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Reflections on including the word 'racism' in the title of your change effort

When you're naming your community change effort, you may have some difficult decisions to make, especially if you're addressing racism. Should you include the word "racism" in the name? Will it turn too many people away? A community in Wagner, S.D., that's been working on creating positive change for the last eight years chose to keep the word "racism" in their program name, and they shared their thoughts on the subject:

Having the word "racism" in the title of your change efforts is a bold move, but it didn't happen overnight. Initially, they worked with the Extension program at South Dakota State University (SDSU) to reduce poverty in their community as part of the Horizons project. About 60 Wagner residents took part in those initial conversations and came up with several strategies to build prosperity. One of those strategies was to implement adult education programs.

While the town of Wagner and the dialogue participants were mostly white, one of the six dialogue groups included several Native American community members. That mixed-race group added language about building a multi-cultural community to the adult education strategy. This was the beginning of their community's effort to address racism, but at a whisper.

Their SDSU Extension partners noticed the idea of multi-cultural training and suggested using the Facing Racism discussion guide as one way to implement that strategy. Several community members jumped at the opportunity to be trained as facilitators for these discussions. From that point on, their conversations were called "Racism Study Circles."

Sign on a lampost that says "Hozions, Wagner" and shows four hands of different colors linked together"In the beginning we didn't know anything else," says Amy Doom, Community Facilitator. "We weren't refecting on the name necessarily, it was just going to be hard."

Even with the word "racism" in their program name, they still tried to talk around the words "race" and "racism" in their initial invitations to community members to join the effort. Avoiding it didn't help: Doom says that "It still tumbled out there, and it still felt the same as if you were saying it." Ultimately, they decided to be open about addressing the issue.

To this day, not everyone in the community is on board. "The fact that we call them 'racism' study circles has always been a little bit contentious," says Ericka Kotab, Community Facilitator. Both Doom and Kotab have gotten feedback from some who don't think the issue is racism, but rather something else like "human understanding."

Others appreciate the honesty. "If we're going to be candid and forthright about addressing any issue, whatever it is--whether it's racism or poverty or economic development--call a spade a spade," says Vince Two Eagles, Community Facilitator.

The organizers recognize that this conversation is not for everyone, but for those who do want to tackle this issue, they're glad there's a space for it in their community. "It takes a lot of courage to talk about race because you have to do a lot of reflective thinking, and not everybody is ready for that. But if you are, and when you are, it is just so great that we have people that can bring us through that process," says Ann Frier-Metzger, Dialogue Participant.

After eight years of working to dismantle racism, the positive reputation of the program has made a mark on the community. "What speaks louder now...is not racism and the volatility of that word, althought that's not been totally eradicated, everything that we are now is what represents us." says Doom.

September 14, 2015
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Anyone doing community change work wants to make a lasting impact. It can be difficult to find a way to make dialogue and action integral to the way the community works. In Wagner, S.D., residents...

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