Let’s talk race: The power of conversations

For many people, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has had great personal importance since its origins in 2013—especially in the past year. But in South Carolina, where I work as Manager of the Richland Library Edgewood, this important issue took on even greater local consequence with the murder of Walter Scott in North Charleston and the Charleston church shooting in 2015.

Many people were angry, confused, and frightened. There was a need for reliable news and information and for constructive local discussions. As a community-driven organization, we saw this as a humanitarian crisis, and so we asked, “How can the library help our community heal?”

Our answer was, “Let’s talk race”—a simple but powerful set of programs open to anyone in the community. We’ve now facilitated more than 90 conversations with 4,000+ community members from all backgrounds on a variety of topics explicitly convened to discuss race, social justice, and inequality.

Not neutral, but safe

If I told you my library provided a confidential, nonjudgmental environment where people can learn a difficult subject, you wouldn’t blink an eye. That’s what we do across all kinds of topics. But what about subjects like racism? Where the subject itself is fraught with assumptions, emotion, and personal baggage. We knew when it came to creating a program to address issues of social justice, we had to be transparent and concise about our goals, but very human in our methods.

We like to say that the library and everyone who works here are not neutral on these difficult topics. We can’t treat all sides of an argument about the value of human dignity as equal. But what we can do is provide a nonjudgmental, confidential environment where people can share their perspectives openly. Our staff of 13 are trained and retrained annually to host conversations on issues related to social justice, women’s rights, and race with the goal of building community by encouraging honest dialogue, empathy, and courageous communication. By creating planned, moderated spaces to talk without judgment, the library helps people make connections, answer questions, and create empathy quickly and powerfully.

Talk can create change

To say that I was proud of my team and the other library staff who implemented our “courageous conversations” prior to 2020 would be an understatement. To tell you how much their experience, training, and resilience benefited our community during the year of COVID-19, the murder of George Floyd, and the subsequent BLM activities would require a novel.

Like all libraries, we had to adapt our services and activities to the pandemic. But in this case, we were doing so for a program with an explicit person-to-person component. After several years, we knew these subjects very well, but how would we translate the trust and connections from in-person encounters—sometimes held over a meal—to Zoom? As it turns out, many people are actually more comfortable sharing in a virtual environment. And we were also able reach more community members.

Online or in person, these conversations have made a tangible difference. People have learned from each other and created change—we’ve seen it happen. They’ve even been called “therapeutic” and “cathartic” by community members and staff. And I’m personally thanked over and over for holding open these spaces and helping to create these programs.

“Let’s Talk Race” conversations can make a tangible difference for #EngagedLibraries Click To Tweet

It’s hard and emotional work, though. But it’s work I encourage all libraries to explore. I promise you that the rewards will outweigh any negatives.

Tamara King, our Chief Diversity and Community Engagement Officer, said something to me recently that puts our efforts into perspective.

“During an amazingly challenging year, Richland Library built a road to a hard place for our community. We got people talking about things that were uncomfortable and necessary. Our work over the last four years prepared us to answer the call during the unrest of 2020. And now we are able to continue our ‘Let’s Talk Race’ community discussions in a virtual space and have these powerful conversations in new and impactful ways.”

You can build this road for your community, too. And then it will be there when the next need arises, and the next. Because we’ll always need to have powerful conversations, and the library will always be a place where that can happen.

Learn more about this topic in a video featuring Randy and find additional community engagement resources on oc.lc/community-engagement.