On Wednesday afternoons, the call and response “ashe” meaning “be with us” echoes over Zoom, as participants take turns pouring libations.
This African ceremonial tradition is the weekly opening ritual for St. Thomas’ BIPOC Gathering Circle and invites connection both with ancestors and between the students of color who have gathered to share cultural and racial experiences in the spirit of healing, friendship and community.
"The BIPOC Gathering Circle was something that started in response to a need for counter space and safe space for students of color to talk about racial cultural pride and heal from racial trauma in a proactive approach as opposed to only responding when horrific racist incidents happened,” co-founder Bryana French, PhD, said.
French, who is an associate professor in the graduate school of professional psychology, and Phil Rosier, in St. Thomas’ Counseling and Psychological Services, facilitated the first BIPOC Gathering circle in Oct. 2020. Angela Mendez, Dougherty Family College life skills coach and counselor, has since joined the team and now co-leads with Rosier. The circle serves undergraduate and graduate students who identify as Black, Indigenous and people of color.
“We wanted something ongoing as a constant opportunity for people to check in as needed, while also recognizing the limitations that communities of color have with seeking mental health services at college counseling services and beyond,” French explained.
The methodology for the BIPOC Gathering Circles is modified from the Association of Black Psychologists, however, the team envisioned an experience different from traditional therapy.
“These circles are not therapy, but have therapeutic benefits. This is the students as well as co-facilitators building off each other and providing support, care and healing ideas,” Mendez said. “It's really a shared experience.”
Space to 'destress and be shored up'
Back on the Zoom call, asking for ancestral guidance, strength, and wisdom, Rosier, leads the group’s essential ritual.
"Rituals and cultures are the glue that bring people together, Rosier said. “It’s a way of disconnecting from roles. For students, it helps them to disconnect from homework assignments, tests to study for and creates a sense of purpose and a sense of focus for the group.”
In alphabetical order, the participants then take the lead for circle.
"It's open for students to share what they would like to share,” Rosier said. “Typically, they take it, and they run. We affirm, but it's almost like if you're quiet long enough, what needs to be said is said.”
The group abides by a shared etiquette when responding to one another’s shares, focusing on validating and connecting. As clinicians, the team knows how critical both sharing and listening is and are intentional about creating space.
“We can be concerned about what we're going to say that we forget to hear each other, so we make space to think, so that they’re open to others,” Rosier said. “Sometimes people need some silence or some quiet to connect with what they're really feeling in that moment.”
Each week, the group of participants looks a bit different as students balance the normal challenges of academics, and living through the mental, physical, and spiritual toll of racism.
“It is come as you need. Students don't need the stress, with all the other things going on in their lives, of having to make it every week and having that structure,” French said. She noted that since the circles began meeting they’ve discussed the murder of George Floyd, violence against Asian Americans in the Atlanta mass shooting and microaggressions that students have experienced, among other topics.
“Unfortunately, in our world today, topics just come to us. We don't really have to think much about it, we're experiencing it all the time,” she said.
Using racial affinity groups to advance equity
The St. Thomas BIPOC Gathering Circle is a racial affinity group, a space where people share an identity or an experience of being racially privileged or racially marginalized. It’s a concept, French said, that can feel like segregation, but can be a tool to advance racial equity.
White accountability spaces are available for St. Thomas students as well as faculty and staff to engage with each other to unlearn racism and challenge white privilege. The White Accountability Workshop, offered to St. Thomas students, is a counselor-facilitated sharing space to unlearn racism without asking people of color to do the emotional labor for them as they engage in anti-racist work.
“[Affinity groups] can offer unique spaces for unlearning racism, recognizing that someone who is a racialized minority or somebody who has been racialized as a person of color, experiences race, racism and white supremacy in the United States differently than people who have been racialized as white,” French said. “So, the process of learning looks different depending on how you've been racialized and move through the world.”
A key component of the BIPOC Gathering Circle is a sense of comfort, for students to know they’re in a safe space. Facilitators said it can also prevent racial battle fatigue for people of color, confront racialized and emotional labor and create counter spaces in a predominately white institution. St. Thomas' total student body is currently 23% students of color, the highest on record.
“We think it's important for the BIPOC community to come together - just that community alone - so that they can affirm each other, learn more about each other and at times, challenge each other, Rosier said. “Part of the reason why that's important is that a BIPOC community gives us an opportunity for safety, whereas in other areas, we may not feel as safe.”
There’s a sense of comfort to being in a circle and knowing you're in a safe space, facilitators said, the participants can hold and affirm each other
“There's an opportunity and a need for cross dialogue and work, but there's also a unique benefit here to being in shared community with somebody who understands your lived experience,” French said.