What is The Barnraisers Project?
And how can you help bring it to life?
If you don’t want to read all this, the big news here is that I’m formally launching The Barnraisers Project, an effort to change how white people talk about and organize for racial justice. If that sounds like the kind of thing you’d like to support, you can donate or become a member here or offer other ways to lend a hand here (goodness knows times are tough, so I respect that not everybody has cash or time to spare). Alternately, if you would prefer to support racial justice efforts led by Black, Brown and Indigenous organizations, some of my current favorite recommendations include Northern Cheyenne Mutual Aid, We Got This! Milwaukee, Sacred Generations, Haven and Immschools.
Oh also: Don’t worry, The White Pages isn’t changing (still totally free! still too long!), nor will it become a space where I’m asking for money constantly. Regularly scheduled programming returns in the next issue.
I’m writing this as a letter and not an essay. Not quite sure why; it just felt right. I’m reaching out, though, to tell you (officially) about this thing that I’ve been working on for a few years now. It’s called The Barnraisers Project and if you’ve been a reader for a while you’ve heard me talk about it before. It has a few different origin stories.
On one hand, it’s the product of the places that raised me. I grew up in three communities that, on the surface, are the kind of stand-ins that we use to illustrate a grand divide in the American body politic: Jefferson County, MT [rural, conservative, and, no lie, the site (IN MY LIFETIME) of an old-west-style Gun Fight on Main street between two rival County Commissioners]; Howard County, MD (suburban, aspirational, the kind of place where you might receive sympathetic glances if your child is forced to attend their safety college) and Missoula, MT (crunchy, hippie-ish, most of the pizza places are actually head shops). And sure, while those three places are different in a lot of ways, what I’ve discovered increasingly over the years is that the way whiteness plays out in each is hauntingly similar. White people in Columbia, MD might not get fired up by a “build that wall” chant the way many folks do in Clancy, MT, but when you ask them to desegregate their schools, the response looks pretty MAGA-ish.
On another hand, my passion here comes from a career spent as a pretty Central Casting left-ish do-gooder. I worked in education for over a decade, always in Black, Brown and Indigenous cities, towns and neighborhoods. There’s a lot to unpack there— both stories of fulfilling work with wonderful people as well as of plenty of head-scratching mistakes. Most of all, though, what I’m left with from all that work is a nagging sense that we’ve all been fighting a fight with one hand tied behind our back. That’s not a criticism of all the great folks still working in that world. But it was and is a feeling worth attention.
Here’s what I mean. Yes, a better world will only be possible through the empowerment of communities that have borne the brunt of white supremacy and oppression. And yes, I hope that entire sector of work is increasingly directed and led by those communities themselves (still not the norm now, tragically). But after you spend long enough trying to justify your presence in other people’s homes you can’t help but realize “wait, our country spends billions of dollars trying to fix Black and Brown people’s schools and neighborhoods while the culprit runs off unnoticed.” One of the too-often-unspoken dilemmas of the education world, for instance, is that every reform or initiative (even the best ones) must navigate around a set of untouchable third-rails— white parents who will never allow de-tracking, desegregation or abolition of property-tax-based education funding models. It begs the question: why do we put so much (often carceral) attention on what we deem to be deficits in Black and Brown neighborhoods and almost none in transforming that reality on the white side of town?
[This is where I shout-out my beloved community at Integrated Schools, who ARE doing the work of focusing on white parents and also deserve your support and love. They are incredible, but are also the exception that proves the rule.]
And, of course, there’s another piece— the broader story of how white America is able to- thanks to the twin Punch and Judy shows of the Electoral College and Senate- essentially hold the rest of the country hostage from a public policy perspective. That was true in 2016. That’s very much still true in 2020. And that’s not a partisan issue- white racial resentment is a potent limiting force for both parties. And while that makes me really angry, I also realize that even if that were not the case there are a million reasons why we should do the hard work of inviting even the most recalcitrant corners of our country into a dream of building a world on the other side of their fears and resentments.
Add all those pieces together and you why, three years ago, I quit my day job, subsidized this dream through coaching and consulting and devoted as much time as possible into developing and testing what would eventually become The Barnraisers Project.
So what is this thing? Well, here’s what Barnraisers already does (forgive the plural pronouns, I haven’t figured out how to write about an organization which presently only half-employs yourself):
We train and coach white people (we’ve worked with hundreds of folks already from coast to coast) on how to organize their social networks for racial justice. We focus on tangible, practical actions that move white people out of the way— churches and synagogues offering amnesty and sanctuary for undocumented immigrants facing deportation; privileged parents fighting for (not against) district integration plans; isolated, rural communities coming together for mutual aid; suburban neighbors asking “wait, are our city’s boundaries actually the problem here?”
When I say “we train and coach” that both means that offering open-enrollment trainings to the general public as well as purpose-built training and long-term coaching for activists and organizations trying to make change in their community.
What’s different about our coaching and training model is that we help white folks with no organizing skills or experience (and who, in all likelihood, have had terrible experience talking about race in the past) learn how to build relationships that truly change hearts and minds and motivate folks to take actions they wouldn’t take otherwise. Is it messy? Sometimes. Does it take commitment? Yes. But it’s absolutely possible, and not just for magical organizing unicorns.
If I can be honest with you all, doing this work has been incredible. I receive more evidence every day of the power of this model. But so far “we” is just me, part-time, still subsidizing this work through my coaching business, fitting it into the very limited corners of my life not overtaken by parenting. While it’s not my aim to build a big, unwieldy nonprofit (and while one of my commitments is to make less money doing this work than I did working in the nonprofit world), I do believe that there’s so much more impact we could be having. In an ideal world here’s what Barnraisers would be doing:
We’d be able to support a small group of full-time organizers to help coordinate/build up the efforts of Barnraisers-trained folks in key communities. The dream here is that the individual organizing projects we’re seeding could build off each other towards the kind of big, public victories that challenge our collective assumptions of white intransigence (see below for some examples).
We’d have the time and space to (a). continue to develop our model and then (b). publish and share it far and wide in a variety of accessible formats. While we definitely want to seed and support organizing efforts, we also want to change the culture of how white people think about their role in “anti-racism” movements.
We’d invest in both Gen-Z and Baby Boomer-focused online organizing, using Barnraisers techniques and methods both in the spaces where young white people are most susceptible to white supremacist indoctrination and where older generations are most inundated with reactionary misinformation.
The long-term dream here is two-fold— to build a nation of average, everyday white people who are both fired up about and equipped to transform their communities AND to remove the “white third rail” from its current location as the limiting factor in American civic life. I dream of a world where residents of rural areas welcome reparations programs and honoring treaty rights. I dream of a world where white people in suburbs support calls for region-wide integrated school systems. I dream of a world where city-dwelling white people (even current law-enforcement officers) are the first in line to support efforts to reallocate public safety budgets towards a holistic slate of human-centered services.
Do I think that Barnraisers is going to lead us towards liberation? Heck no. We’re so fortunate to have a nation of Black, Brown and Indigenous activists already imagining and creating a better world as we speak. But I do believe that white folks have a specific, humble role to play, and what we’ve been doing so far (mostly firing social media broadsides at each other) isn’t going to get the job done.
You can read all about this on our website. I recommend the question and answer section in particular— it’s where I talk about things like “should white people be employed doing anti-racism work?” (I personally believe “yes” and I have some reasons to say that, but it is complicated and I respect other perspectives), “what’s up with the name?” (your first guess is very likely the right guess) and is my donation tax-deductible? (yep).
So yes, I’m just a newsletter author, standing in front of his readers, asking for their help. But there’s more to it than that. I aspire for Barnraisers to have a dramatically different relationship with its donors, members and partners. I’m hoping that you won’t just feel manipulated into giving for giving’s sake but that you’ll feel like you’re learning and growing with my/our stumbles and discoveries. I joke about how I’m offering public radio pledge drive premiums, but there’s actually intentionality there as well. I want to build a big inclusive transparent club with y’all, and little things like having the same sweatshirt or stickers can help that vibe. It’s also why I deliberately decided to put some daylight between this request and Giving Tuesday. Will it work? Maybe? Maybe not? Oh goodness, I’m terrified right now.
That’s not a novel feeling— anybody who has ever brought anything new into the world knows that particular variety of constant dread that embeds itself non-specifically in your body at moments like this. The thing is, I only feel that dread when I focus on pretty me-focused emotions (embarrassment, self-doubt, etc). When I get beyond myself and my own ego…well… I’m unspeakably excited. As somebody who deeply craves being in community with other people and who really does believe that we’re all capable of building something so much better than the mess we’re in… it is such a gift to reach out to others who might share that longing and might be willing to lend a hand.
And yes, make no doubt about it. I need a lot of help. Maybe, for some of you, that’ll mean supporting this work financially or helping with connections or inviting me to speak to a group with whom you’re affiliated. For others, it might mean giving me feedback and saying “Garrett, I checked out the website and here’s what I don’t like about it.” For others, it might be something else entirely, something I can’t even imagine, something I may not even recognize as a gift. Whatever it is, I’m thankful.
P.S. Got questions? I get it. Feel free to reach out! Thank you so much for taking all this in.