How to convene a neighborhood conversation about race and racism
Want to start your own project but need some inspiration? This 'Learn from a Leader' series from ioby profiles local leaders who are improving their neighborhoods.
Editor’s note: The nonprofit ioby—which stands for “in our backyards,” launched the series, Learn from a Leader, so locals can share their step-by-step best practices for successful community projects. Go to ioby.org to read more from the series, or stay tuned to The Renewal Project! In this entry, an Ohio organizer gives advice on how to bring neighbors together to have an honest and productive conversation about race.
About the project
“Downtown Cleveland and Cleveland State University are thriving. South of them is Cedar-Central: a predominantly black neighborhood with concentrated public housing. There’s no doubt in my mind that the highway that divides them [I-90] was intentionally put there to separate the two.”
This is how Kaela Geschke, a community organizer with economic development organization Campus District, and one of the organizers of A Bridge that Bridges, describes the context and impetus for her project.
“We brought people together to help unite these two neighborhoods,” she says. The group convened a diverse cohort of about 15 neighbors from both sides of I-90 to meet and talk openly about race and racism in their communities, every two weeks for six months. Their discussions culminated in their co-designing and painting a mural on a bridge that spans the highway. The now-colorful wall illustrates these Clevelanders’ intention for a more equal and integrated future.
1. Reach out and recruit. Intentionally invite diverse individuals to form your discussion group. Aim for people you think might be interested in having frank conversations about race (extra points if they’re also into public art). We reached out to community leaders, university professors, hospital staff, the public housing advisory council, nonprofits, churches, neighborhood associations—even the police force.
The personal touch is always best: contact people directly (we also flyered, but I don’t think that generated too much interest). We wound up with about 15 participants, plus a lead mural artist (who we paid to bring all the design elements together), and a couple of facilitators. Having the same people commit to being present every two weeks allowed for great openness and connection.
2. Prep your meetings for safety and success. Some difficult conversations are going to take place in your meetings, so do your best to prepare an environment where people can feel comfortable and productive speaking openly about sensitive issues.
We did things like offer food and play music every time we met; sit in a circle; have facilitators run the show; and lay out some ground rules on the first day. Those were things like speaking from our own experience (not things we had only heard), acknowledging that there are multiple realities (i.e. mine can be different from yours), being present (no phones!), listening to each other, disagreeing respectfully, and asking questions instead of assuming when you don’t know something. “No cross-talking” was probably our biggest rule, along with “share the air”—make sure you’re aware of how much you’re speaking versus others. We also just said, “Take care of each other.” As for discussion content, we really tried to delve into multiple layers and angles of racism: the racialized history of these neighborhoods; structural and societal racism; and people’s intra- and inter-personal experiences involving race. Sharing stories in all these areas really brought our group together.
3. The nuts and bolts: planning, funding, and permissions. This phase could start earlier or later depending on factors like how long you want to host your discussions, where you want to paint your mural (public or private property), if you’ll want to close any streets for painting and/or celebrating, etc. If you’re seeking permission from the property owner or need any permits, start those balls rolling as far in advance as you can—but be able to demonstrate a draft design and backing from the community to bolster your case.
And get going on your fundraising tasks early, too: especially securing in-kind donations and discounts on paint and other art supplies. Also plot out your painting setup and ascertain the amenities you’ll need: bottled water for volunteers, drop cloths to catch runny paint, and running water so you can wash your brushes, for example.
4. Design together. We designed our mural partially by talking and partially by drawing. During some of our discussions, we broke out into small groups so people could contribute based on their abilities and interests: some sketched their vision of the whole thing, some drew individual portraits, some picked out the color palette, some chose words to paint. Some people who didn’t feel as artsy helped us plan our opening party. We just wanted everyone to play some kind of part so they could feel responsible for the finished product.
Splitting people up was also a handy division of labor! If you want to express a real message with your mural, as we did, it’s good to let a trained artist take the lead on making the actual outlines on the wall: this will keep the visual messaging clear, and give everyone else a guideline to follow.
5. Co-create and celebrate! Invite your community to participate in your painting days and attend your opening celebration with enough advance warning that they can plan to come. Invite the media to come out, too, to help you spread the word. Invite your funders, of course! Provide music and food to all. A few hundred people attended our events—including a councilwoman who thought she would just be observing, but who we successfully cajoled into painting with us!
We conducted our outreach in January and February, and started taking applications for group participants in March. We held our twice-weekly sessions through the spring and summer, and did the painting in July and August.
Seasonality matters when you’re painting, at least in Ohio! If it’s too cold, the paint won’t dry properly, so you need to plan to wrap up by fall.
Our budget was around $10,000 altogether. We got a $5,000 grant from a local public art funder and raised the rest through our ioby campaign and a fundraiser through a local foundation.
Our main costs were:
- Paying our lead artist
- Hiring facilitators
- Art supplies—paint being the most expensive single item (again: look for discounts, giveaways, and in-kind donations wherever you can!)
- Providing food at every meeting. You could save money by doing potluck style instead, but when you’re asking people for a lot of their time, it’s nice to give them something to make their lives easier.
- Our opening party cost about $2,000. You could do it cheaper, but we had a stage, a choir, food vendor vouchers for people coming from public housing… We did it up!
- Drop me a line! I’m planning to package a lot of this information in a way that others can use, but until then, please feel free to get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll try to answer any questions.
If you don’t know who owns the property you want to paint your mural on, find out! In Cleveland, your first stop can be the Cuyahoga County Property Information website.
If you want to host dialogues around race and racism, check out the Racial Equity Institute’s reading list. It’s great for independent background research as well as generating group discussion topics. Another good contextualizing resource is “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh.
Our Concentric Circle Activity provides a structure for participants to discuss issues concerning identity, personal bias, prejudice, and discrimination.
Our Acceptance Package provides a timeline and expectations for new participants.
Inspired? Start your own project!