Interview with Harold Fields & Dena Samuels

Harold Fields of the Denver Foundation Harold Fields is active in restorative justice and racial reconciliation projects in Denver and around the nation. He currently serves on the Board Trustees for The Denver Foundation and chairs the Community Impact Committee. Dena Samuels, PhD Dena Samuels, PhD, principle with Dena Samuels Consulting, is the author of multiple publications and books on integrating diversity and building inclusiveness, including, “The Mindfulness Effect: an unexpected path to healing, connection and social justice.”

Second Tuesday Race Forum Denver, CO

Harold and Dena co-facilitate Denver’s Second Tuesday Race Forum.R4S:     Harold and Dena, you run a successful, long-running racial healing group, the Second Tuesday Race Forum, in Denver, CO.  What called each of you to this work?HF:    I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma which has an awful history of racial violence. In 1921, there was a race massacre where over 300 people in my neighborhood were killed.  It had been a very prosperous black neighborhood, known as Black Wall Street. Over 1,200 homes were destroyed and 40 blocks were burned. Residents of the community rebuilt without reparations, without assistance from the government, and without help from insurance because all claims were denied.  I grew up there in the 50’s and 60’s when it was once again a thriving neighborhood.     I thought I wanted to be an architect in high school. There was a contest sponsored by the Tulsa public schools where you do some research and then write an essay about it. I wrote a paper about the design of the new airport in Tulsa and won first prize. But the school administrators said, “We cannot say that a Negro boy wrote the best essay. So, we’re going to say that you won second prize.” The message to me was you have a place and you must stay in it. But I did not stay at my place! I went on to college, the engineering school at Oklahoma State University to get a degree in civil engineering and became the first African American to be in the student senate. If you’re among 300 kids of color on a campus of 20,000, you’ve got to be engaged.    Also, during this time, I became close friends with a white girl; after I graduated and we decided to get married, the crap really hit the fan. One of her brothers threatened to kill me; her grandfather called the FBI and said I had kidnapped her; Her uncle called IBM, where I was working, and tried to get them to fire me, while her mother drove up here to Denver to meet with the pastor of the church to convince him not to do the wedding. To this day, I cannot say the word wedding without thinking the word funeral. When our kids were born, we started a group called Multiracial Families of Colorado, which was a support group for people in mixed marriages or who had adopted a child from a different racial or ethnic background. After a couple of years of hard work, we made peace with the family and got things back to normal.I place a strong emphasis on building connections and relationships in Second Tuesday because this is how I was able to heal the rift in my own family. DS:    My Ethiopian godfather, who was dark skinned and probably the warmest presence in my traumatic childhood, had a lot to do with my later focus on racial justice.I went to Brandeis University for my undergrad degree, which is where Angela Davis went to school, so social justice was huge there. Initially, I was focused more on sexism.  Later, when I started teaching at the University of Colorado – Colorado Springs, my students asked me questions about race and what whiteness meant. I couldn’t answer them. So, I paused my teaching career and audited a course on whiteness at University of Maryland. Although I was very aware of discrimination and oppression as a Jewish person, I had never been given the opportunity to consider the role of privilege in this unfair system. I was just blown away, and thought to myself: how did I not know this?  I realized I was in fact taught NOT to know, as a white person. My new understanding changed the trajectory of my teaching career. Later, I got involved in the White Privilege Conference, and began consulting around the country while continuing to teach. When I moved to Denver, I immediately joined Second Tuesday, and a year after that, I was honored to be invited to co-facilitate with Harold.R4S:     What is the history of the Second Tuesday Race Forum?HF:    Second Tuesday Race Forum was started in 1997 when President Clinton’s Commission on Race was meeting in Denver; they wanted to participate in a citywide dialogue about race.  Two bookstore owners brought a mixed group together, Joyce Meskis of the Tattered Cover Bookstore and Clara Villarosa of the Hue-Man Experience Bookstore.      It was intended to be a onetime event, but nobody wanted to stop talking! I heard about the group a few months after it started; I eventually was invited to facilitate the group and we’ve been meeting monthly at a local church ever since, over 20 years.R4S:    How did you and Dena connect? What kind of process did you go through, Harold, thinking about having a white person co-lead after you spent so many years leading solo?HF:    When Dena first came to our meetings, she often made announcements about things that were going on at white privilege conferences, so I became aware of her there. I thought it would be advantageous to have more than one person leading the group, to include different perspectives and backgrounds. Working together we can reach more people and model for them some of the things we want them to be able to do.R4S:    Can you give an example of something that you’ve modeled?DS:    Most white people have not had a cross racial experience, so one thing we model is our friendship. I consider Harold family.  I have a heartfelt connection with him, and I feel a high degree of respect and collegiality. Many white people don’t know what that looks like or that that’s even possible. R4S:    What has surprised you about working together?HF:    Well, it’s been helpful to be able to confront some of my blind spots – for instance around issues of Jewish oppression, something I wasn’t deeply aware of; it has been very, very good to have Dena’s insights.  R4S:    Describe the process for somebody who’s brand new and might want to attend a racial healing gathering. HF:    I think initially it’s important to make it clear that participation is really based upon building and strengthening relationships. DS:    My biggest concern is always making sure that we’re not doing any harm. So, when we bring new white folks in who are not used to the conversation, it can be problematic. We want to make it feel safe, more inclusive and more respectful – for everyone, but especially for people of color. R4S:    Are there patterns of behavior that new people exhibit? HF:    I have noticed that new persons of color sometimes have a lot they need to download; sometimes they’ll go on and on to get folks straight about how difficult life has been. We try to teach people to share the airwaves in this situation, to ask questions and be inquisitive with each other. Then, you also get some white folks who say, “I don’t see color” or, “well, you know, I marched with King here, so therefore I’m above all this.”  On the other hand, many people feel relief and comfort that they have found a supporting community that is eager to help them in their quest for racial justice.    Ultimately, you have a wide spectrum of folk, so I just think it’s important for us to help people remember that we’re all on a journey and we’re all at different stages of the journey. Sometimes we walk together and sometimes somebody is walking ahead of us. Sometimes somebody will stop, rest up, then catch up with you later. R4S:    What do you do when there are conflicts at Second Tuesday? How do you interrupt problem behaviors?  How do you get the person to go deeper?HF:    We can use it as a teachable moment. Sometimes, when there’s been a major issue, we’ve had to stop the program and really see what’s going on, focus on opening up that dialog –  as opposed to, “well, we got seven minutes left on this, so we’ve got to keep going.” DS:    When something like that happens – I call it a micro-aggression – I always want to bring people IN rather than calling them OUT. As I say that, it’s important to also state that I expect to be micro-aggressing for the rest of my life. My own whiteness still gets in the way sometimes. In fact, I was the instigator of a microaggression during one of our sessions; I inadvertently cut a person of color off.  I was doing just what Harold was just talking about – thinking about the agenda and how we had so much to cover – and this person had been speaking for a while, so I cut him off. And, unfortunately, he was telling the story about being cut off by a white person! I mean, you couldn’t have scripted it better! I apologized; later, Harold and I decided that it was a moment that I really needed to share with the whole group. So, I wrote a letter to the whole STRF and we decided to devote part of a monthly meeting to that. So, we transformed it from a pretty bad situation into a potential learning moment. R4S:    For people who are interested in forming a racial justice or racial healing group, how would you advise them to start?HF:    I’d say that building familiarity, building trust is an important foundational piece.  Group bonding, storytelling and personal sharing will give a group longevity, for sure. Knowing a person’s story is a critical part of understanding why they feel a certain way about issues.  We can only make assumptions about people before we get to know them.DS:    Our focus has been on challenging white supremacy and colonization, so first, introducing that language is important.  We don’t want to get too academic, but when institutional racism is put in a framework of understanding society and where we came from, I think it gives the group a better grounding.    The other thing is to make sure you use an Afrocentric model of relationship-building rather than a Eurocentric model of agenda, agenda, agenda. Going from the head to the heart is really the core of what we’re after. HF:     I was influenced so much by the work of Dr. Vincent Harding, an African American historian and scholar.  He connected the dots between what people have accomplished vs. the struggles they’ve gone through and how that connects to what’s going on today. I want to help people see that there are patterns that keep repeating and that you just can’t look at social disparities without understanding the long history of events that set that dynamic up. That helps validate the people of color who can say, “Yeah, we’ve experienced that all along.”     In telling those narratives, we begin to open possibilities, create a new narrative together. In history, the inflection points that signal change don’t seem to be about facts, but more about feelings. You know, I’ll remember how you made me feel long after I’ve forgotten the facts that you stated.  DS:    Our intention is never to make white people feel guilty or feel shame for being part of the oppressor class, so to speak. I think that when we talk about this as systemic, knowing that there’s a system in place that has caused this to happen, it suddenly makes people think, “Can’t we just change the system? How do we do that?” Then, it’s a proactive conversation rather than just about how horrible things are. HF:    I would also say, always be open to advancing your own education about these issues. Realize that we are just scratching the surface now, so keep reading and getting exposed to more ideas so that you can have more depth and understanding.DS:    Also, continue your personal work around your own internalized issues, whatever they may be, based on your social and racial identities. R4S:    Do you see a tie-in between the work you’re doing and the idea of reparations?HF:    I think everything we do is related to the transformational work that’s necessary to heal this country.  For me, reparations is a long-term process, not a single event of passing out a check. The racial divisions and domination are deep in the cultural DNA that we have. DS:    Our interpersonal racial justice work doesn’t take away from the fact that I believe we should have a white tax, a colonizer tax, whatever you want to call it. When we consider the vast gap of wealth between white folks and folks of color, it is significant. We’re not necessarily going to be writing reparational policy in our group, but we’re going to be talking about it, for sure.Also, don’t limit the discussion to slavery. When we did our reparations session, we brought in indigenous folks, with their perspectives, and Asian Americans, who spoke about the WWII internment camps.  Including more groups deepens the discussion.HF:    I’ve ultimately learned that racism is not the main problem we are trying to address, racism is just one of the symptoms. Humanity has developed a deep belief in hierarchy and separation.  Racism is just one manifestation of that value. We combine topics and explore alternate views to help us transition to a new deep value of interconnectedness and interdependence.DS:    So, yes, we take an intersectional approach, not just focusing 100% on race, but also thinking about what does this mean for women, for LGBTQ individuals? What is the tie-in with Martin Luther King’s giant triplets: materialism, militarism and racism?R4S:    What other advice do you have for anyone hoping to start a new racial healing or racial justice group? HF:    It’s important to be open to people and to be welcoming. We just want to make people feel that we’re glad to see them, they’re welcomed into this environment. Also, find a way to manage the size of your group.  Growth has been an issue for us – we’ve grown to over 50 people per meeting, with a mailing list of over 600.  Group size will affect what sort of things you can effectively do.   DS:    For instance, in a group that size, sharing in one big circle would take too long, so to discuss topics, we typically break into smaller focus groups of 3 – 5 people for, say 20 minutes then have one person from each group report out to the whole group. HF:     Also, do you want to be an open group or closed group? In a closed group, people can get into a lot of depth. In an open group, you have the issue of people coming and going and having the sense of starting over again as new folks join. Another thing that often happens is that the current events of the day sometimes overtake what you had planned to do. People need to be able to talk about the shooting that happened, or the court decision, or whatever is impacting the local or national community. That’s especially important for people of color; when they talk about it at work, they’re going to hear the “white oppressor” version of things.  That’s not a safe space. Finally, it’s important to bring people together to just be.  We have a party each year to celebrate the Juneteenth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. You always want to return your focus to building relationships – that’s what this work is ultimately about.

Links

Second Tuesday Race ForumA conversation about race has unfolded for 19 years in a Denver church basementDena Samuels Consulting