An open invitation to talk about race

  • Article by: ANNA PRATT , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 28, 2014 - 1:32 PM

In Brooklyn Park, a frank forum aimed to highlight area’s diversity.

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The Brooklyn Park forum began with an American Indian drum and dance exhibition by members of the Osseo Indian Education Program.

Photo: Elizabeth Tolzmann,

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Race is often considered a loaded subject, but the nearly 200 people at a recent forum in Brooklyn Park eagerly tackled it head-on.

“It’s Time to Talk About Race,” held Jan. 18 at the city’s Community Activity Center, was designed to encourage candid conversations and to highlight the area’s diversity. It featured keynote speaker Bo Powell, an equity specialist for the Osseo schools who also coaches basketball at Park Center High School in Brooklyn Park, and several performances by groups of young people representing different cultures.

Over the past 20 years, Brooklyn Park’s demographics have changed substantially. Today, nearly half of the city’s residents are people of color, and they may soon constitute a majority.

“Our goal for the event was to have the greater community come together and have open and balanced discussions about cross-cultural, interracial and general race relations in the community,” said Elizabeth Tolzmann, Brooklyn Park’s community engagement coordinator. “We didn’t want people to live in fear or isolation.”

While many residents say they appreciate the area’s diversity, the city also has heard from people who say they often don’t know how to interact with neighbors of a different background, Tolzmann said. So the idea was to create a “safe, secure environment where honesty and sharing our stories is valued and respected,” she said.

The forum was sponsored by the city, along with the Osseo schools, Hennepin Technical College, St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church and EPU Consultants.

Encouraging honesty

During small-group discussions, facilitators laid out ground rules to set a tone for respectful dialogue. Participants agreed to stay engaged in the conversation, to expect discomfort, to speak their truths and to understand that disagreements might not be resolved.

They also were encouraged to keep their perspectives personal, local and immediate. For example, one might say, “As an Asian-American woman …” or “As a young Laotian woman …” rather than “We Asians … .”

Such a format “allows each person to have equal voice and power,” Tolzmann said.

Although the organizers have yet to meet for a debriefing about the forum, Tolzmann said she expects the conversation to continue in some form.

“People cannot be healthy if the opportunities critical for their well-being,” such as education, jobs, schools and housing, remain elusive, she said. “These are the reasons why place and race matter.”

The school district’s role

The forum was modeled after a similar event that the YWCA hosts on a regular basis, said Brian Siverson-Hall, executive director of community engagement for the Osseo schools.

“We thought this event provides a constructive framework on which to have conversations about race,” he said. “We’re not trying to solve anything, but to have a venue for discussing it.”

Osseo district schools mirror the diversity unfolding in the area, Siverson-Hall said. Of the district’s 20,000 students, half are minorities.

To enable students to be successful, “we want to make sure that we’re having relevant conversations to help with the achievement gap [between white and minority students] and provide support to family members in our community,” he said.

Siverson-Hall said he was impressed with the turnout. “It was extremely encouraging that it generated as much interest with little marketing,” he said. “The resounding feedback that we got is that people have a desire to continue these types of conversations.”

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