From “I tend to be a little skeptical when it comes to media coverage of issues about race” to “I’ve always hated conflict and I do everything I can to avoid it,” Minnesotans are talking about race. Minnesota faces some of the worst racial disparities in the nation in areas such as health, infant mortality rates, education, criminal justice and employment. Looking at these economic and racial realities, thousands of Minnesotans are engaged in dialogues at work and at school, at home and in their religious congregations.
Donna Albro, who describes herself as a “civil rights baby,” was one of the facilitators at the October It’s Time to Talk forum on race, an annual event sponsored by the YWCA. “When you look at the demographic changes that are occurring in America, it’s called the browning of America,” Albro said. “And then you think about Minnesotans of your generation, and your children are marrying people of color. And your grandchildren are people of color. There’s a wake-up call-you think, ‘I’m not going to let that happen to my child, my grandchild.’ You have to figure out how to have a multiracial and multicultural society.”
YWCA It’s Time to Talk
It’s Time to Talk is part of the YWCA’s ongoing work addressing issues of racism and women’s issues.
1. Don’t laugh at racist, sexist, ageist, homophobic and other stereotypical jokes or assumptions.
2. Make an effort to get to know people different than you.
3. Learn about other people and their culture.
4. Think before you speak.Words can hurt, whether you mean them to or not. When describing a person, think if mentioning their race is important to the story. Do you refer to everyone from South or Central America as Mexican? If you don’t know someone’s country of origin, don’t assume. Some people prefer Black, while others like African American. Some prefer Latino/a, others like Hispanic. If you’re unsure which to use, ask. It’s important to use the correct language.
5. Be a role model.
6. Don’t make assumptions.
7. Explore the unfamiliar.
8. Work on projects with members of groups different from your own.
9. Be a proactive parent.
10. Support anti-prejudice and anti-racist organizations.
Economist Dr. Julianne Malveaux delivered the keynote address this year, focusing on the economic impact of race. Malvaux talked about structural racism and its impacts on the African American community-an unemployment rate more than 25 percent, median family wealth of $28,000 compared to median white family wealth of $170,000, average African American family income of $32,000 compared to average white family income of $54,000. She noted that while everyone remembers the “I have a dream” part of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech at the March on Washington, few recall that he also talked about the “promissory note” given by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to all citizens, and said that, “America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.'”
After the talk, table facilitators got the conversation going with introductions, and then a question on what was the most compelling part of Dr. Malveaux’s message. Facilitator Liz Oppenheimer said they had a list of 10 questions, and were asked to be sure to cover the first and last ones, but also had flexibility to follow the group conversation as it developed. The format is based on a circle process using a talking stick. Each person contributes to the conversation while holding the talking stick, and then passes it to the next person.
The annual event, with tables of 10, financed mostly by large institutions, is the most public face of an on-going effort to foster dialogue about race. Each table sponsor for the $100/person event also gets to have a second dialogue in their workplace. Often, these are multi-session or on-going dialogues at organizations such as General Mills, Health Partners or Blake School.
ISAIAH 10,000 Voices for One Minnesota
Isaiah is a faith-based organization with a grassroots approach to talking about race and economics. Its 10,000 Voices for One Minnesota project aims to engage 10,000 people in groups of ten, meeting in living rooms or churches between September 2010 and May 2011. According to Isaiah communication coordinator Ginny Gleason, they have already engaged 4,000 people in the small group discussions.
“This effort has actually bridged a lot of divides between races,” said Gleason. “We have African Americans, Hmong, Somalis, Latinos, Liberians- it’s bridged a lot of racial divides, as well as across city to suburb to third-tier suburban areas to outstate Minnesota,” with groups meeting in the Rochester and St. Cloud areas as well as the Twin Cities metro.
While most congregations participating in the faith-based Isaiah programs are Christian, Gleason said one group of Somali Muslims is involved as is a non-Christian Unitarian Universalist congregation.
Isaiah conversations begin with a video (below), and trained facilitators are part of each two-hour discussion.
Like Dr. Malveaux and the YWCA effort, Isaiah emphasizes economics and disparities. “Within a matter of years,” said Gleason, “we’re going to be a way, way more multiracial state, and we are not ready for it. You can tell by the statistics that keep coming out, over and over and over. The Twin Cities have some of the worst racial disparities in the country, with jobs, graduating from high school, the amount of money people have to spend. The racial disparities are just huge.”
Facing Race: Saint Paul Foundation
During the past six years, the St. Paul Foundation has sponsored Facing Race dialogues for more than 6,000 people in Minnesota. The dialogues and materials are free, and, according to the website, “designed for use by neighbors, friends, family members, co-workers, members of faith communities and civic and recreational clubs.”
Sharon Goens, the Racial Equity Conversation Coordinator for the St. Paul Foundation, said that “For our dialogues, we have people coming at all different points along the continuum in their comfort level in talking about race and racism and their information level about race and racism.” She noted the words at the top of the Facing Race home page—Safe, Valued, Respected—and added, “I think you won’t get far if you don’t have those components.”
Facing Race trains about 40 new facilitators each year to conduct their original dialogue on race and racism and a new dialogue on white privilege. Any Minnesota group can request a facilitator and materials for a dialogue, so long as they have at least 20 participants and a space to hold the dialogue.
Starting the conversation
If you are interested in more information or in getting involved in conversations about race, here are some places to start:
Facing Race, St. Paul Foundation
Isaiah 10,000 Voices for One Minnesota
Anti-Racism Study and Dialogue Circles
YWCA It’s Time to Talk
Asked about other effective programs, Goens said that the Anti-Racism Study and Dialogue Circles are “very helpful in giving people a very solid and comprehensive understanding of our history and where we are now. I don’t think you could do better than that.” ASDIC is an in-depth study circle, with a 12-session, 12-week commitment and a lengthy reading list. The study circle is offered in universities as a for-credit course, and also in community settings. Herbert Perkins and Margery Otto, who founded ASDIC, won the 2010 Facing Race award.
Diversity discussion group
Minnesotans talk about the tough problems of race, economics, and racism in workplace groups, in churches, in schools and in other settings outside of organized dialogues and study circles. One of those places is a monthly diversity discussion group convened by diversity consultant Lila Kelly at Black Bear Crossings in St. Paul. The group is fluid and diverse, with a core group attending regularly and others dropping in and out. “I haven’t really tracked .. what percentage are HR professionals or others,” said Kelly. “It’s a real mix.”
Like the other dialogue circles, the diversity discussion group offers “a safe place to discuss some tough issues,” said Kelly. Participants in the November meeting-diverse in age, race, and profession-agreed on the importance of open conversations about issues of diversity, including race, gender and disability.
Liz Oppenheimer and Donna Albro, two of the facilitators from the YWCA event, said they believe that small group discussions can make a difference.
“I hold onto metaphors-the planting of the seed, placing a bead on the string and pretty soon other beads get added and there’s a necklace,” said Oppenheimer. “We are in the larger community, and it’s not just about one event.”
“For me, having done it all my life, I see the impact,” said Albro. “Having grown up in black church/Jewish synagogue situations, the personal becomes the political. …You tend to meet people where they are, and learning about another individual, they gain the courage to step forward. … It’s a beginning. I’m always learning. Other folks are always learning.”