New discussions to start — Finding ways to face race, together
- Published: December 20, 2018
This article is third in a series that will address racism in the village and efforts to improve the climate of diversity and inclusion at local institutions.
“Wherever you live, it is probably Egypt,” wrote Michael Walzer in his 1985 book, “Exodus and Revolution.”
In his classic work, which draws political meanings from the Old Testament book, Walzer added two other lessons: “that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land,” and, finally, that the way to get there is through the wilderness.
“There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching,” Walzer wrote.
Joining together is the plan as several groups of villagers convene ongoing and one-time discussions around racism in the new year.
Village resident Len Kramer, who takes inspiration from Walzer’s sentiment, is helping spearhead one effort — Courageous Conversations — a six-week series that begins in January, or possibly February, depending upon participant availability.
“The ultimate goal is to figure out what you can do to fight racism in your community, because we’ve got to,” Kramer said of the series in a recent interview.
A collaboration between The 365 Project and the Yellow Springs Havurah, the series will use “Facing Racism in a Diverse Nation,” a manual first published in 1992, with the goal of using dialogue to spur change.
An adapted model calls for diverse groups of eight to 12 people and a facilitator, who meet in two-hour sessions over six weeks, with a different topic each week, from implicit bias to inequity. National and local statistics will be explored and take-home exercises offer more opportunities to learn. At the model’s heart, however, is sharing stories, Kramer said.
“It allows you the space to say what your experiences have been and to hear what others’ experiences have been,” Kramer said. “It’s very illuminating.”
Kramer, who has been a volunteer facilitator and mediator with the village for the last 30 years, sees the value in such small group discussions.
“I believe that small group discussion is the way to change people’s attitudes,” he said.
Such conversations can be a challenge to have, and deeply ingrained racial beliefs difficult to change, but movement can come with sustained effort, Kramer believes.
“You grew up a certain way with a certain set of beliefs, and knowing that you have [bias] doesn’t mean you have to act on it. It’s being intentional with other people.”
“I think it’s a really personal journey,” Kramer added.
The process ends with the small groups identifying a project to undertake in the community to address racism. And, when all the groups finish, they might convene in a larger group to “synchronize and merge actions,” according to a planning document.
A pilot group of eight went through the series last year to hone the process, and The 365 Project and the Havurah believe they have found a powerful model that can help in the fight against racism in the village.
“There are racist acts that go on in this town, and even if they are done by kids, they don’t invent it,” Kramer said. “So we have to deal with ourselves.”
“I’m not trying to solve the problems of the world,” he added. “Just this village. And, as Tao Te Ching says, the journey of a thousand miles starts with one step.”
Those interested in participating should contact Kramer at email@example.com.
Calling all parents
The election of Donald Trump brought issues of race and discrimination to the fore at the Antioch School, which bills itself as the oldest democratic school in the nation.
After Trump was elected, teachers began to observe “parents’ distress and how it was impacting children,” causing more anxiety and acting out, according to kindergarten teacher Lindie Keaton.
“Our president’s behavior is not appropriate and he is doing things we are absolutely trying to get children to not do,” she said.
A parent meeting soon after the election brought to light fears that people of color and other minority groups had in the Trump era, due to an “uptick in hate,” and a desire among parents and teachers at the school to both “help children navigate race” and “better serve a diverse group of children,” Keaton explained.
The school will now launch, in early 2019, a series of discussions on parenting, and the first is focused on race. Dismantling racism starts with having the difficult conversations, Keaton said.
“When we don’t talk about it, the children think that it is shameful and that we shouldn’t talk about it,” she said.
The discussion, “Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America,” is on Tuesday, Jan. 15, at 7 p.m. at the Antioch School. It is open to the wider community and non-parents as well. Childcare is available by contacting the school at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Participants can prepare for the discussion by reading two books, “So You Want to Talk About Race,” by Ijeoma Oluo, and “Raising White Kids,” by Jennifer Harvey.
Oluo’s book, from her perspective as a black woman, maps the complex realities of race in America.
“Race was not only created to justify a racially exploitative economic system, it was invented to lock people of color into the bottom of it,” Oluo writes in the book’s first chapter. “Racism in America exists to exclude people of color from opportunity and progress so that there is more profit for others deemed superior.”
“Raising White Kids” is a book that is useful for all parents, “to understand how what white kids are navigating is different from other kids,” according to Keaton. It also looks at where the educational system has gone wrong in teaching about race.
“From the Civil Rights era until now, the ideas about helping children not be racist have been misguided and wrong,” Keaton said of her learnings from the book. “Color-blindness doesn’t work. Celebrating diversity is not enough, particularly for white kids.”
The book plumbs the issue of white identity and how to help white kids understand what it means, which, in Keaton’s words “is really complicated.”
“You’re the oppressor. You can’t celebrate white identity because there is nothing to be celebrated and we all know it,” Keaton said.
The book offers developmentally appropriate strategies to help kids understand their own racial identity.
“White people don’t advance very far in their racial identity,” Keaton said. “By college … they get mad and upset, because there is so much they don’t know.”
The Antioch School will host subsequent community discussions about sexual orientation and identity and sexuality, respectively, in February and March. Those are also open to the community, and information will be forthcoming.
To Keaton, much of the work is about “stepping out of our comfort zones” to learn more.
“We need to keep listening, to keep learning, and to keep doing the work,” she said.
Be Present in Yellow Springs
Earlier this year, social justice activist Lillie Pearl Allen, in her second visit to Yellow Springs, explained how her early experiences of racism as a black woman led her to formulate a question that has guided her life and work.
Describing how “it took something from me just to be part of this world,” Allen first asked, 40 years ago, “How do I get to know my self that is outside of the distress of my oppression?”
Allen went on to found Be Present, Inc., a national nonprofit in Atlanta, Ga., that organizes support groups around that question, finding them essential in the collective fight against racial injustice.
“Information won’t shift a system,” Allen told a group of villagers at a local leadership training in May. “Information alone does not change behaviors and attitudes.”
“To be conscious in a skin color is not to let the way others see you affect you,” she went on. “It’s to be true to who you are. If you are unconscious about it, then you will repeat your internalized oppression.”
Dayton native Khara Scott-Bey brought the Be Present, Inc. model to Yellow Springs when she moved to town in 2014, then helped organize a conference here in 2016 and a smaller workshop earlier this year.
With a handful of support groups now meeting regularly in the village, Be Present Yellow Springs will soon offer new opportunities for villagers to get involved in 2019.
Scott-Bey, a therapist and artist who works at Wilberforce University, described the small groups as communities of practice for people who want to “embody personal and collective liberation.” In effect, they help the individual to “navigate this weird culture,” she added.
“The small support groups are designed for people to have intimate practice about not just the external racial conversation, but the internal conversation, ‘what is it that stops me from being the greatest me?’” Scott-Bey explained.
The issue of race, Scott-Bey believes, is a conversation not just for the head but for the heart.
“It’s about how we hold the vulnerability of people who are not used to a place a practice, who are not used to diverse communities,” Scott-Bey said. “It’s about how we hold the rage of people who have rage.”
Scott-Bey has been involved with Be Present for 15 years, finding in it a safe container and a place of connection, the same fundamental needs she has seen people longing for in her therapy practice.
“What I’ve found is people are longing for connection. We are pack animals, and we don’t know how to connect, especially across these differences,” she said. “I would say, 80 percent of the time, people just need to be witnessed, to be heard, to be seen and to be loved.”
Villagers interested in learning more about Be Present and getting involved should stay tuned to announcements about an upcoming open meeting, and can reach out to Laurie Dreamspinner for more information at email@example.com.
For Heidi Eastman, who participated in the events with Allen and is also in a local support group, the “experiential learning” of Be Present has helped her explore the meaning of being white in a racist society, work she feels she is “barely scratching the surface of.”
“To me, [Be Present] is about not waiting,” Eastman said. “Let’s have love and community and joy now, while we’re doing this work.”
Allen said she sees the struggle for justice not as waiting for someone else to act.
“We are not trying to fight for justice, but to be infused with justice. We already have justice inside of us.”