Race seminar teaches to 'stop, listen'
Friday, October 30, 2009
By Corina Curry
Posted Oct 30, 2009 @ 10:14 AM
Last update Oct 30, 2009 @ 11:35 PM
ROCKFORD — Three hundred people gathered at Rockford College Friday to listen and talk about a subject that makes most people uncomfortable — race.
They spoke about how race made them feel, what they were raised to believe and how they’ve judged people based on race, and told stories about how race — their own and others’ — has shaped who they are today. By the end of the day, people of different ages, genders and ethnicities paired off and shared a final confession, a reflection on the day.
Faces leaned in and heads nodded. Some fought back tears as they spoke of their fears and shame. Throughout the room, hands reached out to comfort those in pain.
Fifteen minutes later, the room was empty.
Participants in the YWCA’s National Conversation on Race had completed their first task, a long and at times emotional day of self-discovery and sharing.
What happens next is up to the community, said Lee Mun Wah, a nationally renowned diversity trainer from Berkeley, Calif., whom the YWCA hired to facilitate the event. He urged participants, mainly representatives and leaders in government and education, to share their experience with others, to continue the conversations in their schools and workplaces, to not be afraid of what will be said but rather to be afraid if it’s not said.
Pledge to keep it going
Most participants pledged to keep the dialogue going and to let the experience change the way they communicate and think about race. Some of the continuation will be informal. Some will be formal. The YWCA offers a series of workshops on race for small groups. A local therapist is hoping to receive a sizable grant to keep the conversation going as part of a project called “Come Together Rockford.” Area clergy members have been invited to meet with Rockford school leaders next month to discuss ways they help schools and students achieve.
The Rev. Pam Hillenbrand of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in downtown Rockford was one of the few members of the clergy to attend Friday’s seminar. She and her husband, Bob, pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Rockford, expressed disappointment in the lack of religious leaders present but hope that they will join in the weeks and months to come.
“An event like this gives people the courage to find their voice and identify their fears,” Bob Hillenbrand said. “We realize it’s going to take more than a conversation to effect change. ... I think the area’s congregations need to step up.”
Pam Hillenbrand said Friday’s exercises, particularly the small group and one-on-one exchanges, turned the typical conversation about race into a gut-wrenching experience.
“It moved you beyond hearing,” she said. “It was much more powerful. Once the door was open for people and they felt safe and supported, it started pouring out.”
Patrick Hardy, chief academic officer of the Rockford School District, said he hopes the community is able to keep the topic of race in the forefront.
“I don’t know what should happen. I just hope something happens,” Hardy said. “In the end, I think it’s up to people to find out how they can make a difference and do it. What was unfortunate was the people who weren’t here. The true racists weren’t in the room, and those are the ones who really need to be in the room.”
Police officers attend
Sgt. Marc Welsh of the Rockford Police Department attended Friday’s seminar with a number of city police officers. Racial tensions in the city have been particularly high in recent months after a series of events, of which some leaders claimed that the city or other groups acted in a manner that was insensitive to minorities.
“This isn’t just a conversation for our community. It’s needed in our community, and it’s needed in communities across the country,” Welsh said. “It made you very aware of what causes racial issues. It put the problems out in the open, and when they’re out in the open, they’re easier to solve.”
Fifty-one-year-old Michael Guider of Rockford said he was moved by the opportunity to speak openly and hear others do the same.
“When you’re sitting there having a discussion with someone you don’t know and they are expressing these deep feelings, real feelings, that’s powerful,” said Guider. “And because they were being so honest and truthful with you, you felt you could be just as honest and truthful with them. I just don’t see that kind of connection happen too much in this world.”