Starting the conversation: CJC, Heart and Soul to hold talks addressing racial oppression

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Jill Evans, left, and Susanna Weller of the Essex Community Justice Center sit in the lobby of their Iroquois Ave. office last week after discussing their hopes for a new series they're spearheading on building empathy around racial oppression. (Photo by Kaylee Sullivan)

Jill Evans, left, and Susanna Weller of the Essex Community Justice Center sit in the lobby of their Iroquois Ave. office last week after discussing their hopes for a new series they’re spearheading on building empathy around racial oppression. (Photo by Kaylee Sullivan)

Essex’s Community Justice Center and Heart and Soul group are starting a series of discussions this month on building empathy around racial oppression, organizers said.

A predominately white community, Essex didn’t experience one particular event to spark the CJC to adapt this three-part series. The growing population of racial minorities, the plethora of officer-involved shootings of African Americans and a presidential election enveloped in tension, did though, Susanna Weller of the CJC said.

“We know that for a lot of people, talking about race and racism is really challenging,” she said. “The U.S. has a long history of having a hard time having the conversation in a way that feels respectful and thoughtful and in a way that helps people act instead of just thinking.”

To learn how to recognize, step in and address race-related issues, the CJC partnered with the Peace and Justice Center of Burlington, who will facilitate the series.

Weller and the three other white women who run the CJC will be in attendance as learners.

“There’s a lot of privilege here,” center director Jill Evans said.

With that, Weller said the CJC has the power to address tensions over racial oppression; however, like many others, the group wasn’t sure the best way how. This series, set for January 11, 18 and 25 from 6:30 – 8:30 p.m. at Essex’s Memorial Hall, gives them, along with 21 others, the chance to learn.

Being in Vermont, Peace & Justice Center executive director Rachel Siegel said it’s normal to have a largely white audience at these workshops, which it facilitates around the state.

“It’s a unique challenge presenting racial justice work to folks in Vermont,” who sometimes don’t believe racism exists until her organization points it out to them, Siegel said.

Siegel hopes audience members leave uncomfortable, knowing the severity of the problem that exists but more equipped with tools to take action to combat racism in their community.

“People who are white have a responsibility to know what racism is and what our skin color, what kind of privilege it provides us,” Evans said.

Weller recognizes some people think racism doesn’t exist here. Through this program, she wants to learn how to recognize racism since it’s not always visible through her privileged lens.

While the audience will be predominately Caucasian, the PJC will provide two facilitators – one white and one non-white.

This lets audience members hear two perspectives and and will provide first-hand accounts of racism, Siegel said.

Through Heart and Soul’s work of talking with close to 1,000 Essex community members, the non-profit identified six values core to the town’s beliefs. Specifically, valuing “community connections” is what led the CJC to partner with Heart and Soul in bringing the series to town, Liz Subin of Heart and Soul said.

In the organization’s spring 2013 study, 53 people mentioned the importance of diversity and cultural awareness in town, the fourth most mentioned topic among the community connections category, the report shows.

While many of the values outlined in Heart and Soul’s findings were put into action in the last few years, its partnership with the centers is its first step in discussing racial oppression and building an empathetic community, Susan McCormack of Heart and Soul said.

With an increasingly diverse population, “This is a really good opportunity for the community to start to make some progress on it,” she said.

All 25 seats are filled, but there is a waiting list and similar series around the state, Siegel said. Brownell Library hosted the same series last May.

The CJC promoted the series by reaching out to local places, including the Islamic Society of Vermont in Colchester.

Both representatives from the CJC said they hope that by learning empathy around racial oppression, they’ll relate that to other topics, such as religion.

“It’s very important to have a conversation just about race,” Evans said. “But I think that puts us in a better position to open it up and talk about other differences.”

Weller noted the Islamic society’s interfaith gathering last month and the discovery of swastika drawings at local colleges as instances to spark empathy around religion.

Both organizations are looking forward to continuing this conversation after the series concludes.

“We don’t see this as an end to the work, we see this as a beginning,” Weller said.