Meaningful Conversations Sparked by Race Amity Conference

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Optimistic collaboration took center stage at the 2013 annual National Race Amity Conference, hosted by Wheelock’s National Center for Race Amity (NCRA). From the conversation at tables to conversations between sessions to session-specific discussion, the focus remained to work together toward ‘E Pluribus Unum’, or, “out of many, one.” Those who chose to attend the weekend’s events displayed their own commitment to this idea. Out of many backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives, came one incredible opportunity to connect and share. Out of many ideas about how to approach the still very challenging and controversial issue of race, came one strong and successful attempt to bring folks together to tackle the issue anyway. Out of many excuses fueled by others to avoid the challenge, came the will to learn and rise above these excuses.

Youth of today, with the right level of guidance and courage, can stand in the light that their parents and grandparents shone when they combated against injustice and strife in their time. It all begins with conversation.

At the center of much of the conference conversation was youth. Any change with regards to racial relations needs to begin within the minds of young people.  According to Xernona Clayton, “young people are not getting up, getting out, and solving problems.” Upon further dialogue with youth, however, one would discover that many young people are in fact concerned about major, global issues. They are concerned about their neighbor’s struggle and are moved by issues. The problem is that they have been sometimes unfairly labeled as apathetic, disillusioned, and misled. They are afraid to tap into the power that comes ccorfrom within. They scamper away from using the power that stems from making a conscious, consistent choice to dedicate themselves to a cause that is greater than they are. The very possibility that they could actually be successful and make a profound difference weighs in as a daunting task; it becomes too much responsibility.

Fortunately, there is hope. The fact that there were a significant number of students at the conference demonstrates that when young people are invested in something larger than themselves, even when they can’t immediately see why the issue affects their daily existence, they are willing to become participants at the table of change. It is not just the youth of past generations that are concerned about social justice. At the same time, however, we are at a crossroads. The issue of race is something that in an Obama era, makes young people hesitant to get involved with because they feel as though it is no longer relevant or at least not as problematic and central to their daily lives as it would have been decades ago. They feel as though the fight for civil rights was something of the past, something that their parents and grandparents fought for nobly, not a concern of their own. The task now is convincing youth that this is in fact not an outdated issue, but rather one that is still active and important. Youth of today, with the right level of guidance and courage, can stand in the light that their parents and grandparents shone when they combated against injustice and strife in their time. It all begins with conversation.

Conference PhotoThis truth was confirmed at various sessions throughout the conference. In the session “Campus Conversations on Race [CCOR]: A Model for Engaging Students through Peer Leadership”, which focused on CCOR at Colby College, we saw a model of how conversation is instrumental in race relations. Dr. Joe Atkins, Assistant Dean of Students at Colby, led a spirited conversation which echoed the notion of whether or not we are in a post-racial period. The consensus was that although we have made strides on the issue of race in the United States, we are still not safely out of a time where race is an issue to grapple with. Dr. Atkins spoke about the “Campus Conversations on Race” program on the Colby campus that is primarily student led with the counsel and supervision of campus staff. On a weekly basis for a period of 6 weeks, students meet for two hours at a time to discuss race as it relates to current events, their experiences, or whatever inspires them. Although some students come to the group sessions thinking that their encounters will only be of temporary and circumstantial importance and give them what they need (i.e extra credit) and that only, they end up having their whole life trajectory transformed and hearts moved by what they learned and had to offer in conversations. These students, now aware of the power that they have to make change that even ripples their own local community, are now invested in a movement that still needs propelling. They are now fully engaged and will in this way be equipped with the drive to move forward, but also to inspire others to do the same.

In the session “Classroom Voices on Education and Race” with Dan Frio, a retired educator, we learned about the implications of race and ethnicity in the classroom. Much of our conversation had to do with the intersections of race with class, socioeconomic status, and geographic location. We looked at these factors through the lens of Wayland high school students who worked with the METCO (Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity) program. The METCO program is a longstanding voluntary busing initiative that brings Boston metro students of color to attend school in the much less diverse town of Wayland. We caught a glimpse into the experiences and relationships that developed through the program and in this way learned important lessons about acceptance, collaboration, and especially, privilege. Recognizing one’s privilege or lack thereof is a first and necessary step to combating prejudice and racism. As students opened up to the experience, they gained a rare opportunity to learn about themselves in unique ways.

Recognizing one’s privilege or lack thereof is a first and necessary step to combating prejudice and racism.

Throughout the conference, through sessions, panels, group activities, and casual conversations, signs of “the other tradition”, or the notion of interracial friendships and relationships creating a strong force against racism and prejudice, were ever present. Though it may seem simple, the idea that people from all different backgrounds can come together and discuss race in an open, non-judgmental, and engaged fashion is evidence of how far we have come as a society. From many generations, ethnicities, experience levels, and educational backgrounds, can come one common goal: progress. We’ve seen how youth on fire for a cause can shake and shape a nation, pushing it toward boundless success, and we can be assured that it can happen once again. Whenever a person feels as though they belong to a particular community, that is when they become invested in a cause for that group and furthermore, willing to take a chance on affecting change. As the Honorable William F. Winter, Former Mississippi Governor, suggests, we need to keep “creating situations where people are coming together because [youth] can’t [create social change] in isolation”.

Though it may seem simple, the idea that people from all different backgrounds can come together and discuss race in an open, non-judgmental, and engaged fashion is evidence of how far we have come as a society.

As Howard Ross, Founder and Chief Learning Officer at Cook Ross Inc., poignantly stated – “The problem is not that we have different points of view, but that we perceive those points of view as truth.” Moving forward we need to accept that our beliefs will be challenged and that is okay. This does not mean that our worlds have to fall apart, it just means that we must work harder to show others why the ideas we have are valid and be open to learning about what others have to offer. In the spirit of amity, this will go a long way.

The 2013 Race Amity Conference was a joy to participate in, and I look forward to attending in the future. “The vision of ‘towards E Pluribus Unum’ at this conference [was to] advance access, equity, and social justice through racial amity and collaboration”; and in that respect it was a great success. Here’s to a future filled with meaningful and respectful conversations about race! Congratulations to the NCRA staff for a job well done!

Stephanie MirekuStephanie Mireku is the Aspire Institute Operations Specialist. She is enthused to bring a passion for community service and languages to the Aspire Institute and to help affect social and educational change in communities across the state. Before joining Aspire, Stephanie worked for the Wheelock College Center for International Programs and Partnerships as an Intern for the Study of the United States Institute (SUSI) program. Stephanie completed her undergraduate education at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth where she studied English Writing, Communications and Rhetoric, and Spanish.

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