April 22, 2019

Confronting bias: Webster considers introducing Witnessing Whiteness program

The Witnessing Whiteness program was designed to help educate and shine light on racial injustices that happen in the world. The program helps members grasp a better understanding of what racism and white privilege is and how to stop it. The only rule to the program is you have to be white to join.

Webster University’s new Chief Diversity Officer Vincent C. Flewellen was recently featured on an NBC News Article about the program in Dec. 2018.

As the new Chief Diversity Officer at Webster University, Flewellen has plans on bringing the Witnessing Whiteness Program to Webster. Flewellen organized a Witnessing Whiteness program at Washington University where he served as Director of Equity and Inclusion.

“As for launching a partnership with the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) of Metro St. Louis’ Witnessing Whiteness program and Webster University faculty and staff, I have not had an opportunity to fully explore the possibility,” Flewellen said. “Should we move to bring the program onto campus, it would not be before August of this year.”

Mary Ferguson, who worked as an adjunct professor at Webster from 1997 to 2009 teaching multicultural studies, was also featured on NBC News. She is now the Racial Justice Director at the YWCA Metro St. Louis location. She has worked with the Witnessing Whiteness program since 2014. Ferguson found that having a space for white individuals to talk about racism has shown to have better results than with other races present.

The YWCA’s website offers two documents to explain the white only rule in the program, one from a black and one from a white writer.

“White people would not be as forthcoming if they were in a mixed group,” Ferguson said. “They would not do as deep a learning because they would be afraid of being called racist and offending someone.”

Ferguson has been involved in social justice work for 40 years. In highschool, Ferguson noticed a difference between the races.

“There was a disconnect, there was no activism, especially around St. Louis,” Ferguson said.

Since then, Ferguson has shared her knowledge of diversity and inclusion to over 20 churches and synagogues. She also helped bring the Witnessing Whiteness program to colleges in the area such as Washington University, Saint Louis University, and Fontbonne University.

It is up to the university’s internal policies and politics to decide if students are able to participate in the program or not. Universities can also offer the program to students for credit. Ferguson adds this is because it is intended to be a whites only group.

The program is based on the book “Witnessing Whiteness: The Need to Talk About Race and How to Do It” by Shelly Tochluk.

“It’s focused on white people seeing themselves as white and understanding how their white identity has shaped not only them in their experiences, but shapes a lot of culture and institutions that everyone has to experience,” Ferguson said.

Meetings are held in two-hour sessions broken into groups that meet twice a month.

“They are very personal,” Ferguson said. “We spend 20-30 minutes looking at what the reading told us and the rest of the time we look at what that means in our lives.”

 

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