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The YWCA Evanston/North Shore launched a series of “Community Conversations on Race” on Sept. 27. In the discussions, trained facilitators help participants to engage in honest conversations, leading to an understanding of how personal and systemic racism, conscious and unconscious, affects the day-to-day lives of everyone who lives and works in Evanston, said Eileen Hogan Heineman, manager of the YWCA’s racial justice program.

The four-week series uses a variety of materials, including news articles, videos, the PBS series “Race: The Power of an Illusion,” and listening and sharing activities. The goal is for participants to challenge and further develop their own understanding of the effects of racism and to help participants see how racism may limit access to health care, housing, employment, or educational opportunities. Once there is a common language and understanding, people can work together to identify and eliminate the causes of inequity for everyone in Evanston, said Ms. Heineman.

Karen Singer, president and chief executive officer of the YWCA, gave several examples of some inequities that are continuing today. She said African American women die of breast cancer at higher rates than white women due to unequal access to health care. She also recounted an incident where a person of color moving to Evanston was recently told by a realtor that she might be “more comfortable” in a certain part of town.

“We’re fooling ourselves to think there’s not inequities in health care, housing, education, employment,” she said. “We have to look at those things. Racism is still with us. The dialogues will help participants to understand what the roots are, what the manifestations are, what strategies can be employed to right it, address it, to eliminate it.”

Ms. Heineman said the dialogues are not about making people feel responsible for what happened 200 hundred years ago or blaming them for what is occurring today. “It is intended to provide a common vocabulary, enabling people to discuss race, to understand where institutional racism exists, and to chip away at that,” she said. “Having these conversations empowers everyone in the conversations,” she added.

The YWCA as a Catalyst

Conversations on race have taken place in more than 400 cities throughout the country in the last 20 years. Locally Evanston Township High School has been sponsoring “Courageous Conversations on Race” among their faculty and staff to help generate awareness of how institutional racism may impact student achievement at the high school.

Ms. Singer said she applauds the efforts at the high school. The YWCA’s program complements and differs, in that it will look at race from a community-wide basis.

She said the YWCA is a logical organization to act as a catalyst in promoting this effort because of its long history of advocating for social change in the area of racial relations. This is evident in its mission statement: “Eliminating racism, empowering women.” Nationally, many YWCAs have been sponsoring dialogues on race. Locally the YWCA has been creating awareness through its Race Against Hate for six years, said Ms. Singer.

Before embarking on this project, Ms. Singer said the YWCA did a community assessment on what has been done in Evanston on racial justice. In the past, the approach has been in “fits and starts,” she said. “The community is interested in having an organization act as a catalyst and commit to a sustained effort.”

Ms. Singer said the YWCA has been working closely with the McGaw YMCA and Evanston Township High School and with the faith communities, supporting their efforts at dialogue. She named Beth Emet and Second Baptist Church, which have been providing opportunities for their two congregations to dialogue and share. The idea is to piggy-back on what has been done in the past and to serve as a catalyst to provide a sustained effort going forward.

Bill Geiger, president and chief executive officer of the McGaw YMCA, said, “Being able to have these kinds of conversations is so important. … What makes the YWCA’s program so powerful is that the conversations are held in a safe environment and they are facilitated so people can say what they want to say and hear what they have to hear. They have great promise.”

Mr. Geiger said discussions at McGaw Y about how to honor the legacy of the Emerson Branch YMCA that served the African American community between 1909 and 1969 illustrated the importance of being adept at discussing race. He said that when the Emerson YMCA was closed, many African Americans felt that an integral part of the African American community had been stripped away and a huge hole was left that was not filled by the McGaw Y. Having conversations on these issues was difficult, he said, but led to an understanding. “The conversations brought to the surface feelings of outrage, sorrow and hurt,” he said, adding, “The most significant outcome is the relationships that were built and that are ongoing.”

Mr. Geiger also referred to the discussions last year about changing the Freshman Humanities Program at ETHS and the current discussions about establishing a new school in the Fifth Ward, and the difficulties to have conversations about race in those contexts. “It’s time we equip ourselves to have these conversations in a more productive way that will lead to more positive outcomes,” he said.

Rev. Mark A. Dennis, Jr., pastor of Second Baptist Church, said that from the YWCA’s perspective, the dialogues on race are germane to their mission to eliminate racism. From the community’s perspective, he said it is important “to never assume that people understand what it is to live in a diverse community, but to bring up issues that affect us directly or indirectly, explicitly or implicitly, on issues of race.

“We want continued dialogues to remember what has happened as a result of racism in the past and position ourselves in the community to eliminate the mistake and pain of racism so it doesn’t become an obstacle to minorities.

“Today it [racism] is often more subtle than in the day of Jim Crow,” he said.

YWCAs in other parts of the country are conducting racial dialogues, some with different approaches. Martha Barry, racial justice director of the YWCA of Greater Milwaukee, said the Milwaukee YWCA has sponsored dialogues on race, each for six weeks, since the fall of 2007. During the dialogues, she says, the facilitators attempt to move people to the point that they recognize that they have “a sphere of influence” and that they can take action “to address issues of race.” During one of the sessions, participants bring up things going on in their everyday life and ask the group how to address them. As an example, a young professional asked how he could attract more persons of color to join a young professional group.

Ms. Barry said the disparities that exist in Milwaukee are immense – in health care, transportation, the criminal justice system and housing. “We have disparate outcomes,” she said. A goal of the dialogues on race is to “build capacity for people to tackle these issues with a racial equity perspective,” she said, and “to go into settings and take steps to make a difference. “

Framework for the Dialogues

Before opening the dialogues to the public, the Evanston YWCA sponsored two dialogues with diverse groups of persons by invitation, including teachers, volunteers, elected officials, school board members, philanthropists and City staff. The YWCA is building on it learned in those dialogues to move forward.

The first dialogues open to the public has 15 participants. The group meets once a week for 2 hours for four weeks. Ms. Heineman said a second series is planned for January, and that the YWCA will sponsor a minimum of three per year at the YWCA. The YWCA hopes to sponsor additional dialogues at other locations, such as the offices of other non-profit organizations or at workplaces.

The hope is that people who attend the dialogues will develop relationships and form groups that will continue to work together and perhaps focus on issues, such as health care, said Ms. Heineman.

The YWCA is also launching a “Let’s Talk at Lunch” session starting Oct. 14, for people not able to attend the longer four-week series. The lunch series will use short articles, video clips, and/or recent community events as catalysts for conversations. The YWCA is also planning to offer the “Let’s Talk at Lunch” series at places of business.

One goal, two- or three-years down the road, is to have a community-wide summit, which would be shaped by what develops through the dialogues.

Ms. Singer said the YWCA is discussing how to develop outcome measures. Ms. Heineman said the goal of the dialogues is “transformation. We want to get Evanston in dialogue, which itself can lead to change. Helping create institutional and policy change will take time. And the YWCA is committed to sustain this effort over time,” she said.

“Working with others throughout the community, we’ll learn as we go,” added Ms. Singer.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...