We Will Be The Change

A Recap of Dialogues Centered Around Race

By: Brooke Steigauf

Throughout the past months, Community Conversations for Racial and Ethnic Reconciliation and Understanding has dissected multiple subjects that are almost entirely neglected, despite their severity. The group hosted a series of difficult but necessary discussions on historical and current oppressions faced by various groups in our society.

The planning committee was a collaboration between Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, and Hamline United Methodist Church. Together, individuals from these cooperative institutions dedicated ample time in organizing and facilitating, while also offering support, credible resources, and experts to conduct civil conversations. The forums addressed Jim Crow (in the contexts of then and now), microaggressions, historical trauma, and systemic oppression/criminal justice.

Participants watched segments of documentaries and commentaries, listened to knowledgeable representatives share experiences, and engaged with one another on a personal level. The outcome, in brief, was a room of cohesive people existing with a shared sense of responsibility to enlighten some and support others, as we strive toward fair and just treatment of all. “We will be the change,” the attendees chanted.

Some wanted to expand their awareness of racial inequality; to learn so that they can teach others and become a more effective activist. Some wanted to brainstorm ways to raise uncomfortable questions to strangers or even loved ones in order to better advocate for themselves and their allies. So, while some wanted to feel heard and understood, others wanted to listen and understand. Everyone, though, wanted to mend wounds and improve lives. “It’s better when it’s better for everybody,” as participant Birdie Carter put it.

One outcome that attendant Judy Gibson found throughout these forums was that she became increasingly aware of the need to have discussions in the first place. Many have the privilege of forgetting the ever-present issues that exist to deteriorate members of our community. Moreover, it is easy for some to exist in oblivion, ignorance, or denial of the overt oppression that cripples us and our neighbors.

Nods of agreement followed when Becky Stibbe remarked, “You truly don’t know what you don’t know.” Guests came to the forums also looking for holes in their awareness. Therefore, a safe space was created thanks to a crowd of open minds and hearts; an environment of learning was fostered.

One very basic example of an educational result from the forum was some white attendees becoming awakened and empathetic towards those who have to be constantly conscious of their skin color; once they start to grasp what that would be like, it becomes clear that a person could inadvertently become defensive and questioning of how they will be perceived because of that skin color, as well as the physical, mental, and emotional toll that this protective thinking would take as it corrodes a person over the course of their lifetime. Luckily, those who come to the forums are also commonly those who want to share their experience or pose questions, leading to storytelling and problem-solving during small group discussions.

As individuals, we have only a feeble amount of information and experience to share in comparison to what we possess collectively. Additionally, humanitarian issues are overwhelmingly complex and multifaceted. The interviewees agreed that they always left these forums with more to say or learn, wishing there was more time to discuss with their tablemates.

Although they expressed appreciation for the abundance of information given, it was the forums that offered extended opportunity for communal exchange that they enjoyed the most, such as the one about microaggressions. “We learn from each other,” Carter added. Each speaker announced such alarming facts and stories that they found themselves yearning for time to process, with the support of others, and develop answers. “There is always more to be discussed,” Gibson stated. She also observed that the most impactful speakers were those who used their personal narratives as the vehicle for the information, as they were able to connect emotionally to the audience and make them better understand the true depth of hurt that victims of discrimination cope with.

The conversation certainly didn’t stop at the door, though. Carter said she immediately began searching for ways to apply what she discovered. As a history buff and former teacher, Carter observed what information seemed new to the majority of people. She understands that much of history is overlooked or forgotten so she intends to fill in the gaps when it comes to people's’ knowledge of past injustices to promote a more conscious future. “The village that hides the truth cannot expect to heal but to pass on the pain,” (anonymous author). Carter also prompted and participated in a continued dialogue with people at her church and even wrote about it for their bulletin.

Stibbe found the forums to be “a good excuse to create a tough conversation” that may not have occurred otherwise. After attending, a simple question such as, “How was your day?” could stimulate a natural conversation about something that is usually forced and unsettling. Furthermore, Stibbe explained, “I have known people of color for twenty years or more and we are just now talking about it. There were whole parts of their lives that I was oblivious to.” Also, with a more general understanding and awareness, Stibbe has found it much easier for herself to talk about and engage others in.

Gibson was reminded through these forums of the intensity of the work that still needs to be done. “We can’t change laws or policies without a change of heart,” she explained. Gibson compared the suppression of these issues to squeezing an ill-inflated balloon. “You squeeze it on one side and the air will just pop up on the other side.”

Each of us are involved in discrimination every day. Whether it is direct or indirect, intentional or unintentional, conscious or unconscious, we are all accountable for the conduct of our collective society, and have a responsibility for our own actions and the protection of each other’s basic rights.

Forums like those held by Community Conversations are not only what remind us of that truth, but are also what empower us to take action. At each table, attendees were inspired to do what they feel comfortable with, whether it’s protesting, voting, or simply being kind. Each participant felt the potential of their own voice to create the transformation they perceived necessary. “The best way to predict the future is to create it,” Abraham Lincoln said. We will be the change.

Special thanks to Linda Finny, George Thompson, Julia Landrum, Dennis Danforth, Cecelia Caspram, Julie Hellwich, Mary Kay Bailey, and Gabbie Vasquez for creating a healthy space for holistic conversation. Thank you also to everyone who included these forums in their pursuit of knowledge, understanding, and unity. Lastly, thank you to those who took time to read this and include it in their daily thoughts and dialogue.

“If you can’t fly, then run.
If you can’t run, then walk.
If you can’t walk, then crawl.
But by all means, keep moving.”
-Martin Luther King Jr.