As a young white woman in the 1960s and 1970s, Paula Sparks says she didn’t believe that she was racist: The sociology major objected to racism, had black friends and “didn’t see color,” she recalled thinking, now calling those thoughts clichés.
In summer 2016, following several high-profile police-involved shootings of black men, Sparks — a mother to two grown sons — says she was shaken, and became more aware of her family’s white privilege. She attended forums, lectures and sermons about race, and attended one of Baltimore Racial Justice Action’s 32-hour anti-racism workshops established to educate adults about racism and how to dismantle it.
“What the BRJA workshop taught me was to put aside the white lens I’d been seeing the world through for all of my life and exchange it for a race lens,” says Sparks, who lives in Millersville. “People of color live an entirely different reality, and we can only understand that through the race lens and a willingness to hear their stories without judgement. Those of us who are white need to let go of the idea that we’re not racist and learn what racism is, because while it may not be personal, it is institutional and we have to own that because we benefit from it.”
Dianne Lyday, consultant administrator for Baltimore Racial Justice Action, says that the nonprofit — which was founded in 2003 to dismantle racism in a city that has become synonymous with it — began offering multiracial anti-racism workshops in 2006.
About two years later, it decided to offer separate workshops for white people and for people of color.
The groups had different experiences and needed different interventions and supports, says Avis Ransom, the group’s co-founder and senior consultant as well as facilitator of workshops for people of color.
Lyday, who facilitates workshops for white people, says, “We did (multiracial workshops) for a couple of years until we realized that white people were coming out with their lives transformed … and the people of color were coming out sort of drained … We were creating a plantation dynamic where all the white people were learning on the backs of the people of color, and we didn’t want that.”
Through the workshops — which are held on weekends in typically four-hour sessions at Baltimore Racial Justice Action’s office in Charles Village — attendees learn the history of racism, common language associated with racism and basic concepts about how racism operates. They are asked to role play, explore their history with racism and devise action plans.
“Both groups receive a lot of the same information, but it is received in exercises that would be relevant to their experiences, or would be reflective of their experiences,” Ransom says.
Learning through experience
Lyday says that attendees are challenged to analyze their perceived definitions of words like racism, prejudice, discrimination, equity and inclusion.
“When I use the word racism, I mean prejudice, plus discrimination plus power,” she says. “When you add ‘power’ to the definition, you realize that only one group can be racist.”
Ransom says that education is key on a subject most people aren’t educated about in schools.
“Certainly, the history of rebellion, resistance and successful strategies for mitigating the negative impacts of racism are not shared in schools,” she says.
“That people leave (the workshops) having an understanding of the parts of history that have been mistold and untold in and of itself is revolutionary,” she says. “Now knowing and having the missed pieces of information filled in about what truly happened is very helpful and healthy and gratifying and affirming.”
In general, more white people sign up for the workshops than people of color, and more workshops are offered for white people as a result, Lyday says. The group now offers three workshops per year for people of color, and six workshops a year for white people.
The workshops are kept small, with about 10 to 15 people in attendance, Lyday says, and costs range from $300 to $420, depending on the number of sessions.
The nonprofit has been called to lead anti-racism workshops for a number of Baltimore businesses and organizations with growing demand: The group has about 10 contractors who help lead the workshops; it also has ideas on how to expand its offerings, but not enough people to facilitate them, Lyday says.
“The need has cranked up. We are at our capacity right now,” she says, adding that a recent uptick in interest among white people has grown with current events and social media movements that have sparked debate about racism.
“About 15 years ago, people recognized that there was still a problem, and they didn’t understand why. Civil Rights was 50 years ago, and they thought ‘How come I still have trouble talking to a black person?’” Lyday says. “They wanted to help, they wanted to make things better, but they didn’t understand what was going on or how to do that.”
People are more sophisticated now, but don’t generally have the knowledge to have constructive conversations about race, she adds.
Ransom herself attended the anti-racism workshop several years ago, at a time when some people might have thought racial tensions were low.
“I’ve needed it all my life,” she says. “I don’t know that changes in the national political climate would be the biggest motivator for people of color to take the workshop because we’ve been under siege all along.”
She adds that progress and pushback for people of color isn’t new: “I think generally people are feeling stressed and concerned over what feels like the rollback.”
The workshops aren’t all talk.
“Each week, we talk about action planning,” Lyday says. “We don’t want people to just come in and talk and go away and not do anything.”
Lyday, who follows up with participants a year after they completed the course, says that she’s heard several stories about how attendees have changed their behavior or made changes in their organizations because of it.
Ransom says that she has heard from participants who have developed healthy coping mechanisms, and have become more open about racism with their families.
Sparks, who attended the workshop with a fellow parishioner from Ark and Dove Presbyterian Church in Odenton, now leads anti-racism workshops, lectures and discussions at her church.
She says that she advocates on social media, and engages in conversations with people, challenging their views on racism.
“I had a lot of guilt when I first started,” Sparks says. “I lived through the ‘60s, and I blew it because I didn’t understand white privilege and white fragility.
But “the guilt doesn’t do any good,” she says. “Working at it does.”
Photo courtesy of the BRJA Facebook page.