After Brunswick’s Unitarian Universalist Church took a vote on the matter last year, the congregation affixed a prominent “Black Lives Matter” banner onto the outside of the church, clearly visible to drivers passing by on the busy road.
Beyond their display of support, the church’s largely white, older congregants — reflective of Maine’s demographic in general — also vowed to commit themselves to a year of education. “We voted to educate ourselves about Black Lives Matter and related issues, to come to a better understanding of white supremacy, white privilege, and institutional racism,” explained Michael Cain, a church member, in a recent interview.
To see about organizing a community event on racism, possibly co-sponsored with Bowdoin, Cain reached out to Benjamin Harris, who is Bowdoin’s director of the Student Center for Multicultural Life. Harris suggested an “Intergroup Dialogue,” to bring this particular campus program, used mainly with students, to church members.
“Intergroup dialogues are a good way to engage people in the topic of race,” said Harris, because they help non-experts see more clearly how racism has played out in their lives and in others’ lives.
Since 2014, Bowdoin has trained a select group of students to facilitate intergroup dialogue workshops with other student groups, such as sports teams or residential associations, to work on “transforming the racial climate of the campus.” Intergroup dialogues are meant to elicit “dialogue rather than debate, responsibility rather than guilt, and continued commitment and ongoing learning rather than short-term reactionary fixes,” according to the Bowdoin website.
For Harris, offering the church an intergroup dialogue fit into what he sees as Bowdoin’s role. “The footprint that the College has is important, and the ways we as a College offer resources to the surrounding community is important,” he said. “If the community around us is more socially sensitive and culturally competent, that can eventually make for a better community for our students, who interact with the community all the time.”
So during spring break, on March 23 at 4 p.m., 28 members of the UU church convened for two hours in a Bowdoin meeting space at 30 College Street. Four Bowdoin facilitators split into pairs, with each working with one-half of the larger group. Besides Harris, the facilitators were McKeen Center Director Sarah Seames, Assistant Director of Residential Life Mariana Centeno, and Residential Life Operations Coordinator Danielle Miller. Harris began the program by reminding participants that this was not a debate — that the key was to listen and to try to understand rather than to convince.
“We talked about when race has been in the forefront of our lives, the ways we have seen racism happen, how we have intervened or not intervened,” Harris described. “We talked about strategies for interrupting racist jokes or behavior.”
In emailed feedback that several church members shared with Cain, they said they thought the intergroup dialogue was a good “first step,” and that they hoped for more discussions and workshops in the future. “The conversation brought up strong feelings, both in me and in others,” Cain said. “…It is hard to look in the mirror, and really honestly examine your own prejudices and unintentional prejudices.”
He added, “One of the most powerful things coming out of it was thinking about my childhood and realizing the extent that I lived in a white culture bubble….I grew up with white privilege and was unaware of it.”