By Reanna Lavine
The topic of race and racism are typically avoided in polite conversation, particularly among white people. It’s uncomfortable. It can elicit strong emotions. But current events – both on the national level and in the county – continue to bring the topic of racism into the public sphere of dialogue.
But the Multicultural Resource Center has helped guide more than 600 Tompkins County residents through a community-wide discussion on those topics through its Talking Circles on Race and Racism. The program – two hours a week for six weeks – provides an opportunity for local residents to examine their experiences of racism through guided discussion.
The idea was first raised by Audrey Cooper, former director of the MRC, after racially-charged incidents at both Cornell University and Ithaca High School made headlines in 2006. As troubling as these incidents were, Cooper was concerned with the racism people in the local community were experiencing on a daily basis.
For example, people of color were being followed around in stores on The Commons. Cooper told a story about a small child who came into a store with his mother. He wandered the aisles while his mother was shopping. The child found something that he liked, took it off the rack and went to find his mother. At that point, the shopkeeper accused him of trying to steal the item.
Cooper said it was also commonplace for white people to make racially discriminatory remarks about a person of color who was running for local office.
But when people of color tried to bring attention to racial discrimination, their white counterparts didn’t believe them, saying, “That kind of thing doesn’t happen here.”
“Everybody likes to think that Ithaca is liberal and it doesn’t have issues with race,” said Cooper. “The reality is racial discrimination happens here like every other community.”
She decided to do something about it. Cooper secured a small grant and talked to Laura Branca, managing partner of Training for Change Associates, about starting a frank, community-wide conversation about racism.
Branca and her partner, Kirby Edmonds, started to develop a model for discussion that best suited the Ithaca community, a design they tweaked over time.
Some people want to talk about racism, Branca said, but have simply never had a successful conversation on the topic. Since everyone has different experiences and levels of understanding about race, there is always the potential that things won’t go well.
“Creating a manageable learning opportunity for people, that doesn’t leave them feeling frustrated, raw, and worse than they did when they came in – that’s a big challenge,” said Branca.
Rather than implement a study group model, where reading assignments provide the basis for understanding, Branca and Edmonds designed a program centered on the life experiences of participants in the Circle.
“There are no authorities or experts,” Branca said. “People aren’t just saying things to please designated leaders – trying to guess what the right answer is. If people are respectful and listen carefully and well to each other, they can learn a lot.”
Facilitators of the Circles did provided readings for context, but they were optional.
Participants of the Talking Circles were from different races, genders and social classes, so Branca and Edmonds spent a great deal of time fostering a safe space for all people to talk.
“We wanted people with prominent recognition in the community to take part in a way that was respectful, but also frank,” Branca said. “And we wanted people who were experiencing discrimination in the community to talk about what they were going through without worrying they were putting themselves or their families at risk by speaking out.”
An important aspect of a successful Talking Circle was training people who could help guide the discussion.
“It takes really skilled people to do that,” said Cooper. “They can make or break a Circle.”
Branca said she and Edmonds facilitated the first three or four Circles. During sessions they looked for participants who were engaged, good at listening to others, and were comfortable sharing their experiences with racism. Those participants were invited to become facilitators of future Circles. Branca said she has trained more than 20 facilitators for MRC.
In addition, Branca and Edmonds designed a Round Two Talking Circle for participants who wanted to go build upon the conversation they started in the Round One Circle. Trained facilitators were the participants of the Round Two Circles pilot.
Round Two Circles not only deepened the conversation about racism, but also helped prepare participants to do anti-racist work. Using an email listserv, and regular dinners and get-togethers, Talking Circles alumni strengthened their relationships. Some formed groups to take on specific racial concerns in the Ithaca community.
As word spread about the Talking Circles, outside groups and organizations turned to MRC for help in similar discussions. Branca helped to design specialized Talking Circles for faith-based groups, white allies, people of color, among others.
By 2012, Cooper’s idea for a community-wide conversation was in full swing with more and more people joining the discussion every year. She secured another grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to fund a three-year study of the Talking Circles to better understand the program’s effectiveness and value to the Ithaca community.
Cooper, who retired in 2014, stayed on at MRC to see the evaluation through.
Transition and Growth
Fabina Colon, current executive director of MRC, said that in addition to showing the effectiveness of the Talking Circles, the three-year evaluation highlighted areas in which the program could grow further.
“We wanted to develop a careful and inclusive approach to redesigning the Talking Circles,” she said. “It was challenging because there was all this beautiful work that had previously been put into addressing community-wide concerns about race and racism.
“People come from different places of understanding about race and racism and I don’t think there’s just one program that works for everyone,” Colon added.
So, she and Reed Steberger, program coordinator for the MRC, worked to further develop the Talking Circles for about a year. They encouraged feedback from past participants and facilitators and led focus groups to address findings in the evaluation. Ultimately, that work led to a few key changes for the Talking Circles.
Unlike the original discussion groups, which were multi-racial, Round One Talking Circles are now conducted in caucuses.
“We wanted to immediately address a specific part of the evaluation report, which was that people of color were having a very different experience from white people in the Circles,” said Colon. “We wanted to address the fact that several people of color did not feel they had a safe space in the Circles, and we also wanted to make sure they, too, get the most our of the Talking Circles.”
Those who choose to continue their exploration of race and racism in a multi-racial Talking Circle may do so after completing Round One in caucuses.
“As white people, we have a responsibility for educating ourselves about racism on our own time and with other white people,” said Steberger. “This is an essential part of anti-racism work. Often white folks expect people of color to undergo the emotional labor of teaching us about racism.
“And ‘people of color’ is a problematic term because it encompasses a lot of identities that are very different,” they added. “Creating caucuses is a way to explore racial identities beyond just the relationship to whiteness and to speak comfortably – and for white folks to speak openly and comfortably in their caucus as well.”
Another aspect of the redesigned Circles is that there are no longer optional readings.
“We provide that context through activities during the Talking Circles in different forms like art and other visuals, like videos,” said Colon.
“People’s experiences are the basis for connecting with each other,” added Steberger.
Kinesthetic activities, story-sharing and visualization are among some of the other ways facilitators now help engage participants in the Circles.
A third development to the Talking Circles was to create themes for each meeting on which to build continuity.
“We thought it was important for facilitators to have some continuum and answer ‘What are we working toward in these sessions?’” said Colon.
In six themed meetings, participants cover topics ranging from the historical context for racism, racial identity and intersectionality.
Prior to the program redesign, Branca facilitated a Round Two Talking Circle on intersectionality for participants seeking further exploration of structural oppression.
“We’re intersectional beings. People are not just a race. They have a gender, a class, a sexual identity,” she said. “We are multi-faceted and those intersecting identities mean different forms of inclusion and exclusion, advantage and disadvantage.”
In other words, it is impossible to have a conversation about racial discrimination without talking about how people’s racial identities intersect with their genders, or their economic statuses.
“Our society is often telling us that there’s not enough to go around,” said Branca. “So if I get something that advantages my group, it’s going to cost you something. This thinking keeps us from seeing our common cause and how we can benefit from working together.
“It’s important to learn about each other’s suffering, but also being willing to be generous and see that it is in my interests to help you get free,” she added. “My freedom and your freedom are tied together.”
That the topic of intersectionality is now covered in MRC’s Round One Talking Circle is an indication of growing awareness about racism in the Ithaca community. Today’s participants may already be familiar with intersectionality, which was not necessarily the case 10 years ago.
The evaluation of the program’s impacts on the community showed that the Talking Circles have indeed changed the way people view race and racism both in Ithaca and on the national level.
“One of the things the initial Talking Circles accomplished at a time when colorblindness was the status quo, was to bring people together to talk about race,” said Steberger, who first participated in the Talking Circles in 2014. Over the past decade we’ve seen a big change in confronting colorblindness.”
Roberta Wallitt of Ithaca participated in some of the first Talking Circles.
“White people can go through our lives without noticing racism,” she said. “Racism has an impact on our lives but we don’t notice it. For white people the Circles are transformative.”
Wallitt is retired now but worked for the Ithaca City School District for 25 years. She said she noticed that her students of color were often labeled as troublemakers in elementary school and by the time they became teenagers they were in trouble with the law.
“It made me feel like we were doing something really wrong. That was my motivation for getting involved with the Circles,” Wallitt said. “I was interested in the systemic ways racism does this to our children,.”
She noted that the Talking Circles have brought people together to have conversations about how to address racism in the community.
“The Talking Circles created relationships that otherwise wouldn’t have existed,” she said. “There is now a large body of people who want to undo the things that make systemic racism possible.”
Marcia Fort of Ithaca is also a past participant of the earlier Talking Circles.
“One of the powerful parts of the Circles is that they draw on your experiences over a lifetime, not just recently,” she said. “Life experiences help define who we are, what our attitudes are, what our thought and belief systems are.”
Fort said the Circles help people with deep listening.
“You gain a better perspective of where people are coming from,” she said. “You may not always agree, but you have a deeper understanding.”
Fort, the former director of the Greater Ithaca Activities Center who worked for the City of Ithaca for 30 years, credited the Talking Circles for providing the foundation for anti-racist work currently taking place in the community.
Cooper said that the Talking Circles have nudged white people into action.
“You don’t hear ‘That doesn’t happen here’ anymore,” she said. “When there’s a racial incident, the white community is no longer silent. There is a consciousness among white people in Ithaca now. They come out. People of color no longer need to lead the charge.”
That is the case for Kate Cardona, who worked with other Talking Circle alums to start the Ithaca Chapter of Showing Up For Racial Justice. She attended the Talking Circles in the spring of 2015, the same month that Freddie Gray, a black man was shot and killed by police officers in Baltimore, Maryland.
“We were all grappling with the need to move beyond conversation and into action for racial justice,” Cardona said. “So often dialogue about racism focuses on the interpersonal realm, and the racist things said or done by individuals.
“While this of course matters, it is a symptom of something much deeper,” she added, “and I think we’ve been trying to focus more on getting to the root of the problem.”
Cardona took part in redesigning the Talking Circles. The final meeting of Round One now focuses on taking action to combat racism, an aspect not included in the original program.
A Path Toward Racial Healing
Colon and Steberger are still working on defining other aspects of the Circles. They’ve seen high demand for the Talking Circles and have set a goal to provide six sessions per year. Availability depends on funding.
They are also trying to define the term “racial healing,” which the evaluation endeavored to measure.
“What is racial healing?” said Colon. “What does it look like? How does that happen and who is it for?”
Current Talking Circles include activities and examples to aid in individual and interpersonal healing at the close of each meeting. These include open forum journaling or watching related videos.
“It’s different for different people,” said Colon, “and we share resources and learn about what each other does to take care of ourselves. This is heavy, overwhelming, complex work, and we need to take care of ourselves and each other in this process.”
Assessing racial healing on the community level proves to be even more difficult. The growing visibility of white people speaking out and showing up to confront issues facing people of color in the community is an indication that Ithaca is moving in that direction.