Monday, July 27, 2015

Tough Talk Part 2: Stowe Center Conversations

In my last post, I attempted to make the case (made more effectively by so many others) that museums need to become places where we can talk about tough issues.  Last week, I got a chance to sit in on a Stowe Salon at Lunch, at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, in Hartford CT,  on the subject of white privilege which was skillfully facilitated by Michelle McFarland, Branch Manager of Hartford Public Library’s Mark Twain Branch. A frame for the conversation was the article, "I, Racist" by John Metta, which coincidentally was also used in the last #museumsrespondtoFerguson twitter chat.

Before it began, I was curious about who would come to the Stowe Center, not exactly in the middle of a highly trafficked area, during their lunch hour, to talk about white privilege.  Stowe Center has a great track record of their evening salons, with guest speakers, but these lunchtime conversations are a new effort.  Who came?  Almost forty people, with a great diversity of age, gender, race and ethnicity, and life experiences. What happened was moving--and yet only a start--to the conversations that can happen.

My scribbled notes can't convey the whole conversation--I was trying to deeply listen and to take notes, but here's a bit of what people said.  I haven't put these in quotes but these are as close to quotes as I can get from my notes.
I had to get past my own history (Irish) and think about what we are now and the privilege that I and my children have. 
I want to disagree that solving social and economic issues will make racism go away. 
We can no longer pretend that racism doesn't exist just because no one is shackled.
Racism only happens in silence. 
As a white person I have the obligation to speak up.
Do statistics make us whites comfortable?  Is it a way not to face up to the issues? 
We need to think about the intersectionality of racism with all the other isms. 
It's more than just a matter of balance, it's a matter of justice.
The group ranged widely over topics, ranging from a teacher commenting on the de facto segregation of Connecticut schools, to the 1965 Moynihan report and its long-ranging effect on how we think about race and family,  to the ways in which differing family structures are not judged as failures in other countries. Some of the older participants reflected on their own lives in terms of progress made and not made.  There was both a sense of discouragement--that this is still an issue--and at the same time, a sense of hopefulness, that, as one person said, "This time we live in--we're moving the ball forward with the discussion about what racism is.  We're not just talking about the grand dragon in robes."  

After the conversation ended, it continued in small groups.  People exchanged phone numbers and emails, went deeper to learn more about one comment or another; and almost an hour later, people were still standing and talking deeply to people they had never met before.

As I write this, I'm in Seattle about to head off for two days of a University of Washington Museum Studies program convening on dialogue in museums so I'm sure I'll have much more to ponder.  But from my ongoing Stowe experience and this particular conversation, here are some of my takeaways.

  • Believe in your strong mission.  The Stowe Center's programs stem directly from their mission, which says in part,  [the Stowe Center] "promotes vibrant discussion of her life and work, and inspires commitment to social justice and positive change."  If you don't have a strong, community-focused mission, spend time re-thinking it.
  • Don't be afraid to experiment.  The lunchtime salons were an experiment.  The staff said at the first one, they had only set-up a few chairs.  And keep experimenting.
  • Don't be afraid of the conversations. People did disagree in this conversation, and sometimes there were parts that were hard to hear.  But we need to.
  • Make a long-term commitment.  This harkens back to the session that Melanie Adams of the Missouri Historical Museum did at AAM describing that institution's long commitment to conversations about race.  Community engagement takes time.
  • Frame the conversation, facilitate well and set ground rules.  Michelle did a great job always keeping the conversation respectful, focused and yet wide-ranging.   Staff noted that the evening salons, with guest speakers, tended to be less conversational.  This set-up provides room for different conversations.
  • Make time for follow-up.  As we watched the one-on-one conversations happening after the conversation ended, the staff and I talked about the need for refreshments, comfy chairs and other ways to keep those opportunities going.

Michelle ended the conversation with a quote from Bayard Rustin, “The proof that one truly believes is in action.”   That's true for all of us.


Anonymous said...

While this event sounds nice- the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center itself should have their hiring mangers involved in these events. I've seen them continually deny extremely qualified latino and black employment, in favor for white historians (although from my information from previously interviewed candidates, being a historian is irrelevant as they explicitly tell their interviewees that they train them on historical subject matter and are more concerned about anti-racism knowledge/background and capabilities handling conversations on it). All white only anti-racism groups have always and will always perform within the system of racism and this center is no different, with their nearly all white staff (by "nearly" I mean all except one employee). Their exploiting experiences of racism, so while I firmly believe that things like these conversations hosted at the Stowe Center are needed; I also firmly believe that companies and institutions capitalizing and/or making a business of anti-racism discussions need to reflect and practice anti-racism themselves.

Katherine Kane said...

This is a startling and thought provoking comment. At the Stowe Center we completely agree that organizations discussing racism need to practice anti-racism. The Center’s tour and programs engage visitors in connecting Stowe’s historic content, especially the impact of her best-selling anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to the reality of contemporary racism. As Stowe – a white woman – was writing about race, we believe it is critically important to bring multiple voices and backgrounds to speak on issues of race. Most Stowe Center programs like this one have speakers and participants of color. Though our staff at the moment is predominantly, but not exclusively, white, our board leadership and our program and tour audience is diverse. As an organization, we work hard to listen and to take lessons. Conducting such discussions transparently, rather than posted anonymously, makes that difficult.