AMHERST — In late January, 18 people from all over western Massachusetts traveled to South Carolina to talk about race with people from different states through a new project called Bridge4Unity.
“Our goal is to spread the idea that we need to talk to each other,” Paula Green told a packed room of more than 100 people who gathered at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst on Sunday hear about the trip.
Western Massachusetts participants — hailing from Springfield to Shelburne Falls — met with people from South Carolina and Kentucky in Beaufort, South Carolina, to talk about race and culture.
Green, the founder of the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding who started Hands Across the Hills — a series of meetings between liberal voters in Leverett and Trump voters in eastern Kentucky — helped facilitate the discussions in South Carolina with Gloria Graves Holmes of Beaufort County.
There is a small overlap in people with Hands Across the Hills, but Bridge4Unity has a different aim and is a more diverse group, Green told the Gazette.
In South Carolina, the group of roughly 30 people engaged in a series of discussions about race and had a cultural exchange in which they shared art and poetry. They also toured a plantation and met with the mayor.
While those in the Northeast have plenty of racial work to do, sometimes people can get in a bubble here, said Dee Shabazz, a participant in Bridge4Unity and a lecturer in Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Part of the value of having discussions across states: “We need to check in with one another as a nation,” she explained.
An experience in South Carolina that stood out to Shabazz was an exercise in which the group broke down into two groups, people of color and white people, and asked each other questions. “Why do you find it fascinating to touch our hair?” white people were asked.
The questions helped the two groups better understand each other’s everyday experiences, Shabazz said.
Neftalí Duran, of Holyoke, said he met people on the trip he otherwise would not have. Duran’s work focuses on race and food, such as working with urban agriculture organization Nuestras Raices, and he said he talked to the other participants about food.
“The first connection we had was talking about food,” he said of the trip. Duran made a video discussing food’s intersection with race and politics with Sonja Evans of South Carolina and Gwen Johnson of Kentucky, and posted on the Bridge4Unity Facebook page.
Tom Weiner, 69 of Northampton, was one of the few white men on the trip. He recalled discussing questions like, “What was your first experience of racism?”
Group conversation around questions like that could become intense. “They got personal fast … There were tears,” he told the Gazette.
Weiner got close with others in the group and said they were able to open up to each other. “It really became like chosen family,” he said.
For the past three decades, Weiner participated in a men’s group and for the past few years, a cross-racial discussion group in Hartford, Connecticut. But he had been looking for something more, and when he heard about the project, “I couldn’t jump fast enough,” he said.
The group recognized that discussions about race need to happen here in the Valley, too. “It’s important to do this locally,” Green said.
In June, western Massachusetts will be hosting the groups from Kentucky and South Carolina for more discussions, Green said.
PHOTO: Members of Bridge4Unity - western MA contingent - speak to the public at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Amherst. Photo by Greta Jochem for the Daily Hampshire Gazette