Local group wrestles with the personal side of race

For more than a decade, a dozen or so members of the Neighborhood Interfaith Movement have developed a deep bond with one another over an often uncomfortable subject: race relations.

At several points, NIM’s Dialogue for Racial Justice group has touched on subjects so personal they required a level of trust participants felt new members would compromise, according to long-time member Elaine Dushoff.

“And we’ve said now we can’t disturb the balance. We’re all so confident in each other,” said Dushoff.


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Opening the circle

Recently, however, the interfaith and interracial group has re-evaluated that stance and is now actively looking to expand its circle.

“New people bring new ideas,” said Dushoff.

And those new ideas can help the group’s overall focus – providing an avenue for blacks and whites to talk about race with one another – to remain fresh, according to her.

The group will continue to work on that goal through readings, discussions and public programs, but in last month’s meeting at First Presbyterian Church in Germantown potential new members added to the discussion about what else to do.

Past activities have included a viewing and discussion of the documentary “Traces of the Trade”, which explores the history of slavery in the North and the reading of “There is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America” by Vincent Harding.


Going beyond intellect

Lysa Monique Jenkins-Hayden, an African American and a dance therapist from Germantown who is involved in several race relation organizations, praised the group for exploring the difficult personal and emotional side of race, and not relegating it to a purely intellectual discussion.

“You’re group is actually about doing the work of dialoging. When you only read academic or intellectual material, it only goes here,” said Jenkins-Hayden with a finger pointed to her head.

Jenkins-Hayden thought The Dialogue for Racial Justice could help other race-relation groups move forward with tips about how to get to that deep, personal place – particularly for whites.

But long-time member Bob Swenson, a white member from Mt. Airy, didn’t feel quite as confident. Despite all his work, uncovering the real-world applications of concepts like “white privilege” is still tricky stuff.

“If you were to come by tomorrow morning and wake me up and ask me: ‘Give me some examples of white privilege?’ I’m not sure I could do it, at least not for a while,” he said.

Yet, frustratingly, the everyday-ness of white privilege, “is so engrained in me that it is like the natural part of the universe,” Swenson added.


Hard work, good work

Other ideas for new directions the group could take included hosting focused book discussions and developing activities to help people evaluate their racial consciousness, as well as tracking down and recording the stories of those who knew their slave ancestors, before it’s too late.

Following the meeting, first time participant Joanne Elliott said she was encouraged by the group’s discussion and would consider becoming an active member.  She saw the group’s work as an essential first step for people to truly understand their beliefs when it comes to race.

“That’s key,” she said. “You have to look inside and then you can branch out and talk about what it is you want and what it is you expect.”

Elliott, who grew up in Philadelphia during the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s,  added that NIM’s group and others are also important for working towards a more racially tolerant future.

NIM’s Dialogue for Racial Justice will meet March 6 at The Church of the Annunciation in Mt.Airy to further assess the meeting’s suggestions.

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