By Amelia Blades Steward
Last year, I participated in Talbot Family Network’s Conversations on Race at the Academy Art Museum. It was held in conjunction with the museum’s exhibition by artist Hoesy Corona that explored climate migration. The session provided a lens through which participants could explore and share their perspectives and experiences. Session participants discovered how looking closely and critically at contemporary art can foster reflection, shift perceptions, and humanize difference.
My participation in the Conversations on Race program had a profound effect on me and created a desire to expand my understanding of the race and equity issues facing our community as well as our country today. My husband and I always had a dream to go to the South to explore the Civil Rights story. After attending the Conversations on Race program, we planned our trip to Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma, Alabama, and Jackson, Mississippi. I will share our itinerary and insights from our trip in a story later this fall in Attraction magazine.
Conversations on Race is a “community of practice” program that brings together interested community members for thoughtful and productive dialogue about the impact of race on their lives and in our community. Eight years ago, the program originated as the “Sunday Suppers” Program offered through area churches in Talbot County. In 2017, Talbot Family Network decided to reach a wider community, rebranding it “Conversations on Race.” Monthly sessions offer facilitated discussions on a variety of topics and in a variety of public spaces. The program aims to support collective learning by practicing how to talk about race in ways that are respectful and useful.
“Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly,” explains Nancy Andrew, Director of Talbot Family Network. “We are not there to teach but instead to provide facilitated space for the dialogue to happen.”
This past year, the organization began partnering with local community organizations that share its focus to co-host sessions and provide a public space for dialogue on race. In addition to the Academy Art Museum, Talbot Family Network partnered with The Country School, Mid Shore Behavioral Health, and ShoreRivers to provide facilitated space for its sessions.
“This was intentional because we see what some of our community partners are doing and want to help the larger community be aware of that work,” she adds.
“I value partnering with Talbot Family Network on the Conversations on Race series because it’s a palpable way to show participants how art can expand our worldviews, change the way we see and think about our world, and foster empathy,” reflects Sarah Jesse, Director of the Academy Art Museum.
“Contemporary artists often engage with timely issues and use their work to communicate ideas to the viewer. Because art is a luxury commodity, it’s easy to forget that it is also – more importantly – an educational tool. I’m always trying to highlight the relevance of art and make its connection to our daily lives more evident. Partnering with Talbot Family Network on these programs demonstrates how exhilarating art can be as a springboard for substantive conversation,” explained Sarah.
The museum will offer another joint Conversations on Race program at the Academy Art Museum in December 2023 that will focus on a new installation by Oglala Sioux artist Marty Two Bulls, Jr., titled “Dominion.”
“Two Bulls uses the symbol of the American bison in his work to explore ideas about empire, consumption, and capitalism. Bison were an important source of food and raw materials for many Native American people until the arrival of European settlers who hunted it to the verge of extinction. Two Bulls’ work provides fodder for generative discussions about the legacies of colonization and the mistreatment of Indigenous people in this country,” she adds.
“Beyond discussing the rich content of the work, we’ll also talk about the institution of the art museum and the exclusionary practices in our histories that have led to the elitist perceptions museum professionals actively seek to overcome today,” added Sarah.
According to Nancy, Talbot Family Network does surveys after every session and participants indicate what they enjoy most is talking with one another. In addition, during the program, facilitators give away current books on race topics, show videos, and provide a light supper. Every year, the organization provides updated training for its facilitators to help them feel supported and have the skill enrichment that supports them in their work facilitating each session.
For participant Cindy Orban, the Conversations on Race program has had a profound effect on her personally as well as professionally in her role as an alumni and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Coordinator, and Librarian at The Country School in Easton.
“There was no talk of race in my family and little or none in school or with friends, even though the Civil Rights Movement and the integration of Talbot County Schools were all happening in my early teens and high school years. I have learned, at least in part from participating in Conversations on Race, that, in fact, most families of color do talk about race – fewer white families talk about race, or even think of themselves as having a ‘race.’ So, in a group of Black, Brown, and White people, to be able to ask questions, and hear others’ perspectives and thoughts, all guided by facilitators who ensure that all have equal time to be heard, is a humbling, liberating, and often profound experience,” Cindy comments.
Cindy’s decision to attend Conversations on Race was an individual one, not a school-wide one. She adds, “A few employees made a commitment to attend and found that those shared experiences not only impacted us personally, but also strengthened, enhanced, and enriched the work on diversity, equity, and inclusion that we were already doing here at The Country School. It also prompted us to offer to host one of the monthly Conversations when the Talbot Family Network broadened topics to form community partnerships. Those programs offered a deeper understanding of the way that art, or the environment, overlapped with, and shared impact of, issues of race.”
According to Cindy, students, families, and employees of The Country School who did not attend Conversations on Race themselves, nevertheless benefited from the knowledge and experiences of those who did attend. She states, “The employees who attended Conversations became more willing and confident in talking about race with our colleagues. The Country School also hosted one of the monthly Conversations on Race, which drew additional employees, as well as parents of both current students and alumni.”
“Over the years, The Country School has increased racial and ethnic diversity in student, employee, and trustee groups and provided training for employees. I am confident that training and increasing diversity will be an ongoing goal and believe that the next steps will be to be sure that racial equity is built into our policies, programs, and school culture,” said Cindy. “Finally, though, and most important to me personally, is for The Country School to be a part of a larger whole, working in concert with other educational institutions in Talbot County to guarantee racial equity for all, recognizing that collective energy and influence is greater than the sum of our individual energies and influence.”
Nancy adds, “I feel it says something positive about what we’re doing that we continue to see participation from different parts of our community… I think the kind of conversations that we’re facilitating keep people coming back.”
Talbot Family Network was also awarded funding for FY24 to help build staff and organizational capacity within community organizations and agencies for integrating race equity into their mission, policies, services, and culture. It also provides an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Book Club that meets at the Talbot County Free Library (TCFL), which will resume this fall. Visit www.tcfl.org/bookclub for details.
Conversations on Race will meet on Monday, September 25 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the TCFL Meeting Room in Easton; on Monday, October 23 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the TCFL Meeting Room in Easton; and on Monday, December 4 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Academy Art Museum in Easton. For further information, visit https://healthytalbot.org/about/talbot-family-network.