Birmingham, Alabama, once a focal point of civil rights movement, is a city with an uneasy attitude toward discussions about equity and race, says diversity group leader and mentor T. Marie King. On the one hand, people are tired of feeling guilty and having the finger pointed at them over the city's long history of segregation and racism. At the same time, however, there is a genuine desire to share stories and experience about issues that runs deep in the fabric of the city's culture and economy.
King is determined to use this desire to be heard and understood on a personal level to overcome the defensivness of those who aren't ready to examine issues of systemic racism head-on. The co-facilitator of "Conversations 4 Change: An Open Discussion of Race in the Magic City," King shares with World Trust her philosophy about how best to approach discussions about race in such a way that folks will be able to heal, move forward, and become agents of change in their local communities.
Finding the Right Tools
"It's a conversation people want to have, but utilizing the right tool is key," explains King, who has facilitated two "Conversation 4 Change" events, the last one in October. "I think for Birmingham there are internal issues and bias that need to be addressed before we can start to address many of the systematic issues that we are experiencing."
"Conversation 4 Change" groups are deliberately small and diverse, allowing participants to engage each other on a personal level without triggering the shame and blame that sometimes result when broad audiences are exposed to lectures about race. The goal is to foster the kind of self-examination that allows people to overcome personal bias, which King sees as an essential first step in helping folks to understand systemic inequities.
At the last event in October, King presented her participants with a blank map of Alabama and asked them the simple question, "What is your geographical blueprint?" Are they church-goers, children of single-parents, sons and daughters of affluent homes or disadvantaged ones? If they felt comfortable sharing their blueprint with the group -- and most of them did -- they could see ways in that their preconceptions of others were holding them back and contributing to intolerant attitudes.
King also showed segments from the first half of Shakti Butler's diversity film, Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequity, to provide incentive for members of her groups to "pull back" and engage in the kind of productive self-examination modeled in the film. King says that one participant likened the film to a "nice slap in the face," something that provokes insight rather making him feel alienated and shamed.
A Life-Changing Moment
"It's a great film," King says enthusiastically. In fact, she found Cracking the Codes such a transformative learning experience when she first saw it in Montgomery that she decided to quit her job on the spot and devote herself to diversity activity. Her hope that the film will be just as inspiring a force for change in Birmingham.
Continuing the Converation
King's next project, "Circle of Friends," is scheduled to take place December 13. The event springs out of a private discussion she had with an older white woman who approached asking for a forum to be able to share her experience with race, since no such opportunity really exists in Birmingham. Since King firmly believes that healing comes from being able to express one's experience and look at it openly, she is excited for this new conversation to take place.
More about T. Marie King
King has been involved in community and youth outreach for the past five years. Currently, she serves as an independent consultant, managing lecture series and events and developing leadership and youth focused programming. She is the co-founder of Precious Pearls of Promise, a mentoring organization that works with disadvantaged young women in Birmingham, getting them to build self-esteem and learn to engage productively outside the narrow focus of their zipcode.
Being able to see yourself clearly first and eventually enter a dialogue for change with the larger community is the cornerstone of King's vision. "I'm just trying to make a difference," she says. "I haven't set out to change the world, or even to change Birmingham. I want to change one person and one circle of influence at a time."
If you want to learn more about T. Marie King's Conversations 4 Change or contact her about attending an event, read this article. Individual streaming of World Trust's diversity film Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequity and a downloadable conversation guide to the film are available here.