Community engages in conversations about race

Benefits of having discussions about race and related issues were highlighted this week, at the first of three Tri County Mediation’s Community Conversations on Race.

Panelists, meeting on Monday at the Greater Salisbury Committee building, represented one of several groups of about 20 people, who began meeting in October 2016 and explained the results. A film was presented showing community members talking about the importance of dialogue about race. About 25 people attended.

The second Conversation on Race was Tuesday this week at the Chipman Cultural Center and the third will be next Tuesday at 6 p.m. in Room 111 of Fulton Hall at Salisbury University.

Panelists on Monday were Michele Ennis, executive director of Tri Community Mediation, and Kevin Lindsay, Bunky Luffman, Devon Beck, Heather Mahler and Salisbury Police Chief Barbara Duncan. Ennis described the sessions as, at times, tough, funny, awkward, poignant, frustrating and eye-opening.

“There were three different groups we’ve gone through so far. A fourth group is happening now and a fifth is forming,” Ennis explained.

“In each group, the same 16 to 20 people meet every three weeks for two and one-half hours. They eat together and they begin to get to know one another but it’s experientially based. People get to reflect on their own experiences around race and learn from others about their experiences around race. There are some exercises we do to create an experience and we talk about it. We share experiences and insight anecdotally as well as pieces relevant to national conversations, local conversations, how that impacts day-to-day living, what change might look like. There are a lot of components,” Ennis said.

“We work really hard to create safe space, to ask people to take a risk and open up. It’s confidential. What is said in those sessions is completely confidential. People know that message isn’t going to go out to other folks,” she said.

In one session, Luffman said, participants were instructed to make a list of 10 words that described each of them, such as being a husband and father. None of the white people in the group put the word “race” on their lists, but all the African-Americans did, he said.

“It was eye-opening and a valuable lesson,” he said.

Lindsay, who participated with his wife, said their conversations at home, after the sessions, taught him how his wife feels. “It was always the ride home, go pick up the kids, the conversations we had between each other. Some of those conversations were sometimes tougher. She walked out of there frustrated, upset. Sometimes you needed a break,” he said.

“This is about people who think very differently, look very differently, coming in, and working on understanding where folks are coming from,” Ennis added.

“These things are important,” Lindsay said.

“I don’t think it should ever end, personally. I’m raising two kids. It’s about building a legacy. It’s about them understanding it’s not always going to be easy … it really does trickle down from conversations about race to the young kids we work with, the different backgrounds, helping us understand certain things at a game, for example,” he said.

Beck, an educator, said often young people don‘t always understand the strong impact their words have on others.

Duncan said it was important to participate “because I wanted to know if this would be something as an agency that, we could take everything we have learned, to see whether or not this would be a likely next step. That’s the point of it. It’s the process. It’s how you get to where you get,” she said, adding she feels confident the experience “is something I can rely on.”

“For us, the Salisbury Police Department, it’s powerful,” Duncan said.

Ennis said the idea originated after a frustrated Lindsay posted a Facebook message she called a “rant.” Mahler, who is friends on Facebook with Lindsay, learned about the project and, with Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore, where works, “was happy to support it.”

Originally, the idea was to form groups of 200 to 400 people, but the number was pared down to a manageable size.

People interviewed in the film, who were not identified but recognizable to many in the audience, shared views, including a woman who said, “Race is a big thing in my life.  So, when I heard there were actual conversations on race I was really excited … it ended up all the black people in the room were on one side of the room and all the white people were on the other side of the room and that came after we had gotten closer to each other,” she said.

Eli Modlin, deputy chief of staff and director of government and community relations at Salisbury University, said he realized he had “pre-conceived notions about people that aren’t necessarily true and that it rang true, don’t judge a book by its cover.”

“I came into this thinking and believing I am a progressive thinker and open minded, but definitely throughout the 10 weeks I became more open minded,” said Julia Glanz, Salisbury City Administrator.

Asked about the importance of being part of a community conversation by the film narrator, Duncan said it’s beneficial to “come to listen and not worry about trying to meet every point that’s brought up and not be concerned about ownership or trying to make a particular point or being defensive.”

“I think you can make some real headway so from the very narrow perspective I would say creating space just so people can be heard was very powerful …  If I want to be in a position to allow my colleagues to work in a safe space we have to have trust. The importance of making time for that level of commitment to happen is an investment but it’s an investment in trust that is going to pay off in the future,” she said

Lindsay stressed comments made during meetings were “from the heart and truthful and there would not be any backlash.”

The Rev. Martin Hutchison said when space is available to talk about race and related problems “a whole new solution arises.”

“I put more thought into how I treat people, how I talk to people,” another man said.

At the meeting, Grace Foxwell Murdock asked how these conversations will benefit youth.

Ennis said group members met with Dr. Donna Hanlin, superintendent of schools, and have talked about having their own children join for another series of conversations.

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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