Meet: Beth Berila

In June, you can take a 3-session, online course offered by Off the Mat titled "Practical Tools for Talking with Other Whites about Racism" with Beth Berila. It will be a powerful and important class for those of us learning to be effective white allies in the work of dismantling racism. Beth has done incredible work in the field of social justice and we'd love for you to get to know more about her and what she's coming with in June! 

OTM: How did you become a part of the Off the Mat community?

BB: I’ve known about OTM for quite some time—seeing advertisements of its trainings and hearing the “buzz” about their valuable work. I have taken a couple OTM online trainings with Hala Khouri, specifically around the trauma of injustice (which I will probably be referencing in my own course).  I also have several colleagues in the world of yoga and social justice who are connected with OTM in a variety of ways, including being some of their faculty.

What I admire most about OTM is that it offers the tools for people to create positive change. Many of us want to make the world a better place, but may not know how. We may inadvertently reproduce common missteps if we do so without support. OTM trainings help provide participants with a social justice analysis and tried-and-true practices for creating change that are informed by that analysis. I am so thrilled to be a part of the team!

OTM:  We often ask in our leadership trainings: what is something that breaks your heart? And, what unique gifts are you bringing into the world (& this course)?

BB: What breaks my heart? So many things. But one that keeps happening is when vibrant, strong, hopeful people have internalized or experienced injustices for so long that the wounds undermine their empowerment. This happens both individually and collectively.  I see this happen in my Women’s Studies college courses. Strong, vibrant, talented feminists will be finding their voices and creating AMAZING community change, and still undermine themselves with toxic messages or become immobilized by the wounds of oppression. It is pervasive and heartbreaking. I, too, have suffered from that in some ways. 

That observation is what initially motivated me to delve deeper into yoga and meditation.  Those practices are what allowed me to hold my empowerment and my struggles in a more authentic, embodied, and compassionate way. They are also what sparked an exploration into how we can create more socially just ways of being with one another—how we can unlearn deeply oppressive beliefs and practices in order to create more honouring ones.  

Doing so, particularly in the context of dismantling the aspects of whiteness that are so deeply harmful, requires sitting with discomfort. There are very common responses people have when white privilege or white supremacy are pointed out. These reactions are defense mechanisms designed to shore up racial injustice. So helping people learn to recognize them as such and sit with the discomfort instead of avoiding it is a critical step. In my online OTM course, we will learn some techniques for doing so. Because only then can we create alternatives that truly honor everyone’s humanity. 

What unique gifts am I bringing?  My insight into this work is grounded at the intersection of feminism, yoga, and embodied social change. It is informed by social justice activists and theorists. And it is tested in numerous classrooms and community sites. 

OTM: What brought this course, Practical Tools for Talking with Other Whites about Racism, into being?

BB: I have been doing social justice and anti-racism work for over twenty years. Mostly, I do it in the Women’s Studies college classroom with students entering into the conversation with various degrees of interest/awareness and from various identities. That experience has honed my ability to meet people where they are in order to transform ways of thinking and being (in this case) about racial identity, whiteness, racism, and white supremacy. I have also worked closely with colleagues, both inside and outside academia, to do antiracist work.

This particular course builds on all that rich experience. I began thinking about it after the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency in November, because I saw (and felt) heightened despair, along with urgent calls to “do something.” Actually, two days after the election I flew to a large mindfulness conference and was struck by 1) people who were desperately hungry to talk about the current state of affairs, and 2) people who avoided the conversation, and 3) people who had no idea where to begin (this third category pervaded both of the previous groups).

Let’s be clear: nothing in “Trump’s America” is new—the oppression that some people are just becoming aware of has existed for centuries. Many people have been around doing the work of trying to survive and dismantle them for years. But there did seem to be a heightened urgency.  I also sensed a strong undercurrent of not knowing where to start. Many well-intentioned people wanted to make the world a better place, but did not know where to begin.

I figured one way I could begin was to “gather my people,” so to speak, and help cultivate the tools for whites to talk with other whites about racism.  I know many people who want to do so but get stymied when the conversations (inevitably) get hard.  My years of teaching students in a variety of places around the conversation, combined with my own (fraught) path (filled with missteps and learning), will provide the foundation for this course. 

I am on this path too—I am not the “expert;” I have experiences and knowledge to draw on that I hope will prove useful, but this work is collective work. I envision the course as a collective learning process.

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Beth Berila, Ph.D., 500-hr RYT is the Director of the Women's Studies Program and Professor in the Ethnic and Women's Studies Department at St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minnesota. She is also a 500-hr registered yoga teacher and an Ayurvedic Yoga Specialist who completed her 500-hour Yoga Teacher Training program at Devanadi School of Yoga and Wellness.  She is the author of the book Integrating Mindfulness into Anti-Oppression Pedagogy: Social Justice in Higher Education (Routledge). She served on the leadership team of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition for two years and is now a community partner. She works to make yoga accessible to every body by challenging the lack of diversity in the mainstream Western yoga culture. Her current projects merge yoga and meditation practices with feminism and mindful education to create a form of socially engaged embodied learning.