How Do You End Racism? Start With a Conversation

'Circles of Voices' workshops facilitate dialogue that participants say breaks down bias.
(Photo: An End to Ignorance/Facebook)
Jun 17, 2016· 5 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Nine people shot and killed by a white supremacist in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The deaths of Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Jordan Davis, Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice, and Trayvon Martin. Could the ingrained racial prejudice that led to these deaths—and that drives discrimination everywhere, from the Airbnb rental market to America’s public schools—end if people from different backgrounds started talking and listening to each other?

That’s the idea behind "Circles of Voices," a free, three-hour, conversation-based workshop that brings people together to connect with folks they seem to have nothing in common with. Through facilitated dialogue, participants get to know one another in a safe space that enables them to break the silence around racism. In the aftermath of Gray’s death, the Baltimore-based workshops have become a vehicle for healing.

RELATED: ‘Worried’ About Race Relations? You’re Answering the Wrong Question

The dialogue is needed. A Gallup poll released in April found that 35 percent of Americans feel a “great deal” of worry about race relations, an increase of 17 percentage points since 2014.

While skeptics might roll their eyes at the idea that three hours spent talking to strangers about identity and what it means can reduce bias, “it’s the only way that we can do it,” Baltimore community organizer and diversity consultant J.C. Faulk told TakePart.

Along with his co-facilitator, Vernā Myers, a Harvard Law School–trained consultant whose TED Talk on overcoming biases has been viewed nearly 1.3 million times, Faulk has conducted 22 "Circles of Voices" workshops over the past year and a half—20 in Baltimore, one in Charleston in May, and one in Los Angeles last week.

J.C. Faulk in Baltimore. (Photo: An End to Ignorance/Facebook)

The sessions vary in length, but the exercises Faulk and Myers lead participants through are designed to help them reflect on their own identity and see the humanity of others. “It’s really about getting people who are somewhat unlike each other in the same space to have the conversations. Once you start having them, you get to sit in front of another human being and touch that human being, and experience that human being,” Faulk said.

No two sessions are the same, said Faulk, except for a component called “Circles of Voices 6”—because each member of a pair gets three minutes to talk. He and Myers ask participants to sit in silence and think about their two primary identity groups that they fit into—whether it’s their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, family status, occupation, or a personality trait. Then they’re asked to look around the room and find someone who seems different in some way that might be significant.

RELATED: See Why ‘Black Lives Matter’ Isn’t Just About Black People

Three years ago Faulk found himself feeling like he needed to do more than corporate trainings. “I just never felt like they were really sincere or earnest about wanting to do the work. And I just got tired,” he said. So in January 2015 he decided to use his skills to make a difference in his community. He founded An End to Ignorance, an organization dedicated to ending bias, and held the first "Circles of Voices" workshop in his home in Baltimore. He subsequently met Myers, and after discovering their shared commitment to ending bias, they decided to team up

A dozen people—friends, neighbors, cousins—came to the first session. “And then I thought, the conversation went pretty well, so I decided to have another one,” Faulk told workshop participants in Los Angeles last weekend. Sixteen people showed up in February 2015, and 20 people came to the third gathering in March of that year. “When it got to 20, it was too much for my house,” Faulk told the group with a chuckle. He found an outside venue and created a Facebook event, and 50 people showed up.

And then, in April 2015, Freddie Gray died in police custody and Baltimore burned with rage. That next session, nearly 90 people showed up. Since then, 1,100 people have participated in "Circles of Voices" workshops in the city, Faulk said.

RELATED: How Black Lives Matter Reshaped the Traditional Narrative About Police Killings

A workshop attendee in Baltimore who was originally from Charleston suggested a gathering in Charleston. Last month Myers and Faulk held a packed session in the South Carolina capital, the first to take place outside Baltimore. Faulk met with community groups and the new pastor of the Emanuel Methodist African Church, where nine members were gunned down by Dylann Roof as they prayed. “I went to the church, and they still have holes in the walls from the bullets,” Faulk said.

Faulk met Grammy Award–winning producer and musician K.C. Porter, the founder of the L.A.-based nonprofit Oneness, which uses the arts to promote racial unity. Porter invited Faulk to Los Angeles, a city that, like Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, before it, has been rocked twice by racial violence and riots.

Folks who come to a workshop agree to participate using ground rules, such as showing mutual respect, listening, and being OK with silence. The facilitators also emphasize giving other participants what they call “immunity.”

Verna Myers. (Photo: An End to Ignorance/Facebook)

“If people are going to grow and develop some comfort and awareness around these subjects, they might need to make a mistake. If you’re looking for perfection in these types of conversations, then you’ll be sadly disappointed,” Faulk told 50 participants in Los Angeles—a mix of black, white, Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Jewish attendees.

“We know that we get better at this when people give us a chance, when they give us some love, when they give us some grace and some kindness, so that we can make a mistake, and from that mistake we can grow. So in here we try to give each other immunity,” Faulk told the room.

RELATED: Racism Literally Costs America $2 Trillion...Ready to Stop Payment?

Once in those pairs, each person talks for three minutes, explaining what they chose as their primary identity groups and why. The other person is asked to listen without interrupting or asking questions. In Los Angeles, seemingly unlikely pairs, such as a 20-something black woman partnered with an older white man and a formerly homeless black veteran paired with a recent Iranian immigrant, engaged in the process. At the end of the six minutes of sharing, Faulk and Myers debriefed the process with the group.

Like many Americans, J.B. Eckl, a musician and producer who attended the L.A. workshop, deliberately tries his best not to prejudge people. But, said Eckl, who is white, “when the people in my group spoke up, and I got a chance to find out what they cared about, each time it contradicted a totally unconscious assumption I had already formed about them and what they would be like.”

Cameron Schuster, a black community organizer who attended the workshop in Los Angeles, told TakePart that he found the session to be “a great entry point for people who may not be connected to any particular movement but want to participate in bridging the many racial divides that continue to detract from the American fabric.”

(Photo: An End to Ignorance/Facebook)

Schuster was also inspired by Myers and Faulk’s drive to bring people together. “One man’s visceral response to the ongoing violence and oppression that plagues African American communities has turned into a recurring series of inclusive discussions facilitated in safe spaces,” Schuster said.

Faulk said he hasn’t always felt so courageous. “One of the key things for me is, I’m 55. I remember the day that Martin Luther King was shot, and that day is when I feel like I went into a kind of psychological fetal position as a black man in America,” he told TakePart. “I was seven. It hit my spirit and it made me scared, because I was a little boy, and I found out on that day that I could die because I was black. It damaged me.”

The uprising after Gray’s death made Faulk realize he “had been living afraid all my life as a black man on some level, even though I was trying to do something about race.”

“Now I’m saying things that I would not have said before the uprising because I’m not afraid anymore,” he went on. “I’m not going to go out cowering behind my couch. I’m going to go out facing what’s happening in America.”