Genealogy, Storytelling and Racial Healing – Baltimore & D.C.

During the reporting period, Baltimore and Washington D.C. both worked through Safe Places for the Advancement of Community and Equity (SPACEs), led by Executive Director Dushaw Hockett, to achieve their goals. SPACEs, an inter- disciplinary social justice organization that unleashes the capacity of people and organizations to create communities of HOPE (Healing, Opportunity and Possibility for Everyone). It partnered with Baltimore-based United Methodist Church to deliver the Beloved Community Initiative (BCI). A national movement, the initiative seeks to create trans formative spaces where people who don’t look, think, live, or learn alike can come together and, through the power of storytelling, see themselves in the story of the perceived other. SPACEs partnered with Highland Dwellings, a Family Resident Council in Washington, D.C

The specific goals of the initiative were to: 

  • Contribute to the creation of the Beloved Community by bringing together diverse lay and clergy leaders for relationship building and dialogue; 
  • Practice the Ghanaian concept of Sankofa to use history as a vehicle for healing and to glean insights identifying a way forward; 
  • Provide tools and skills for participants to research their family history/background/origins in order to better understand where they come from; and 
  • Promote connection and racial healing as a community, not only by revisiting stories of harm, but by upholding and honoring those of resistance and resilience as well. 

These goals were achieved through a four-part process that include: 

  • A healing/community circle; 
  • A guided tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture; 
  • A guided visit to the Underground Railroad site at Woodlawn Manor in Sandy Spring, Maryland paired with a facilitated discussion, with historian Tsione Wolde-Michael, on the formation of the concept of race; and 
  • Training, guidance and support to enable participants to research their family history. 

BCI was 92% Black/African American, 6% Hispanic, and 2% white. The group ranged from 40 to 75 years of age, and all were lay or clergy leaders affiliated with the United Methodist Church. This intentional community of 25+ plus persons convened monthly from February 2018 through August 2019 (split into two cohorts) to address personal Implicit Bias and learn more about racial healing, reconciliation, Individuation and Perspective Taking.

Each workshop centered on building community, understanding identity, ancestral roots, and race and racialization. Sessions began with dinner, followed by a circle for reflection—signifying lack of hierarchy and that all people were equal had significant perspectives and contributions. Participants were paired up with people they perceived to be different and answered questions about each other.

To build rapport and community among the group, the practice of individuation was implemented. The science of individuation suggests that if human beings take the time to regularly learn detailed information about people who are different from them or perceived to be – the brain can be retrained to interrupt the automatic behavior of forming stereotypes.

To practice individuation, participants answered the following questions in pairs during the sessions:

• What’s a nick name that people called you when you were growing up?
• What’s the name of a person who shaped and molded you into the human being you are today and/or the person you’re becoming?
• What did you want to do and/or be when you were growing up?
• Share a story about a time you laughed hard and/or smiled wide?
• What’s the title of your medicine song?  That song you listen to over and over again because it lifts your spirit and heals.
• What’s one thing in your life that you’re attempting to do more of these days?
• What’s one thing you’re trying to do less in order to make time for the things you want to do more?

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Many discussions focused on revising narratives about race, leading to new ways to think, talk, and act about it.  Participants were paired up with people they perceived to be different to ask questions, discuss and reflect upon answers. Training was introduced where research-based examples of how implicit bias shows up in daily life as well as strategies for bias reduction. Role playing exercises followed by discussions about racial bias and the criminal justice system allowed participants to walk in the shoes of the oppressed and marginalized.

Barbara Levitz, President of LAMP Genealogical Research Company provided research resources, facilitated the ancestry discussion and dissemination of DNA kits. Due to concerns about privacy, two individuals refused testing. Levitz also facilitated conversations where those who had received their Ancestry DNA results shared the findings with the full group, marked their countries of origin on a large map, followed by a group discussion on differences and commonalities. Those who were interested in receiving further genealogy coaching and research support signed up for 3.5 hours of hands-on and telephone coaching sessions.

In Washington D.C., SPACEs partnered with Highland Dwellings Family Resident Council to deliver Know Your Roots…the experience (KYR). A national movement, the initiative seeks to create trans formative spaces where people who don’t look, think, live, or learn alike can come together and, through the power of storytelling, see themselves in the story of the perceived other. SPACEs held a series of monthly gatherings lasting two-to-three hours around building community, understanding identity, ancestral roots, and race and racialization.

In D.C. all participants were African American residents of a subsidized housing project ranging in ages from 40-62. The group met seven times for two-hour sessions between May 2018 and September 2019.

KYR gatherings also began in a circle, signifying lack of hierarchy and that all people are equal. Participants were paired up with people they did not know and perceived to be different. Many discussions focused on revising narratives about race using storytelling to metaphorically “walk in the shoes” of others. Sessions for the DC cohort followed the same format as Baltimore; they encouraged community building through the practice of individualization and discussions around bias, history and genealogy. The program created opportunities for those who knew little about their family history to learn more through genetic testing. Every participant received a DNA kit and three-to-five hours of consultant time with the ancestry expert Barbara Levitz. Levitz helped people identify ways to further their family history and genealogy research through vital records and census data.  Historian Tsione Wolde-Michael explored the impact of race and racism on employment opportunities, housing discrimination and access for Latinos, African Americans, Asians and undesired Whites and how some white populations became desired populations to expand the meaning of whiteness.

Trips to historical African American sites were important tools used to discuss race, racism and healing. On March 23, 2019, 11 participants from the Baltimore and D.C. cohorts along with two representatives from Detroit toured the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. The session was led by historian, Tsione Wolde-Michael, Ph.D., also a curator for the Slavery and Freedom exhibition. Tours of select exhibits at the museum as a way of deepening participants’ understanding of the history of race and racism in the U.S. The guided tour was informative and highly emotional as the disturbing accounts of slavery and racism’s atrocities were observed.

Additionally, a guided visit to the Underground Railroad site at Woodlawn Manor in Sandy Spring, Maryland was paired with a facilitated discussion, with historian Tsione Wolde- Michael, on the formation of the concept of race.  Building on the NMAAHC tour, this activity invited participants to practice the concept of Sankofa – looking back in history for ideas and insights for how to move forward (with respect to issues of race of racism).

Baltimore and D.C. cohorts also participated in two webinars focused on tools and tips for conducing genealogical research. At its core, and primarily for participants of color, this activity was about “repairing the breach” and creating a healing process that allows participants to connect with both the history and people from whom they were severed as a result of the hierarchy of human value.

Baltimore and DC participants provided positive feedback and revealed that as a result of the program they were encouraged to make changes in their lives. One participant was motivated to activate multi generational programming at his congregation. Another participant was encouraged to make their social action activities more multigenerational, multi-ethnic, multilingual and inclusive of people with disabilities. One white participant committed to reconnecting with Black friends.

Through video interviews (attached to this report), participants engaged in in-depth personal conversations about their personal experiences with race and racism. Their stories were all different, but have similar themes, “Why do blacks gotta come second? Why do blacks gotta be stereotyped? … Oh, this is racism.” The impact of racism on the participants lives have resulted in “emotional wounds,” and as one participant said, “If you’re not strong enough, racism can break you. You can be in a state of mind, have a mental disability that you never even knew you had.”

A common theme among these interviews was that black Americans want representation and opportunity for children in the next generation. Participants described their journeys towards self-validation and these intimate portraits showed lives lived in constant awareness of race and racism. Participants want change, but they are not all optimistic it will come because racism can’t be cured, and society will always have a privileged class.

After this work, participants recognized the value of bringing together a diverse group with different lived experiences and creating a container within which they could connect, dialogue, share insights and learn from one another. BCI showed participants the power of being in a space or with artifacts that are linked to our country’s history of race and racism, provided an appreciation of the ancestral connections, and whet their appetite to learn more about history in general and their family’s history in particular.

Participants were generally very pleased about and grateful for the experiences that were a part of the initiative and had nothing but glowing reviews of Dushaw as the initiative’s facilitator. Impactful feedback from participants prove this project’s work was meaningful and was the beginning of a ‘healing journey’.

Evaluations collected from the Underground Railroad Tour revealed powerful statements such as:

• “I loved the safety we felt with each other to process our history together in an intentional and healing way.”
• “[This experience] validated some of the history I’d learned before, gave me new language to describe the history, and renewed my energy around delving into the history.”
• “Learning history is powerful and trans formative for People of Color and should be done as much as possible.”
• “[This] reminded me that racial equity is often about teaching white people with power. Reclaiming our history, time and space for rest and reflection may be a better way to center the work.”

In regard to racial equity, participants shared that:

• “… before you enter dialogue with someone not like you, remember the struggle and heritage and listen actively.”
• “my approach and openness create a safe and trusting space which makes me more approachable.”
• “by hearing everyone’s journey I am able to understand their current points of view.”
SPACEs encountered a challenge when a number of participants (in both cohorts) refused to take the DNA test because of personal reasons or because they thought the results would be used to falsely accuse them of crimes and ultimately land them in jail. This, in spite of the fact that DNA has been used for years to exonerate the wrongly convicted, proved education is needed to dispel myths and help people understand the truth about testing. There was also an expressed need for childcare, which would have made workshop attendance easier.

Challenges noted by BCI and KYR program participants include:

• We visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture at a very busy time, thus were unable to completely explore the exhibits.
• Participants felt the Know Your Roots webinar should have been longer or included time for follow-up meetings to continue their research together. Many participants raised in their evaluations a desire for the initiative to be available much more broadly so that more people can have the experience.