An open invitation to talk about race

/ 28 January 2014 / eunice

Anna Pratt, Star Tribune, January 28, 2014 – Race is often considered a loaded subject, but the nearly 200 people at a recent forum in Brooklyn Park eagerly tackled it head-on.

“It’s Time to Talk About Race,” held Jan. 18 at the city’s Community Activity Center, was designed to encourage candid conversations and to highlight the area’s diversity. It featured keynote speaker Bo Powell, an equity specialist for the Osseo schools who also coaches basketball at Park Center High School in Brooklyn Park, and several performances by groups of young people representing different cultures.

Over the past 20 years, Brooklyn Park’s demographics have changed substantially. Today, nearly half of the city’s residents are people of color, and they may soon constitute a majority.

“Our goal for the event was to have the greater community come together and have open and balanced discussions about cross-cultural, interracial and general race relations in the community,” said Elizabeth Tolzmann, Brooklyn Park’s community engagement coordinator. “We didn’t want people to live in fear or isolation.”

While many residents say they appreciate the area’s diversity, the city also has heard from people who say they often don’t know how to interact with neighbors of a different background, Tolzmann said. So the idea was to create a “safe, secure environment where honesty and sharing our stories is valued and respected,” she said.

The forum was sponsored by the city, along with the Osseo schools, Hennepin Technical College, St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church and EPU Consultants.

Encouraging honesty

During small-group discussions, facilitators laid out ground rules to set a tone for respectful dialogue. Participants agreed to stay engaged in the conversation, to expect discomfort, to speak their truths and to understand that disagreements might not be resolved.

They also were encouraged to keep their perspectives personal, local and immediate. For example, one might say, “As an Asian-American woman …” or “As a young Laotian woman …” rather than “We Asians … .”

Such a format “allows each person to have equal voice and power,” Tolzmann said.

Although the organizers have yet to meet for a debriefing about the forum, Tolzmann said she expects the conversation to continue in some form.

“People cannot be healthy if the opportunities critical for their well-being,” such as education, jobs, schools and housing, remain elusive, she said. “These are the reasons why place and race matter.”

The school district’s role

The forum was modeled after a similar event that the YWCA hosts on a regular basis, said Brian Siverson-Hall, executive director of community engagement for the Osseo schools.

“We thought this event provides a constructive framework on which to have conversations about race,” he said. “We’re not trying to solve anything, but to have a venue for discussing it.”

Osseo district schools mirror the diversity unfolding in the area, Siverson-Hall said. Of the district’s 20,000 students, half are minorities.

To enable students to be successful, “we want to make sure that we’re having relevant conversations to help with the achievement gap [between white and minority students] and provide support to family members in our community,” he said.

Siverson-Hall said he was impressed with the turnout. “It was extremely encouraging that it generated as much interest with little marketing,” he said. “The resounding feedback that we got is that people have a desire to continue these types of conversations.”

Some said they’d like to see an annual event like the forum, while others requested smaller monthly gatherings. People were also pleased to see young people were involved, he said.

The Twin Cities Shooting Stars Hmong youth dance group, the rap group Renegade and an American Indian drum and dance group from the Osseo Indian Education Program performed. A group of 10 children presented a skit that drew on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

A handful of students joined in the discussion circles after their performance wrapped up.

“The big takeaway is that when people stop and listen to one another, they want to hear more. People give each other insights,” Siverson-Hall said, adding, “You can get insights from a second-grader or an 80-year-old. That’s why we need to convene a spot for people to talk about it and share their truth.”

A safe place to talk

Michelle Perdue, a teacher, actor and motivational speaker who lives in Brooklyn Park, said the event piqued her interest because “I wanted to go beyond just living in my community to being a part of it and having a greater understanding of how race affects us all.”

Perdue, who is black, said race is a topic “that needs to be addressed.” The forum offered a rare opportunity to do just that, she said.

“It creates a platform for people to address their fears and ideologies about race in an environment that’s safe, structured and supportive,” she said.

Hearing thoughts from others at her table, particularly from two white men, was eye-opening for her. “We often hear people of color addressing issues of prejudice,” she said. “It was interesting to hear the two share their vulnerability and sensitivity about race.”

Perdue said she was struck by how the men felt like “they’re carrying the weight of generations before them and they have a sense of responsibility about the social or economic disadvantages that people of color have to face.”

She said she could relate to being in uncomfortable situations where it feels as though she must represent her race.

She said she was also struck by the testimony of another person at her table whose “story was really heartfelt. She talked about going to work, feeling as if she’s being judged based on her ethnicity vs. her credentials.”

For Perdue, the moral of the story is that no matter “who we are, where we come from, the color of our skin, we are more alike than we are different,” she said.

Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at