Almost two years ago, Dot Lambshead Roche, an Oak Parker, decided to start talking about racism among her white peers in the community. The former high school social studies teacher, now home with her kids, was among a multi-racial group of residents wondering how to approach the topic. “We landed on the idea of small cohorts as a way to deepen our understanding.”

Roche says the groups were intentionally kept small and intentionally limited to white people. “Participants are more likely to be honest with themselves when truths can be shared and people of color should not be put in harm’s way as we do the work.”

At first, the groups were primarily dialogues between Roche and community members, but she quickly realized that the group needed a facilitator. She turned to friend Brynne Hovde, who three years ago was among the founding members of NOVA Collective, a woman and black-owned business that offers programs, products and consulting services that build a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workforce. 

Hovde says with NOVA, the desire was to, “change how organizations think, specifically around the tenets of white supremacy.” She and Roche formed Race Conscious Dialogues (RCD) as a volunteer and grassroots community effort to challenge those tenets at home. 

For them RCD is aimed at white people who want to deepen their awareness of identity, power and privilege, and then develop tools for anti-racism work. 

Each RCD is set up as a series consisting of four sessions, each lasting three hours, held in space donated by Academia in Oak Park.  Each session is preceded with light readings to be done at home and is facilitated in partnership with the Nova Collective. The series is framed around unpacking and understanding Whiteness, what Roche and Hovde call: “our own racial identities, the historical and current harm being caused by whiteness and guided discovery of what we can do to disrupt racism and dismantle white supremacy.”

Hovde says while the framework of each series is the same, there is an evolution to the program. “The curriculum is definitely informed by some of our work outside of RCD and our thought partners, but as it evolves, it is also responding to what’s going on here in Oak Park and in communities around Oak Park.”

She points to changing terms as a bellwether of a changing community focus. “We were talking about diversity and inclusion. Now we’re talking about equity and justice.”

Roche says that while sessions might address pressing issues playing out locally, they intentionally keep the focus local and not national. “We’re not talking about Charlottesville. We keep turning the lens on ourselves, talking about the racism that’s happening in progressive, liberal communities like ours.”

Roche also sees value in these conversations among parents raising kids in the village. “When we as adults engage in this personal work, we are able to talk more easily with our children about race, and learn and grow together.”

For Hovde, RCD brings home the really important question: “How am I, as a white person, perpetuating racism? “We need to realize there’s harm to undo in every white person. In our society, calling something racist is like the worst thing in the world.”

Roche chimes in, “I think that the important thing people glean from participating [in RCD] is separating things out. You can be a good neighbor and a good friend and still perpetuate racism. It’s not bad white people vs. good white people.”

Both women stress that the RCD sessions are merely a jumping off point in a long journey. They point to Oak Park’s 37 equity efforts currently underway and says there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Hovde says, “If people can leave these sessions and start to support and amplify the voices for equity already out there, that can lead to change.”

Most of their participants tend to be women, but men also attend, and the age of the average RDC participant varies. While many participants are parents of kids currently in Oak Park schools, Hovde says that an older generation, who intentionally moved to the community decades ago because of racial inclusion, is also interested. “All ages are interested in this. This space is conducive to wherever we are on the journey.”

As they tackle issues such as white privilege, gifted and talented programs in schools, policing, safety and feminism, RCD can be eye opening. Roche says, “Seeing whiteness for what it is is something that people are doing for the first time here.”

She sees a real need for white people to join in. “With this work, neutrality perpetuates the status quo. This requires plugging in, not checking out.”

Hovde says it is about making time to make a change. “I’m a working mom in Oak Park, and I know how real it is to be so busy. Every time you make space for this, you see what you can do. Don’t be too busy to do this important work. It is an act of self-care. I call on white women to take part in this crucial mission.”

“As a community, we have to say, ‘there’s no amount of racial inequity that is acceptable.”

SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY).

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