The Summit on Race Matters in Appalachia, held from November 10-11, 2014 in Charleston, West Virginia, brought eight different organizations and coalitions together to have a powerful conversation about the history of race relations and systemic racism in the state.
A screening of Shakti Butler's Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequity got this diversity workshop started, and the words flowed from there. In fact, the summit was so successful that the facilitators have already scheduled a follow up event on January 8, 2015.
World Trust had an opportunity to speak with Reverend Ron English, the force behind the summit, to learn first hand about how the conversation went. With an eloquence befitting his many years behind the pulpit, English summarized his experience, focusing on three main elements that made the event successful.
1. Community Building
When we asked English what advice he would give to others seeking to get an event like this started, he spoke about "sampling" -- reaching out to key individuals and sharing information without expectation, then letting momentum for an event build organically. This is how the Summit on Race Matters came to be.
After seeing Cracking the Codes at a diversity workshop on non-violent communication, English wondered "how a systemic approach might play out in West Virginia." He wanted to bring together policies, procedures, practices, and principles to "get underneath the framework" and foster transformative learning.
So English reached out to strategic individuals, like Reverend James Patterson, President of the Partnership of African American Churches, Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, and Mike Wenger, the author of My Black Family, My White Privilege. Wenger, one of the summit's keynote speakers, had once been neighbor of English's.
Interest spread outward from these initial contacts "almost by providential design" until local women's rights groups, public organizations and religious coalitions joined forces with the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, which sponsored the event. Even Shakti Butler herself, who happened to be in the neighborhood, stopped by to speak with the facilitators during a training session to provide inspiration!
2. New Perspective
English deliberately uses the term "summit as metaphor" since this event allowed individuals "to gain new perspective on relationships that were obvious." Looking at race from up on high, as it were, both whites and people of color would be able to find neutral ground.
He points out that, despite the many gains over the past 50 years, Americans have achieved a kind of status quo in their civil rights efforts. Blacks only speak out about the problems that stem from systemic racism during crisis moments. This reactive approach embarrasses whites and puts them on the defensive, making it hard to have an authentic conversation.
The summit allowed people to approach the conversation on neutral ground, without letting strong emotions cloud the underlying issues, so that "people could see in a non-threatening way how race relations have been shaped and how that's created unconscious bias."
3. The Power of Storytelling
We asked English to explain why he felt that showing a diversity training video at the beginning of the event was such an integral part of the summit's success. He identified two main elements that made Cracking the Codes crucial to laying a foundation for the individual talks and discussion that followed:
- The power of storytelling gave the audience an immediate point of entry into the issues in a way that no lecture could.
- The film was constructed to provide commentary "from many local perspectives," which allowed the audience to make connections between what they saw in the film and their own personal lives.
Despite the fact that it's anecdotes were geared mostly to an urban audience, the film resonated with the rural sensibilities of West Virginia. "This was a great transformational experience for me," said one of the organizers after the event. English concurs. "It was awesome."
Shakti Butler, the filmmaker and founder of World Trust adds, "Ron English understands that building community is critical to movement building. In order to effect change, we need to be having authentic conversations grounded in a shared understanding of how the system of racial inequity operates -- and that is what this film is designed to support. I am excited that Cracking the Codes is being used to help bridge the cultural divide and create a broader racial equity movement in Appalachia."
More about Reverend Ron English:
English grew up in Atlanta and was a protegé of Martin Luther King Jr. At the request of King's sister, Christine, he delivered the prayer at King's funeral service. He was the minister of Charleston, West Virginia's First Baptist Church from 1972 to 1993, where he established the Black Heritage Cultural Series. In 1990, he went to South Africa with a coalition of ministers to assist in Nelson Mandela's imminent release from jail. Since his retirement, English has been preaching by invitation and continuing to build his legacy of civil rights work.
Over 600 institutions are using Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequity to support diversity initiatives in education, government, healthcare, philanthropy, nonprofit and faith-based institutions. To learn more about Cracking the Codes, watch the trailer here.