The kind of “race talk” that can transform our country

Martha McCoy
August 27, 2013

March on WashingtonFifty years after the March on Washington, our country is still dealing with inequities based on skin color and ethnicity, in voting rights, criminal justice, education and jobs. In spite of hard-won progress, we cannot fulfill our country’s potential until we squarely address the reality of racism and its consequences for our daily lives.  

That is why President Obama and others have recently called for a national conversation on race.

For those of us who experience the immediate impact of racism, periodic calls for a national dialogue on race can feel endless and frustrating. In a humorous and provocative acknowledgement of that, next week Soledad O’Brien will moderate“Our National Conversation About Conversations About Race,” with Baratunde Thurston and Tanner Colby.

Yet, talking about race has been an essential part of our progress, and it remains urgent – not as an end in itself, but as a critical step in creating the revolution of values that Dr. King called for 50 years ago.

For the past 20 years, Everyday Democracy has worked with and learned from people across the U.S. who are talking about racism and learning to dismantle it in their communities. We have also been doing this essential work inside our organization.

Last year, we convened community leaders from all regions of the U.S. who have engaged hundreds and sometimes thousands of people in conversation and action to address inequities stemming from racism. These leaders have learned that talk can lead to powerful change when:  

  • It is called for and supported by a diverse coalition of community groups and leaders;
  • It is organized for diversity and inclusion – that is, people of different ethnicities, ages, genders, education backgrounds and roles in the community feel welcome and included;    
  • It takes place in small groups to enhance genuine communication and on a large scale to maximize impact;   
  • Trained facilitators help people share honestly and listen with respect to each other across difference;
  • There are opportunities for personal storytelling and trust building;
  • There are ways to consider the impact of racism on opportunities and outcomes;
  • There is respectful consideration of different views of the issue and different approaches to change; and
  • There is a clear commitment to using the ideas and connections generated in the dialogue to create individual, group, institutional and community change.  

Addressing racism is difficult, but there is a growing body of practice and knowledge to draw from as we talk and take action. Science tells us that there is no biological basis for the idea of race. Psychology can help us understand how the idea of race persists – in spite of its absurdity –and how it affects our unconscious biases. History helps us understand how racism has shaped our institutions, laws, practices and culture.

There is more knowledge than ever before on the workings and impact of racism on our children, on life chances, on our social fabric, and on our quality of life. A wide variety of spiritual traditions are finding ways to confront personal and institutional racism. And there is greater knowledge of what it takes to create and sustain social change that is grounded in democratic principles and practices.

Here are some resources to help you organize and facilitate conversations on racism and to use these conversations as a steppingstone to community change. We have also included resources to help you frame dialogue and action on some of the specific issues that have arisen this summer – voting rights, racial profiling, and stop and frisk laws.

This year can be another pivotal moment for our country. As Dr. King said August 28, 1963, “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”

We are standing on the shoulders of civil rights leaders – known and unknown, past and present. Now it is up to all of us to be part of the kind of conversation that leads to individual and institutional change, and to bring others into that conversation. Together we can and must work for the fundamental change that Dr. King called for.  


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Mayme Webb Bledsoe of the Duke Durham Neighborhood Partnership Uses Dialogue to Lift Voices in the Duke / Durham Community 

Dialogue to Change

Our ultimate goal is to create positive community change that includes everyone, and our tools, advice, and resources foster that kind of change. Whether you’re grappling with a divisive community issue, or simply want to include residents’ voices in city government, Everyday Democracy's Dialogue to Change process, using a racial equity lens, can help.