“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” — James Baldwin
I’ve led dialogue groups in many countries undergoing a struggle for reconciliation. Entering dialogue on race in South Carolina last month, I felt that few have been more difficult, even after civil wars, than this. How would a diverse group, from three regions of our country, negotiate their truths, their pain, their discomfort, their denial, their facing our history and current reality of racism?
This dialogue project is called Bridge4Unity. It brings together a Pioneer Valley contingent of 18 who have been meeting monthly since the fall, getting to know each other over potluck meals and in dialogue. We are people of African, indigenous and European descent. In January, we traveled to South Carolina to meet with a comparable group of Carolinians and an interracial group of four from Letcher County, Kentucky to do dialogue together.
In deep dialogue sessions over three days, we expressed anguish, we shed tears, we asked and answered tough questions, we did not avoid the hard places, and we came through with an astounding amount of caring, connection, respect — and, yes, love for one another.
This was the same outcome I experienced with Hands Across the Hills, a dialogue project focused on political and class differences, between my progressive town of Leverett and conservative Letcher County, Kentucky. I learned once again to trust the process of creating a safe container for the group, where deep and often scarring life events could be shared and properly received and where our reflexive stereotypes toward the other could be shed.
Our first experience upon arrival in South Carolina was to face the brutal institution of slavery in a tour of a plantation-turned-museum. Then as we traversed the Lowcountry toward Beaufort, we were introduced to the landscape of the Gullah people who have lived remotely near and on the Sea Islands. Their isolation enabled their African roots to remain somewhat intact. They still constitute a close and unique community on land that is today threatened by gentrification for elite resorts.
Our three-state group gathered at Penn Center in Beaufort, a historic residential retreat founded by two Quaker women who risked travel to the region during the Civil War to establish the first school for enslaved children and families.
Dialogue is a mix of theories, skills and a bit of magic. When it’s working and participants open-heartedly share their deepest truths, a spiritual energy enters the circle. Transformation happens. Everyone recognizes the shift from conversation to something deeper, a time of I-thou relationships, of bonding and surpassing whatever constraints keep us from each other. The moment does not have to last. In its existence, it is known. Over days of dialogue, meals together, storytelling and music we came together in an extraordinary way.
In Beaufort, we had scheduled one public event, not widely publicized, it turned out, to share our endeavor with the local community. About 20 folks showed up on that Saturday afternoon. We were so intensely focused on our dialogue that we decided to invite the newcomers into our circle rather than talk to them more formally. About half agreed to join the circle. I recount two moments and how our newly bonding group handled them.
One newcomer made a quite unconscious racist comment while attempting to compliment one of our members who had just spoken. “You are such an articulate woman of color,” she said. Eye contact went around our circle of dialoguers. What would happen now? Silence, then one of us spoke up firmly and yet very kindly, then another and another, like a relay, broadcasting that we have each other’s backs. Essentially, we were saying, consider how this would sound to you: “You are such an articulate white woman.”
A second newcomer wondered why we were bothering with dialogue because, she said, she was colorblind. Among us a quiet collective intake of breath, and then a response, measured and respectful: racism, permeating everyone’s unconscious as well as society’s structures, is not dismantled by personal kindness, though that is welcome. Racism is the water we swim in, the air we breathe; and like air and water, it envelops us all.
We are still learning together. Each of our three regional groups will meet monthly for dialogue and anti-racist community efforts.
All of us will gather for another residential weekend in June here in the Pioneer Valley. In addition to holding dialogues, we will have home stays, potluck meals, and we will hold a public event open to all. We know others in our Valley are similarly engaged in this work. In this time of extreme polarization and backsliding on our national commitments to justice and equality, these encounters provide a sturdy bridge to the only secure future possible, which is one that is shared.
Paula Green, founder of Karuna Center for Peacebuilding and Professor Emerita at the School for International Training, leads Hands Across the Hills and Bridge4Unity.
Bridge4Unity will present “Dialogues Across Race: South Carolina, Massachusetts, Kentucky” at Unitarian Universalist Society, Feb. 24, 2-4 p.m., 121 N. Pleasant St., Amherst. B4U members, including Paula Green and Amilcar Shabazz, will share their experiences along with slides of the South Carolina gathering. Free.