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Dialogue Circles on Race

Facilitated Conversations in a Community Setting

Dr. Claudia Cohen and Rev. Dr. Gladys Moore

The 2014 killing of Michael Brown, Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri was witnessed (on video replay) by large numbers of Americans- white, Black and other persons of color. It was a brutal, heartbreaking, public event that shocked many (primarily white people) and confirmed the worst fears of others (mostly Black Americans and other people of color.)  


For the Summit Interfaith Council, Michael Brown, Jr.’s death was a pivotal event in its self-understanding and its work. In its 40+ years of existence, the Council had addressed pressing social concerns through various forms of public witness (e.g., vigils; marches; public statements), but it had never declared its ongoing commitment to combatting racism and white supremacy. Recognizing that these forms of public witness were not enough to make systemic changes, the Council committed itself to a longer-term strategy for dismantling racism. Thus, the SIC Anti-Racism Committee was formed.  It’s mission, in part, is to “keep issues of racism front and center in the work of the Summit Interfaith Council and to fight against injustice and white supremacy through educating its membership.”


The first response to this long-term strategy was the creation of Dialogue Circles on Race (DCoR); a five-week program of co-facilitated conversations about systemic racism, informed by current and scholarly readings, videos and accurate and often painful accounts of United States history.  The dialogues are neither debates nor discussions, but rather, provide a framework that enables conversations about challenging topics while preserving and deepening the relationships between participants.  The Circles are composed of 6 – 12 participants and are co-facilitated by two trained facilitators, ideally of different genders, races and/or ethnicities. 


Since their beginning in 2015, nearly 1,000 persons have participated in the dialogues, which now include both a 1.0 curriculum, and more in depth, 2.0 sessions as well. Participants have included civic leaders such as the Mayor, police officers, Common Council members, and educators from Summit and surrounding school districts, as well as executives and staff from some of our region’s non-profit organizations. 


The impact of the DCoR has not been insignificant. In order to continue improving the Circles, participants are asked to complete evaluations forms. They have reported that their experiences have been both overwhelmingly positive, life-changing … and challenging.  “I more fully understand the cumulative and generational effects of systemic racism in our country”; “Wow, yes! I see it everywhere.  I feel like I had an ice bucket dumped on my head and I woke up”; “I continue to be struck by the distortions of the history I was taught – and am dismayed.”   Almost all expressed a desire to continue the learning journey to explore how they have been affected by structural racism, and what they can do about it.


Early in the Covid pandemic, in March 2020, the Dialogue Circles were moved online, which allows for a greater number of folks to participate. However, we are looking forward to offering some in-person sessions in the near future.

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