Combating racism, one institution at a time

For 29 years I was a member of the St. Louis Catholic Worker community. From the beginning, we were conscious that we were white women (plus a few white men) who ran, without pay, an emergency shelter for 25 to 50 homeless women and children, mostly black.

The women who came to the Worker as guests were without resources. To stay with us meant a family crowded into a single room, communal meals, shared housework, curfew, no television in the house and insistence that children must be very closely supervised by their moms and could not be spanked.

Some of the women were mentally ill. All were traumatized by illness, job loss, fire, eviction, crime, rejection by relatives, rejection by a boyfriend or husband. Some were alcoholics or drug addicts. Most had been abused by fathers or uncles or neighbors or boyfriends. As I said, most were black.

About 20 years into this project, the Worker community initiated a kind of "co-housing" where community members, former community members and former guests rented a block of apartments in the neighborhood. Everybody paid the rent into a common fund and the bookkeeper paid the landlord. We all met once a month to do business and we gathered for Sunday breakfasts, Saturday barbecues, birthdays and graduations. Those of us without children took on doing homework with children in the community, attending school functions, going with the moms to parent-teacher conferences and an occasional court hearing.

The inspiration for co-housing was in part the community's recognition that our relationships between black and white, guest and community, were not equal. White community members had keys, set the house rules, determined the menus for common meals. At the same time we saw that the single moms who had stayed with us continued to need community support. We created a village, not just to raise our children, but more to live our lives together.

Our bookkeeper, a white man, was murdered in our neighborhood one Saturday in 2007, and I would say, in retrospect, that in the ensuing, traumatic grief our co-housing experiment crumbled. It had been weakening but now some white community members moved away. No one stepped in to manage the experiment of shared financial resources so those who were temporarily short of cash were on their own. The systems of school pickup and homework support collapsed.

Some of us from our co-housing community have stayed in touch over the years, some more closely than others. A white daughter and black son married and their bond continues to link us all.

But the St. Louis Catholic Worker continued to be operated by white volunteers serving a mostly black homeless population.

Then Mike Brown, an unarmed teenager, was killed by a police officer in 2014. I was no longer a member of the Worker community but I responded when they issued a call for a community examination of white privilege in the Peter Maurin tradition of Clarification of Thought.

Mike was killed in August. The black community called for a national conference and march in St. Louis in October. We all went to peacekeeper training and nonviolent resistance practice. Members of the Worker community helped in different ways — participating in organizing and planning meetings, continuing to host Clarification of Thought on racism for white people, doing art, showing up and helping with logistics like finding housing for those coming from around the country.

It was a challenge to get people to open their homes to black activist carpetbaggers, coming into St. Louis to help raise Cain, no matter how well-trained they might be in nonviolent direct action. So the Catholic Worker Community members at Karen House asked the guests if everybody could double up and make room for some of these outsiders. The guests said, "Sure!" and began helping to plan meals and laundry — but they didn't picture that these activists coming from across the country would be black.

Afterwards, The Round Table, the journal published by the St. Louis Catholic Worker, produced an issue filled with reflections about Ferguson from activists on the ground there. It includes a page of comments from the guests on being host to black, strong, savvy community organizers who were willing to drive a thousand miles and stay in an emergency shelter.

Shauntel wrote:

As the events unfolded in the Mike Brown case, I encountered a group of young black students from New York. I was more than excited to see them and was outdone by their actions. It was funny because one of the Karen House guests stated that they were probably going to be white. When they walked in for the first time, they introduced themselves as 'BLACK' (which is the name of their group) and I said, 'And you're black!' They went out immediately after arriving in St. Louis to join in the protest for Vonderrit Meyers and Mike Brown. They told me too about how they were arrested, how they were pepper sprayed, and the different things that the police were shouting at them. All of the ladies in the house went above and beyond to make sure that their stay was a great stay. I would like to extend many thanks to the group BLACK and for their support in the Mike Brown case. When they were set to leave, they presented myself and my children with a couple of gifts as well as the other kids in the house. It was awesome to have them here, and I would host them anytime.

The Worker community has continued to host sessions about dismantling racism, publish reading lists, and speak and write about next steps. But they have also done much more. They took an unflinching look at their own community practice and began to make changes in their daily lives.

That's what I saw from a distance, but one of the community members, Jenny Truax, wrote this about her experience:

Since 2012, the community had been doing reading and work around different anti-oppression topics. We hosted a Round Table at the Midwest Catholic Worker gathering in 2013 on sexism and heterosexism in Catholic Worker communities. We were doing a lot of work on sexism and homophobia at Karen House (the big emergency shelter), including opening Karen House to transgender people. Certain members were participating in a local anti-racism group called the Anti Racism Collective, and others had been reading and writing about the impact of racism in our communities. As time went on in 2014 and 2015, we moved forward in putting more anti-racist structures into place. This included looking where power is located in decision making, who our supporters are, where we gather volunteers from.

So the community was ready when a couple of the black organizers joined the community for a time.

Karen House is a big emergency shelter and the lynchpin of the St. Louis community. It has weekly meetings and makes decisions by consensus. The new community members brought a new sensibility to these meetings. I don't think they were any more compassionate or skilled than the white members at dealing with traumatized homeless women and children, but they asked different questions about who makes decisions and how responsibility is shared. And the white members welcomed these questions because they understood that their whiteness somehow got in the way of creating community.

The conversation and real change had been going on for years and then, last May Day, 2016, at Karen House's 39th birthday party, members of Karen House made a presentation to the rest of us, summing up changes we'd seen happening and changes we didn't know about.

The guests have keys. There is no curfew. Some of the guests "take house" — a huge responsibility that entails answering the door and phone, ensuring that food gets on the table, chores are completed, visitors are welcomed, money and medicines are accessed, and arguments and fights are dealt with.

Jenny reflected, "We have made the process to become a 'core community member' from a 'house community member' more transparent. (Racism influences the 'who you know' method of entering groups.) We now have a specific set of expectations, a value statement that people can look at and decide if the core community is for them. Also, we have narrowed the number of guests to folks who can live independently."

This is a trade-off because it has meant that mentally-ill women who are not able to make these decisions have not been accepted into the house.

The Karen House community is made up now of middle-class blacks and whites and formerly homeless blacks and whites. They recognize that, while they are healing themselves and building community, they do not have the capacity to accept a new person for every empty bed in the house the day that bed empties. In fact, they've given some of the rooms to the children instead of packing families into single rooms. They have limited the days and times when they answer the phone and door.

House members and members of the extended community do the food runs to collect donations, operate a clothing room and other tasks necessary to keep things going.

Karen House continues to be run on donations, which pays for heat, water, electricity, phone, operation of an automobile, and food to stretch out food donations. Nobody gets a salary, but according to Jenny they do provide stipends for community members, "recognizing that it is class privilege, and, to a certain extent, white savior complex that expects community members to be actively downwardly mobile and economically unstable."

Not everyone who lives at Karen House meets in consensus decision-making every week. They haven't all signed up for intentional community living.

All the participants in this extraordinary experiment in community life are a little scared by the boldness of their choice. They are grateful for the weekly meetings, difficult as consensus decision-making can be. Most of all, they are grateful, as Jenny stated, "for one another, our supporters, and those that go before us in doing anti-racism work and go before us in the Catholic Worker!"

I marvel at this account of the growth of the Catholic Worker community. They used to be white and well-meaning. Now the white members are passionate in their commitment to help build a new white culture that thinks and acts against white privilege. Their passion rubs off on me and I hope, in reading this, that it rubs off on you too. 

[Mary Ann McGivern has been tracking military spending and weapons production in the United States since the '70s. She writes for the Disarmament Times (U.N. Disarmament Working Group) and the Peace Economy Project, where she serves on the board of directors. She is a Sister of Loretto and a member of the Loretto Committee for Peace. She also works for prison reform.]