Chapter 2 | Into The Darkness
There was no looking back; whatever was going to happen was about to happen.
In more ways than one, we weren’t in Kansas anymore! Later that afternoon, we visited our meeting room. It was windowless, and six rocking chairs were arranged in a circle with no tables. I felt a chill down my spine as I wondered what the guys would think about rocking together for three and a half days. Four organizational leaders from three different organizations would arrive shortly. To say the least, this retreat center was off the beaten path. There was no looking back; whatever was going to happen here was about to happen. That evening, all six of us dined at the Herb Farm restaurant onsite. A waitress told us about Snappy, the 300-pound snapping turtle that was over 125 years old and hung out in the water under the deck. After dinner, we got a glimpse of him when he came up to eat. His head was the size of a grapefruit. One thing was for sure: this place had character. There were many other turtles and fish in the water, but they gave Snappy his space. He became our mascot for the week. After dinner that night, six men sat themselves in rockers and we began. I was nervous as I knew our curriculum would be edgy for them. Bill and I opened by sharing how we came to this work and why it was limited to only white men. In the midst of my talk, suddenly the lights went out. We found ourselves sitting in pitch darkness. I prayed it was a brief blackout.
Someone snickered. “You planned this, right?”
Well, this is probably your worst nightmare.
We laughed nervously. A soft light gradually entered the room as a waitress emerged holding a lighted candle in one hand and let us know it would be at least an hour before power was restored. It was the perfect metaphor for the process we were about to launch. We were entering the unknown, a place where all these men were in the dark. In the candlelight, I said, “This might seem odd, but I want you all to grab another guy and go for a walk outside for fifteen minutes while we wait for the power. I want you to talk about what your hopes are for the week and what you might be worried about.” A small moan went up from the group.
“One more thing,” I said. “I want you to share stories of what you told people before coming here. Did you tell them you were coming to a White Man’s Caucus? What exactly did you say?”
After fifteen minutes, we all regrouped inside the restaurant, where there was some illumination from the fading daylight. We ended up huddling around some candles on the floor.
“Well this is probably your worst nightmare,” Bill
said. “You’re probably wondering if we are going to sing ‘Kumbaya.’” Chuckles filled the room. I relaxed a few degrees.
Do you think there are alligators here?
He then began to tell me about a gathering he’d held called the White Men’s Caucus. A few months earlier, he’d gathered every white man he could, including his father, at a bed and breakfast near Mount Adams in Washington State.
“Fifteen guys had their minds blown,” he said. Since his own father was present, he’d been more than just a neutral facilitator. I listened, fascinated. “But, Michael, I realize I am still in the Marlboro Man white male go-it-alone mode. I need someone else to lead this with me.”
He was now staring at me with a meaningful look. “Me?” I asked. I was touched and suddenly my heart raced. I recognized this was a dream I couldn’t pass up. Outward Bound had been like a spiritual home for me, where I found space to be myself and grow my facilitation skills. It was where I learned to trust and appreciate the experience-based learning model, and this was a shared background with Bill. Together, I knew we would address the white male side of diversity in a way that had never been done before. We would find a way for white men to connect to the white male part of ourselves— and each other— in a way that was positive and empowering.
Since that moment twenty years ago, we have held the White Men’s Caucus over 125 times in dozens of places. Each one is different yet very much the same. One unique setting was particularly unforgettable. If you drive for a long time north of Houston, you will find yourself in the middle of nowhere. Finally, off the interstate,
the road heads northeast through the swampy forest and arrives at Chain O’ Lakes Resort— where a group of white men were about to have their essential beliefs challenged. It was a late April afternoon, and the sun was waning as I sat on the porch of our cabin overlooking a pond. Bill and I were reviewing our plan for the next few days. The other men were in the process of checking in. Bill gazed out through trees, admiring the lush surroundings. Every cabin had a pond next to it, and the forest was a thick, swampy place.
“Do you think there are alligators here?” Bill asked. I looked out beyond the railing of the porch.
“Turn around,” I said.
We saw a four-foot long gator staring at us. I wondered whether humans or animals were in charge in this landscape.
“We better pass out flashlights,” I said, “so we can see their eyes in the dark at night.”
Are you part of an extremist group?
“So tell me, what was your experience when you told others you were coming here?” I asked.
The men pondered briefly. Joe, a tall, fit analytic sort, who had expressed his skepticism from the second he arrived, shared that his wife rolled her eyes and said, “They are spending money on that?”
Al, a short, balding man who was heartfelt and sincere, owned up that his wife had said, “I’m glad you’re going. You need this.”
The other men laughed. Joe continued: “The people of color I work with were initially confused but then got excited, once they really got what it was about. I was afraid to tell them for fear they would think I was going to a Klan rally.”
Frank was a real alpha male executive. He had white hair and a square face, and looked and acted like a general. He was now sitting upright in his chair.
“I have to confess, on my flight here I turned the light off on my tray table while I
was reading the Caucus material. I didn’t want anyone to see
the words: White Men as Full Diversity Partners”.
A big laugh erupted before Frank continued his story.
“It didn’t matter, though. The flight attendant saw what I was reading and asked, ‘Are you part of an extremist group?’” The room roared.
Bill held up his hands, indicating he had something to say.
“Which two words out of those six words do you think she noticed?” he asked.
“White Men!” someone blurted out.