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Black History Month in the 21st Century: Sharing a Room, Sharing a Country, Sharing a Vision

2012 February 29

As we reach the end of Black History Month in 2012, The Common Ground Blog asked our colleague Jeanné Isler, Project Director for Search for Common Ground on Race, to talk about her work on the Congressional Conversations on Race (CCR) project and reflect on the relevance of Black History Month in 2012. What ensued was a lively discussion about contemporary race relations in America.

Participants of the Rocky Mount, North Carolina CCR learn about the history of race relations in their community.

CGB: What is the mission of the CCR project?

JI: The mission is to cultivate the leadership of members of Congress on helping to address race related concerns in their districts through developing deeper understanding of and respect for history while facilitating constructive dialogue.

I think that there is always a lot of emotional energy when people start talking about race and that’s inevitable and that’s OK. It’s actually kind of valuable. For me, the question is then what do you do with that emotional energy because you have to direct it somewhere positive. So the way that CCR is directing this energy is by helping people think about actions that they can take. What is their capacity? How can they be empowered to make some sort of difference in their community?This manifests in different ways. We try to work with local leaders a lot whether they’re in formal positions of leadership or otherwise so that they can use that emotional energy in their positions of authority. But even if we’re dealing with general community members who are observing or might be present for just part of the event, we try to build into our facilitation design opportunities for people to reflect on how they can act in their day-to-day lives based on the information that they’re now receiving.

CGB: What is the difference you hope you can make through this project?

JI: I tend to think about this looking at how this project can affect members of Congress, their constituents, and their communities.

For the members of Congress, I hope that their leadership capacity is developed so that they understand new tools and resources for helping their constituents address race-related issues; that they feel more comfortable taking the lead on those things.

For the constituents, I hope that they build new relationships with folks in their communities so that they are talking about race and how to improve race-related issues with people that they would not normally be speaking with about these things so that they’re building relationships and partnerships and coalitions across traditional dividing lines. That might be race but it could also be political beliefs, it could be economic divides – whatever has been separating them in the past from working on race-related issues. We need to bridge some of those gaps.

CGB: What do you think is the biggest challenge this country faces in dealing with matters of race relations?

JI: I think we don’t understand how the United States has constructed race and how the United States has used race historically. Race is really tricky and it’s really insidious because it’s not real scientifically but it’s real socially. So it’s kind of like money, right? Money, our whole economic system only works because we all agree that it does, so if we all stopped agreeing that it worked, then it wouldn’t work anymore and that’s kind of how race is. So it’s sort of this weird conundrum where, if we don’t acknowledge that it exists, then we perpetuate the divides that are created, but if we do acknowledge that it exists then how do we get past it?

So I think that the solution to that would be that we need to understand where it came from in order to move through it. We can’t say we’re done with race and move past it. We have to move through it and I don’t know that we’ve effectively moved through it.

CGB: How does CCR address this problem?

JI: We address this in everything that we do. We talk about race from a historic perspective as it relates to that locale. And then we make the connection between the history and the modern-day challenges that people are facing….

In Oakland, for example, many people never knew about some of the history of the Chinese-American community that was essentially forced out of their neighborhood because of gentrification and because it was prime real estate. It created opportunities for points of connection between African-Americans and Chinese-American people because they have this common history that they never actually knew before.

Participants tour sites relevant to the history of race relations in Rocky Mount, North Carolina during January's CCR event.

CGB: With two CCRs now behind you, can you reflect on things that have stuck with you about this events?

JI: One thing that has really struck me is that, in the CCRs, people are talking to people that they have never spoken with before in their communities, even people who have been community leaders for years. So, literally, people who have been living on top of each other for their whole lives and have never really had any type of meaningful connection with them. So that’s powerful, and a huge opportunity we can facilitate.

Another aspect that I appreciate the most is that we are giving people who hold positions of leadership, who often have a public face, the opportunity to be human, you know, to be people. So, in the context of these conversations [portions of which are closed to the public and the press] people are free to tell their stories. To talk about where they come from, why they do the work they do, what their hopes and dreams are, and how they’re impacted by their work. They can more freely discuss their challenges and their fears. Allowing people to really explore that with each other, I find, is really powerful and I think it helps to bring the human element back into the interactions that people have with each other.

CGB: Did anything happen during your work on this project that made you think about things in a new or different way?

JI: I’m learning a lot about the country just in working with the members of Congress in these different regions. I think in all of the ways I just shared I’m impacted. I’m learning about the racial history of all these places and identifying points of connection for myself. I’m finding lots of points of connection between my experience…my American experience, and that of other people. At Search, we really strive to bring together people from various demographics and different communities, so I’m always challenged to ask myself: “who’s not in the room and how do I connect with that person?” Because of this I’m constantly grounded and forced to find the humanity in people that I would not normally reach out to on my own, which I really appreciate.

CGB: Have these events confirmed the thinking that went into establishing the CCR project? To reinforce the mission and the need to continue the project?

JI:  Absolutely. People are confirming that there is a need. People are saying “I wish we had more time.” As organizers, we are explaining that we need a whole day for people to talk about race. The reactions we hear are “Oh, we’re not going to be able to get that. These are very busy people. They’re going to be uncomfortable and they’re going to leave and they’re going to do this, that, or the other.” What we find is that has not been the case. People become really engaged, they’re very excited. To me, that’s an indication that people want this, that they are finding value in it, that they desire it whether they articulate that up front or not. And once they’re engaged, they’re really eager to try to continue.

CGB: What is the biggest challenge SFCG faces in our work on the issue of race in America?

JI: There are still physical racial divides in the United States but, because we have legislation in place, ostensibly those divisions are somewhat permeable.

So the challenge that Search faces is: what is the divide? What is the conflict that we’re trying to resolve around race because that more historic conflict of, “You can’t go here because you are fill-in-the-blank,” doesn’t really exist in the U.S. anymore. So the problem is that races are still divided and it’s not because of a clear law that says ‘You can’t.’ It’s because there are other laws connected to that history that end up separating people, sometimes accidentally, sometimes covertly. And so the challenge for Search is first we have to bring to light the fact that there are divisions particularly in terms of access and equity and then have to help people figure out how to bridge that divide.

CGB: Would you like to share some thoughts on Black History Month?

JI: Black History Month began because there was the need to highlight the role of black people in the United States because it wasn’t mainstream. My personal dream for Black History Month at this point is that there would be a more balanced representation of black people in the common history that we Americans share so that Black History Month would no longer be necessary. I don’t necessarily think that we are there yet. However, when I think about Black History Month now, in 2012, I’m looking more for connections as opposed to ‘Here’s a long list of black people who have done really cool stuff since the beginning of the United States of America.’ So I’m much more interested in using Black History Month as an opportunity to show the connections between people and specifically talk about black people when they form that point of connection because anyone who has really studied American history understands that we are all interdependent…

The rise of this nation is very much interdependent on the interaction between people of different racial groups and even when there were structural separations put in place, we were still very much interacting with one another. So every time there is a black person who has done something significant, there were lots of other races of people there as well. Likewise, every time a white person did something significant lots of other races of people were there as well. We were all in the same room together. Because of the racial divides, some races of people didn’t have voice – but they were still in the room. So, for me, to circle back to the CCR project, the history aspect of CCR is very important. I think that what we try to do at CCR is highlight those points of connection. To me, that’s what Black History Month in the 21st century ideally would shift to.

Thank you to Jeanné for taking the time to share her reflections with us. We look forward to sharing more CCR updates as the project continues throughout the year.

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