Over sixty people gathered in the Shorewood Village Center on a cold winter evening for the first meeting of Reading Race: Community Conversations. They were there to discuss Ta-Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy.
You may recognize Coates as the author of Between the World and Me, winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2015.
The Reading Race program came together with the encouragement of community members and under the direction of Library Services Director Rachel Collins. It continues through January 2019.
Cindy Petrites, a Shorewood parent and library patron who also serves on the Shorewood School District’s Diversity Work Group, first suggested a book club to discuss race. Collins and other Diversity Work Group members, including Jennifer deMontmollin, have attended the Unlearning Racism series at the YWCA of Southeast Wisconsin and been inspired by the facilitated dialogues and activities. Out of these and other influences, Reading Race was born.
The program is designed to be accessible to all and to create a welcoming environment which models how to have conversations about race.
“We thought that smaller, digestible readings made the most sense given busy schedules and the intensity of the subject matter, so we were on the lookout for a title with essays or easy to break up chapters,” said Collins. “We Were Eight Years in Power was perfect and relatively new to boot.”
Participants read two to three chapters for each session. Each chapter is an individual essay, edited from Coates' column for The Atlantic. People are welcome to drop in for one, two or all sessions. There is no need to register. You can secure a copy of the book at the library or bookstore, or read the original Atlantic essays online, linked from the Shorewood Library web page.
A YWCA racial justice community engagement manager facilitates each session. The full group comes together a few times during the session, but much of the work is done in small group conversations of three to five people.
Collins hopes the conversations will help all involved (including herself) to understand the way race and racism are entrenched in American society. “It is with this greater awareness and understanding that we’ll be able to break down the structures and systems that keep racism alive and well in the US,” Collins said.
She has also seen attendees gaining confidence and skills that will help them be comfortable confronting racism in their everyday lives.
As to the future, Collins and others hope to build on the Reading Race program, perhaps making a bigger program that involves more of the Shorewood community. With five sessions remaining, however, there is still a lot of opportunity for this program to have an impact.
To learn more visit the Reading Race page on the Library's website. Then mark your calendars for May 10, July 12, September 13, November 8 and January 21 and join the discussion.
- Submitted by Anne O'Meara