Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

For the City: City Living Workshop provides space, tools to talk about race.

Screenshot 2017-01-31 08.17.09

Illustration by Cambrea Roy.

We seem to live in a time of tension.

One can argue if this is unique to the present day or if it’s always been present.

Regardless, you may have noticed turbulence recently on social media sites for Harrisburg. Shawn Westhafer, president of Friends of Midtown, said that he has.

“I administer the Midtown Harrisburg Facebook group and noticed an increase in use of coded language indicating dissatisfaction with minorities, usually things like ‘renters’ and ‘Section 8,’ “ Westhafer said.

Tara Leo Auchey of today’s the day Harrisburg also has observed this.

“Some of those sort of words are more loaded than people realize,” said Auchey.

To help ease this tension, Auchey, who is white, decided to partner with her friend, Hank Johnson, a pastor at Harrisburg Brethren in Christ Church, and with Friends of Midtown, to host a “City Living” workshop.

“I think that, for all of us, we tend to have these conversations with people we trust or people who are naturally close,” Johnson said. “As people of color, we don’t have a choice to talk about race in America because we’ve been engaging in this for 400 years. Everyone we’ve ever known has to have this conversation at some point. In that sense, we have always been talking about this.”

The first workshop, held in November, was posed as a dynamic conversation to help build better relationships within the city and the diverse people who live here.

The discussion kicked off with definitions of race, racism, anti-racism and white privilege, in addition to other key terms. The intimate group of 20 or so was diverse across origin, age and race and ready to have the conversation.

“A lot of black people are engaging in this because they are on the battle lines,” Johnson said. “One of the easiest signs of white privilege is you can choose not to have these conversations, and you can also choose to not connect with these people.”

Brave Space

Danielle Holt attended to engage with neighbors over what she has witnessed in Harrisburg. She appreciated the conversation, particularly in her position as a young, African-American woman living in Midtown. A large part of her drive—90 percent by her estimation—was the recent presidential election.

Another attendee, Annie Hughes, also mentioned the political and social climate.  

“I haven’t experienced it, but, in the United States, we have a racism problem,” said Hughes, who is white. “It’s baked into society and how we operate.”

Holt echoed the sentiment in my conversation with her.

“I thought Tara did a really good job of seeing both sides of the issues,” she said. “She was really good at being empathetic and pushing towards things that are uncomfortable.”

There certainly were differing opinions, but the participants were brave enough to put them on the table.

“We had some disagreement in that room, too, which is always really exciting and healthy because that’s real in reflecting society when we’re having those kinds of disagreements,” Auchey said.

Change Agents

Johnson told personal stories of his own experiences with bias here in central PA.

Sharing personal stories and building relationships across communities help bridge the gaps that divide us and begin to remove bias based on physical appearance and other factors, he said.

Auchey said that, in her racial justice training, she learned that bias can be difficult to identify by people who don’t experience daily discrimination.

“We’re so culturally, socially, systematically conditioned for our own ease in the world and our own comfort that we don’t think about those daily microaggressions that people of color are feeling,” she said. “If you’re a woman, you might feel it a little bit. If you’re somebody who is LGBTQ, you might understand it a little bit more.”

Hughes said that the workshop helped open her eyes to bias, which often operates unconsciously, and offered tools to help her make change in her community.

“I thought a really powerful and simple suggestion was to ask, ‘What do you mean by that?’” she said. “It calls into question a statement without attacking the person, and it opens the door to a teachable moment. The solution is teachable moments versus combatting.”

Johnson, while encouraging everyone to speak up, explained that he sees the journey to social justice as a “marathon not a sprint.”

“The other things that go against us is we tend to be a very moments-driven culture,” he said. “We remember the word that we didn’t say or the action we didn’t do. It doesn’t matter if I lost these 100 yards when we have to run 26.2 miles.”

Both Auchey and Johnson said that those looking for social justice reform have differing opinions on the timeline for change.

“What is our job as people who are aware?” Auchey asked. “Are we supposed to pick and choose the times we talk, or is it our duty since we are allies to say something anytime? How much are we going to wait for social justice to catch up to people’s oppression?”

Due to the positive feedback after the first discussion, more workshops are planned.  

“Community members really need that occasion to talk openly about community relations and race relations so it’s not something that stays in the shadows,” Hughes said.

Holt agreed with that assessment.

“If we’re dissatisfied with the way we feel the world is going, I think those workshops are important because it brings things to light,” she said. “We’re educating ourselves and being the change we wish to see.”

The organizers plan additional “City Living” workshops. Follow Friends of Midtown on Facebook for news and updates.

Author: Ashleigh Pollart

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