the ground, and how to begin.
  • Understanding the specific focal points at which “structural” or “systemic” racism can be addressed.
  • our history
  • Lack of people’s knowledge about racial issues.
  • A way forward at the parish level
  • The amendments and Red Lining
  • The concept of white people as ‘accomplices’ in moving black lives matter forward since ‘accomplice’ implies criminal to me and it’s not a criminal act
  • All the topics were challenging and stimulating. They came alive not only through the lectures, but even more so through the discussions in the breakout rooms. But I must add that it would have been even more powerful if we were together.
  • Nothing was challenging
  • Emphasis on institutional racial discrimination

As for how to follow up on the experience, 92% of 81 respondents felt that “I am now inspired to do (continue) my own self-paced education on the topic” and 86% of 79 respondents said “I plan to take what I have learned and share it with members in my faith (or other) community”. A few noted additional comments: “I hope to be able to participate more intelligently in many situations. probably beginning with family, friends, colleagues. Aspects will be shared, yes. I am not presently serving a faith community, but I am on a Task Force of General Convention which could benefit from my sharing what I have learned”. “Also with family members in Texas who are no longer racist but do not yet understand the depth of systemic racism. The video links will be great to share”. “I am a retired priest but I do supply work. There are things that I have learned, or that have been refreshed in my memory that I will definitely use in sermons wherever I may be.”

60% said “I would like to see this program series offered in my church/parish” and 37% felt “maybe”.

Asked “Is there anything else you would like to share with the program organizers?”, participants provided 68 responses.

Many participants expressed their satisfaction with the program:

  • Richard’s vidéo last night was important and engaging — showing how long it took to effect change, how much perseverance. I had not realized the specific hardships of our own farm workers in that level of detail, and I’ve been giving to RMM for years!
  • Forward thinking and planning has 140+ new ambassadors. Is there a way to keep the momentum?
  • I thought the program was excellent, extremely well paced and designed.
  • Only to express my thanks for organizing this series. It was good to participate in an event which discussed and proposed solutions these issues from our faith tradition.
  • My great gratitude to all of you for an excellent program, and for welcoming some of us from Western New York to participate. My work in this offering deepened my commitment to doing this work, and inspired me to continue to educate, preach, and work toward realization of our Baptismal Covenant – particularly justice and reconciliation, among other things.
  • I learned a lot and hope to carry it foward.
  • I think the confession opportunity was very important and helps bring awareness of my own white privilege and some acknowledgement of how it has hurt those in oppressed communities. It was also healing.
  • I loved all of speakers and programs and gained a lot.
  • I thought this program was excellent. You accomplished a lot in 5 90 minute sessions. The content was well presented and the variety of mediums was great.
  • the discussion groups got richer and richer as the sessions went on. I was especially moved by the confession session, how vulnerable people allowed themselves to be.
  • The information was very helpful. But when I see how pervasive and entrenched the system is, I am trying not to be hopeless. History keeps repeating itself.
  • This was an excellent program with a good balance of materials. I would love to do it again, or if you offered a more “action planning” advanced level to people who have done this one, I would be in for that!
  • My sincere appreciation of the thoughtfully designed and well paced program. It offered a great deal of information in accessible and interesting formats (presentations by Frs. Masud and Chuck, videos, photos, etc) I think the amount of time for the break out sessions was good.& Chris did a super job. Thank you all.
  • Thank you for an extremely well planned and informative educational series on racism. It has motivated me to continue to become better informed through reading and use of some of the resources you provided.
  • Thank you.
  • I thought that Masud was amazing. I could listen to his voice all day! The entire webinar was so well done and perfectly structured. I will miss it. Would you consider doing a second part? There is so much to learn. I came away wanting more! The technology, lectures, videos and breakouts were so informative. Thank you all for making this possible. Susie McNiff
  • Many thanks for your fine work
  • I found that the interactions with other people outside my usual circle of people was very stimulating and it was reassuring to hear other Congregations are wrestling with the same issues we are.
  • This was informative and challenging, but in ways that engaged us (esp. us white folk) to enter in seriously without paralyzing or overwhelming us. I found the case studies in the final session to be especialy rich. Thank you Fr. Masud, Fr. Chuck, & RMM
  • This was incredibly timely and it spoke deeply to the conditions we find ourselves in now. I especially appreciate the urgent call to actual tangible actions that we can help organize in our own faith communities now.
  • I think the program organizers did a wonderful job of putting this retreat together. I felt that it was well researched and touched on topics that made people step out of their comfort zone.I enjoyed the 5 week series. I felt that each topic could become a 5 week or more retreat. For example, Session 1 -Political, Economics and Social Foundations of the United States of America could be a 5 week,or,more series alone. It can be called The Episcopal Diocese of New York Presents St. John’s the Divine Institute of… I liked the idea that all 3 regions were represented and participated together.
  • I am already doing lots of education on my own through reading and other initiatives such as you offered, so I don’t think “Knee” will lead to more of the same, but aspects of it added real value. The overview of history is important to hear over and over since the mythology we have been taught is so deeply embedded and needs correcting. I also found the three lectures by Dr. Wornie Reed important and am very glad to be introduced to this scholar, but I wish discussion had focused on him after we viewed the lectures.
  • It would be informative to have some kind of follow up in 4-6 months about how we were able to act on what we have learned. I would like to share that with everyone and hear back from folks too most importantly.
  • Keep up the great work; more sessions would greatly be appreciated.
  • The timing of this Retreat was perfect. given the pulse of the country, coronavirus and the upcoming election.It is important that we reach out to as many people as possible to explain why every vote counts in November. Thank you to all. It really was a great retreat.
  • Thank you Masoud–this was life-changing for me
  • Thanks for beginning my education about Racism in America.
  • My compliments to the presenters for their knowledge and witness.
  • I was very impressed with the structure of the program – it exceeded my expectations. Thank you!
  • It was well done.
  • The series was very, very good and very well presented. I learned quite a lot. Many thanks!
  • I especially appreciated the list of books and videos that was provided – for further study.
  • It was a good and enlightening program and it was wonderful to have so many parishes as participants!
  • Thank you for putting this program together.
  • Well done. And drawing the lines from slavery through reconstruction to Jim Crow laws to the present was helpful and essential
  • Thank you all for a magnificent and enlightened series. I really learned and met interesting people that I will never forget. God Bless you all.
  • Thank you
  • Thank you for providing this wonderful opportunity for learning and growth
  • I know that I — and the several others from my parish who participated in the program — are looking forward to carrying back with us what we have learned and seeing what we can implement in the parish based on this model.
  • I particularly appreciated the compassion and grace with which the sessions were led, and the avoidance of using the inflammatory language and stereotyping that often interfere with my ability to listen and learn. Working on case studies of real community conflict today brought the program to a satisfying close. Thank you so much Masud, Chuck, Richard, and Cynthia — and the team that conceived and implemented the program. Really worthwhile! Blessings and Peace to All, Susan
  • Please do this again. And again. It was really useful and important in this moment.
  • You did an excellent job. It was comprehensive and well balanced in your use of lecture, video, and discussion. It has had a powerful impact on the community. Thank you!
  • I believe that it is always a good thing when black and white folks are able to get together and say things to each other that heretofore they are only willing to share among themselves. It helps to break down barriers.
  • The last session did not really prepare me to do the real work. The case studies we rather weak. I think our time would have been better spent using the road map and explaining how we do the actual work.
  • Cynthia and Richard, thank you for inviting me to created and lead this program.

Participants also offered helpful suggestions for building on the success of the webinar series:

  • It is VERY hard to produce a zoom educational event with so many participants. I know you put much effort into it…The breakout groups each night needed more guidance and clear direction, a facilitator in each. Last night was particularly unclear. When we first got into our group, the group didn’t know which question we had. (When you posted the assignments, at that point none of us knew which group we would be in. More numbers than can Be memorized! I took a photo of the screen because I knew I’d not remember.) We didn’t have the materials to reread the situation Once we figured that out. Having the virtual grouping change each time was also a difficulty — trying to bond virtually with people we had not seen before, some of whom were not seen or named, just numbers in a little box. With the litany exercise most in the group didn’t know what to do at first, or didn’t feel comfortable revealing so much in that format. I’d done that exercise before in a workshop and found it quite powerful, with more set up and in person.
  • The pacing of some sessions was great. Other presenters were a bit meandering and some of the videos presenters felt like they were filling time and then the end of each session always seemed rushed, with not enough time for sharing. The break out sessions where people shared were very powerful but it was odd to sometimes be in the same groups and other times not be; many people discussed frustration at this. I feel there is other important history and issues that I have become aware of through other programs and resources that are crucial that were not included but this was a good compliment to the work we are each doing as individuals.
  • I think the final session was a disconnected from the rest. I get the message that when many work together good things happen, but somehow the transition to he migrant workers felt disconnected. I felt there needed to be a better wrap around that pulled it all together.
  • If you were to do this again via zoom (or a second tier, parts 6+?) it might be helpful to tap individuals in advance to “moderate” or “shepherd” the breakout groups. Most of the ones I was in were good, but the group I was in the second week had an individual who, I believe, didn’t hear the instructions and kind of took over. One individual in the first week’s group was really emotional and took most of the time, while the rest of us were a bit helpless to stop her, because she was so upset.
  • I think that the last session interfered with that a little [the ‘confession session’], by giving us scenarios of something else that would have kept us in that uncomfortable and accountable place.
  • The second session needed more visuals. The information was good but too much talking heads.
  • I think having ongoing series via zoom allows more people to participate. There was 1 additional conversation with young people on this topic. I feel that there should be more conversations with the young people,(High School, College and under 30 yrs.). For example, Case Study # 3 College Residents in Conflict with Permanent Residents of Small Rural Village I would love to hear the young people’s voice on what might be a constructive way forward. I think that this is a way to actively involve our young people in church matters in a concrete productive way. This might be a way to retain our youth in the Episcopal Church. Thank you again. A job well done. I really enjoyed the retreat. Tina M. Pinckney St. Margaret’s Longwood.
  • Unfortunately, I found the breakout groups of minimal value for the most part. The groups I was in needed a leader to help direct conversation; we also needed more concrete goals for the groups. The topics to be considered were too big, too general for this format, and it was particularly hard to be in a different group every session as there was no increase in depth of experience. I came to dread this part as the sessions went on.
  • Having a designated moderator from Roots and Branches for the chat groups would be helpful but probably not practical considering how many chat groups there were.
  • I missed where I can send a contribution for this program. 2. The history timeline material was sometimes difficult to follow. 3. This program was really well done – design and execution – and I am deeply grateful.
  • If you plan to do work with individual parishes, I would try to find a way for participants first to experience this kind of Zoom program with a wider constituency. It really helped to be in small groups with people from across the diocese, reflecting their different contexts, experiences, racial heritages, and perspectives. Maybe, for example, you could do the first three sessions with a wider audience, then move into parishes for sessions four (apology) and five (action planning). (The case studies were interesting, but they could simply be a handout to illustrate process for action, or the beginning of a parish workshop as an illustration.) Again, I found the presentations of the history interesting and helpful, yet quite rushed. Maybe if you provided a timeline chart breaking out the different periods of history and some key words within each period, such as “13th through 15th Amendments” and “Ida B. Wells” and “Marcus Garvey” and “Great Migration” , etc., it would help us to go forth to learn more later. Regarding homework and preparation for each session, it would have been helpful to have had assignments earlier than the morning of the same day as an evening session. Maybe give us 48 hours? I hope you receive these constructive ideas as an expression of my gratitude for this program! It was superb and gracious, and I came away educated, further inspired for antiracism work, and grateful for the small groups in which I experienced amazing honesty and a shared commitment to racial reconciliation. Final note: I had never fully realized that New York State’s labor law exclusions for farmworkers were directly a result of a compromise between FDR and the southern states during the creation of the 1938 FLSA. I had mainly understood those exclusions as resulting from pressure for decades by the New York agriculture industry. How could I have not known that the exclusions were tied to nationwide-systemic discrimination rooted in the slave trade and efforts by the southern states to keep African Americans in economic oppression? When I have actively advocated for farmworkers?! This is the kind of eye-opening which the program consistently offered, in every session. Thank you.
  • It was an excellent balance of education, focused discussion and calls to action. I felt the break out sessions should have been more structured. Possibly a facilitator. There should have been clear questions to answers so that round robin occurred. 2) needed more time because every session for the most part since not everyone attended. Individuals should have been instructed to only provide name in Parish or Community organizations. Sometimes people gave their life history on how they came to this work prior to discussing the issues. 3) For me this was additional reinforcement and great to see what other congregations are doing. I am familiar with most concepts but very impressed with the Dr. Reed presentations as it clearly explained Institutionalized Racism. Also sharing a link that you may want to consider for future discussions that provides insight into immigrant Black people’s perspective on racism. It is a Great conversation from a clergy member originally from Antiqua in Great Britain who clearly understands Black Live Matter as a world wide concept and why it is not a problem to affirm Black Lives Models. May be eye opening to some of us. Hope you can take time to view. It is beneficial to hear the description his spirituality and aligns with our diocesan Anti-Racism Committee and supports the contention that as Christians we should become Anti-Racist.. https://youtu.be/KJ0xmMSot0c
  • There was a lot to take in and process in the 5 sessions. I would have liked to hear more from presenters and breakout group feedback. Seemed rushed for time at some points. Overall, very good place to start!! I can see this as a diocesan program and effort that can be very useful as we consider reparations. A workshop to be presented in each region for all members and friends when we are back doing in person meetings. Thank you very, very much for your hard work and sharing the history of farm workers plight. My father was an annual farmworker from the Caribbean to the US in his younger days. I would attend the series presentation again.
  • Thank you so much for this program! I am using this space to fill in the “could have used more” section. I felt that we would have benefited from consistent breakout groups for building both trust in sessions and for building on-going diocesan relationships for addressing issues moving forward. For instance, how can we as participants now act as a network of support for one another? Are some of us now invested in the Dutchess County jail issue or other…and can we build a diocesan coalition working on issues? … Are there small parishes who want to partner with one another to bring Sacred Ground or Roots & Branches programs to their sites? … Perhaps we can have an optional sign up for participants who want to be contacted by others in the future when issues or needs in the diocese are identified. Thank you for this program!!!
  • I would like to see more people of color and more people from large city area in the group.
  • It would have been good to have just a bit more time in our small groups. Conversations there were really helpful and fruitful and it was a way to immediately process what we learned in the lectures. I realize that time constraints make this difficult but it was good to have a chance to talk/share while the material was fresh in my mind.
  • I was triggered by observing institutional sexism in one of the breakout sessions, and then experiencing it in that session. I am female. And then I saw the lack of awareness of sexism again in the confessional time in session 4. I would like to talk to you or someone on your team about this. It plays into the overall problem. A separate feedback: I would have liked to have had more time exploring policy and actions that we can take.
  • The first 3 weeks were very strong. The information was deep and lead to deep discussion. On week 5 I would like to have spent more time on “A Road Map Towards Action”. Although I did enjoy the break out group discussions, I wish there was time for questions and answers with yourself and the other facilitators regarding some of the questions that came up during the break out groups.
  • though not possible, I can see it would have been helpful to have break-out groups comprised of same persons each week.
  • Breakout sessions need a moderator as some people monopolized the time and others didn’t get to speak.
  • I am so grateful to you for doing this. I wish the small groups could have been stronger and gone deeper- I think we needed time to process together but didn’t always have enough nor know each other well enough. Also, I love the historical material, but knew some of it already and didn’t find it as challenging as the more immediate personal/ communal work.
  • Maybe additional sessions would allow more time for discussion in groups in each session. I need more time to organize my thoughts on a new topic before I am comfortable speaking. This was an inspiring program that has moved me to work toward changes in my parish and community.
  • The 4th session could have been divided into separate conversations—what does the church need to confess/repent of? What do we need to confess/repent of? Also some of the black people in our group struggled with the language of confession/repentance. It might be a good entry into the conversation to ask how that language strikes you—and how you relate to it?
  • We need more people to tell their story of racism because people always identify with a real person and a team story told to them with sincerity. Also perhaps all Dr. William Barber, and other leaders in the fight against poverty and oppression to produce short video messages of inspiration and what we can view.
  • An additional session to remind us of the ghost and to tie up all the sessions

The Reparations Committee would like to thank The Reverend Masud Ibn Syedullah TSSF, Founder and Director of Roots & Branches and The Reverend Chuck Kramer, Rector of St James, Hyde Park & Member of the Reparations Committee for their leadership of this important event, as well as all participants.

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