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ASD Newsletter Volume 10, No. 4 Fall 1993

Dreams, Nonviolence, and Social Change

Reverend Jeremy Taylor

The first piece of formal group dream work that I ever did was in 1969. I was part of a community organizing project dedicated to overcoming racism. The project was located in Emeryville, California, a tiny township nestled between Oakland and Berkeley, on the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay. At that time, I was fulfilling my obligation to perform two years of "alternate civilian service" as a conscientious objector to war. The East Bay project was sponsored by my denomination (Unitarian Universalist) through their world service committee. The project was directed by Reverend George Johnson, an exceptionally gifted and able Methodist minister who had been hired by the U.U. Service Committee to set up grass-roots community organizations promoting self-empowerment and self-improvement in minority communities, particularly black communities, across the country.

When I arrived at Unitarian Universalist Project East Bay (UUPEB), I became the only white member of an otherwise all-black staff. As such, it was immediately clear to me and to the other staff members that I was neither the right color, nor the right class, to go out into the virtually all-black, working and under-class community of Emeryville and try to motivate people to organize and change the direction of their individual and community lives.

Eventually, however, the Reverend Mr. Johnson took me aside and told me a story about UUPEB before I had arrived on the scene. Months earlier, a number of white volunteers had come into the community to help set up the Project. Many of these volunteers, although they had been deeply committed at a conscious level to the eradication of racial prejudice and injustice in American society, had also exhibited unconscious, condescending racist attitudes and behaviors-which had inflamed the resentment of many local people, who had in turn "thrown the volunteers out," with a good deal of stormy interaction and subsequent injured feelings on all sides. Thus, these volunteers had disappeared, and their physical and financial support of UUPEB had dried up. As we discussed this sad history, the Reverend Mr. Johnson suggested to me that here at least was a situation that I was the right class and color to do something about, if I cared to give it a try.

The problem, depressingly familiar, pushed me uncomfortably up against my own carefully suppressed "liberal"racism, but it also cried out for creative responses.

I accepted the assignment. In consultation with the Reverend Mr. Johnson, and other concerned social activists in the San Francisco Bay area, particularly the Reverend Aaron Gilmartin, who was then the pastor of the U.U. Congregation in Walnut Creek, we decided to offer a seminar, "Overcoming Racism," open to anyone who cared to come, and we specifically invited the disaffected volunteers to participate. The basic idea was that the former volunteers ought at least to have an opportunity to tell their individual stories to one another and perhaps begin to discharge and heal some of the injured feelings that had resulted. The hope was that we might create a "safe place" where these stories could be aired and reexamined in a larger context.

We put together a "curriculum" plan for the seminar, and the Reverend Mr. Gilmartin offered his church as a regular meeting place. We advertised the program generally in the community of Bay Area social activists. We also extended specific invitations to all the people in the area who had ever supported the Project financially or volunteered there. The response to our announcements and invitations was gratifying. At our first meeting we had more than a dozen interested, committed participants. I started to move and gently find my role as the facilitator of the weekly group.

As we began to meet and to get to know one another better, a distressing pattern began to emerge. Although there appeared to be a good deal of immediate emotional relief expressed in sharing and reexamining the experiences of the early days at UUPEB, there was also a pervasive sense of pessimism and hopelessness about racism itself.

The impression that I was left with over and over again at the end of our meetings was, "We are the best and the brightest and the most deeply committed to radical, nonviolent social and political change. We have given it our best shot, and since we failed it simply can't be done. Racism is like death and taxes; it's beyond anyone's ability to really do anything about." A tone of cynicism and bitter resignation began to dominate the group, and as a direct result, the participants began to be more and more antagonistic toward one another, focusing on their respective political and philosophical differences with increasing annoyance, and forcing one another into the defensive positions of being" representative spokespersons" for their respective ideologies and conflicting points of view.

It was awful, I became more and more upset and depressed as the weeks went by. I finally decided about midway through the scheduled set of meetings that it would be better to cancel the remaining sessions and face the inevitable private and public shame of failure and admission of inadequacy than to continue with the meetings as they were. In my view, not only were we not "overcoming racism," we were making it worse by reinforcing the idea that it was an inevitable consequence of unchangeable human nature. Of course, canceling the remaining meetings would, in itself, reinforce the message that it was hopeless to try to confront and overcome racism. It was a terrible ironic "double bind."

In desperation, I finally suggested at the end of a particularly frustrating meeting that at our next session, we not tell any more "was stories" about our disappointments in the streets attempting to promote nonviolent social change.

"In fact," I suggested, "why don't we not talk about waking life at all next week, except as it relates to our dreams. Let's shift our attention to concentrate on telling dreams to one another-particularly those dreams that have overt racial feeling in them. In other words, next week why don't we tell those dreams to each other that have scary, repugnant characters of other races in them, as a way of maybe getting at the deeper psychological roots of racism?"

So, that evening we agreed to change the format of the next meeting and concentrate on sharing dreams. I had been drawn to make this curious suggestion in large measure because of my habit of sharing dreams with my wife, Kathryn, which we had fallen into during the early years of our relationship.

When we first got together, we used to argue ferociously with one another, mostly about the unexamined sexist assumptions of our behavior. In the effort to rid ourselves and our relationship of these attitudes, we argued and fought, and occasionally, in the heart of our passionate struggles, we even dragged our dreams into the discussions. "Why, last night, I even dreamed about what you keep doing to me!"

Over the years, we discovered that when we shared our dreams about our difficulties with one another, we tended to remember with relief and renewed good humor just why it was worth the immense emotional effort of working these issues out between us in the first place. Sharing our dreams, particularly our dreams about the annoying, unconscious sexism we were both still heir to, seemed to help us stay actively and creatively committed to the often painful and difficult process of defining our evolving relationship. Sharing and talking about the dreams also seemed to help in the fundamentally related task of finding our respective places, as individuals and as a couple, in the larger society still dominated by sexism.

Based on this experience, it occurred to me that enough similarities existed between the individual emotions and larger social patterns associated with sexism, and the feelings and behavior associated with racism, that sharing and discussing dreams might well produce a similar positive effect in the seminar.

The idea of relative strangers sharing some of their nastier dreams seemed more than a little crazy-even to me-but it was the only honest alternative I could think of. Just about anything, no matter how bizarre, seemed worth trying before we admitted defeat and gave up entirely.

The next week we gathered and began to tell dreams to one another. We shared many nightmares of being demeaned, menaced, pursued, and attacked by dark, scary people of other races. Despite the generally sinister and somber quality of the dreams, the tone of the group's interactions noticeably brightened and broadened. I had been hoping for something like this, but I was not expecting the extraordinary depth of the transformation that followed.

First of all, everyone in the group understood, without my having to belabor the point too much, that you can't blame anyone else for what you dream. Although our dreams often make clear reference to traumatic events in waking life, they generally transform those waking experiences so profoundly and mysteriously in a "strange sea change" that the dreamer has to take some sort of radical and personal (albeit not wholly conscious) responsibility for their quality and content.

The menacing gang of black youths prowling through my dreams presents a picture of things going on inside me, even more than it comments of external, waking events. This generally shared understanding meant that the cynicism and increasingly antagonistic debate that had been slowly and steadily escalating in the group since the first meeting disappeared abruptly and entirely at almost the moment the dream sharing began.

The next thing I noticed was that the dreams themselves were so interesting-they hinted at and actually revealed to much in a subtle and surprising and completely nonideological way-that I could practically hear the scales falling from my own and other people's eyes. Suddenly, the people in the seminar began to take notice of one another in a new and more personal and vulnerable way. No longer were people responding primarily with preprogrammed ideas about themselves and each other. The change of focus to dreams suddenly had the effect of awakening in us a much greater interest in one another as unique human beings. The exotic new symbolic material we were sharing caused us all to slow down and make fewer unquestioned assumptions about each other. By sharing our dreams, we began to inquire much more carefully into the deeper reasons why we each thought and felt and behaved as we did.

It was during those first spontaneous group dreamwork sessions more than twenty years ago that I began to search for ways of facilitating the exploration into what our dreams might mean, without asking anyone to relinquish their autonomy, and still encouraging everyone to stay actively and directly engaged the whole time.

It was here in the "Overcoming Racism" seminar that we first began to understand and acknowledge that even our most seemingly "objective" comments about each other's dreams were really projections of our own internal material. Out of this grew the "if it were my dream" form. We also quickly discovered the strength and reliability of the "tingle" of recognition when something true and on-the-case was said about someone's dream. We also began to understand that people could have perfectly valid and genuine aha's of insight for themselves from someone else's dream narrative, even if the dreamer didn't confirm them with his or her own "tingles."

The remaining weeks of the seminar sped by, and at the end of the last group meeting, I asked if anyone wanted to come down to Emeryville and volunteer for UUPEB's organizing activities. I did this with some trepidation, because I still had lingering doubts that what we had been doing might all turn out to be just another "displacement activity"-a sophisticated variation on "navel gazing"-an excuse to talk and intellectualize about our greatest collective challenges, without ever taking the next necessary risk of concrete action to promote real social change.

Much to my gratified surprise, almost all of the previously disaffected volunteers felt sufficiently reenergized and reenthused about the possibilities of direct nonviolent action to transform traditionally racist social institutions that they signed up for volunteer work with UUPEB.

My last fear was that the sad story of failed communication across race and class barriers might repeat itself when the volunteers actually began to work again. My fears proved to be unfounded. The renewed enthusiasm of the seminar participants carried forward without flagging into the actual work in the streets. The volunteers came into the neighborhood and began to work side by side with the residents who, with the help and support of UUPEB staff, were starting to organize around their most pressing community concerns.

As the seminar participants started to interact with the residents on a regular basis, we started to get a trickle of "unsolicited testimonials" from community people about the effectiveness of this newly trained group of volunteers. In fact, some of the Emeryville residents who had been the most adamant that certain volunteers never come back into the neighborhood started to drop by the office and tell us that the very people who had driven them crazy months earlier with their oppressive and condescending racist attitudes and behaviors were now among the most valued volunteers.

If blundering around, simply sharing dreams with each other, without any clear idea of what we're doing, can have this effect-if it can begin to have a noticeable impact on the deep, unconscious sources of racism-what else can it do?

At that precise point, I made the conscious decision to explore the potential social and political value of dreamwork more fully and carefully. Now, more than twenty years later, I am still exploring the exciting, dramatic, creative, collective transformative possibilities of dream work, with no limit in sight. All I can say with certainty is that when people begin to share and explore their dreams together, overcoming the internalized oppressions and external behaviors of racism is just one of a number of profoundly positive things that regularly grow out of the work.

This article was excerpted from Where People Fly and Water Runs Uphill, by Jeremy Taylor.





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