For Hong Li, a 30-year-old Asian American woman from Jamaica Plain, the activity made her consider the range of stereotypes that exist across racial lines.
“[The activity] made me think about preconceived notions [others may have] about me,” Li said.
The circle activity also provoked other strong sentiments. When the group was asked if they had “ever felt invisible,” Melissa Penley, a white woman who recently relocated to Boston from what she said was a segregated town in North Carolina, considered times when she felt overlooked — or may have made others feel that way.
“I realized that I wasn’t seeing [some] people, and thought about times when I was invisibilized due to my gender,” Penley said.
The inner and outer circle exercise struck a different note for Simone Monique Barnes of Boston, a woman of African American and Native American descent.
“[The circles] forced us to listen,” Barnes said. “We live so fast-paced, with instant messaging, cell phones, the Internet, video on demand, etc., that it’s become harder and harder to actually listen, hear and digest what someone is saying. Sitting still in the outer circle made us listen to the inner circle more deeply, because we couldn’t chime in, cut them off, or banter back and forth.”
Barnes also observed the body language of the inner circle speakers and the interactions between participants, which she said were as important as the words they were saying.
“[Through the exercise], you begin to notice those who have a platform or voice to speak, and those who don’t,” she said. “Being in the inner circle made you appreciate the ability to be heard.”
Another powerful component of the dialogues for Li involved facing the different effects of racism across generations.
“Racism is experienced differently across generations,” Li said. “There is both overt and discreet racism.”
For example, while Li attended integrated schools growing up, one older participant said her college experience included a requirement that she send a photograph along with the application materials, because she said the school discriminated against people of color.
In addition to engaging participants in conversations that can be uncomfortable, the dialogues also enable people new to the area to connect with others. For recent transplant Penley, who is gay, the dialogues provided a chance to expand her social circle.
“I was interested in getting to know people, not just white girls or white girls in the lesbian community,” she said. “Sometimes your world can be so small.”
That can lead to a lack of context, which the dialogues seek to provide. Penley recalled one exercise that asked participants to line up straight across from one another, then take a step forward when they could answer “yes” to a question having to do with privilege — questions about whether your family had financial resources available when you were growing up, or whether you had the opportunity to pursue higher education.
By the end of the exercise, Penley said, she was furthest ahead on the privilege scale.
It was a powerful and uncomfortable moment.
“It’s a big spotlight on you. You aren’t able to hide,” she said.
That openness is also an important characteristic of the small-group discussions, which Barnes said provided an opportunity for more in-depth, personal interaction.
“[It was] powerful to be able to bear witness to [what was shared in] smaller conversations,” she said.
The dialogues have also motivated other changes — in Li’s case, a desire to become better educated about history, which is particularly relevant in her job at a community development organization that focuses on affordable housing.
“When we set policy, [it is important to consider] who we are benefiting,” she said. “It enhances the work we do which is based in social equality.”
If the national and local conversations are to continue and spread, it will be because participants remain committed to keeping the discussion alive. For her part, Barnes initiated the formation of an online messaging group where members can engage their thoughts with one another in a private space. Suggestions for future sessions include expanding outreach to other ethnic groups, such as the Asian and Latino communities.
As Penley sees it, the key is to take what is shared in those small groups and extend it to larger ones. The lasting impact of the dialogues is felt when it changes participants’ vocabulary, enabling them to bring issues of race into everyday discussion.
“Being part of the dialogues group, my conversations with other people have all expanded,” she said. “Having an intentional dialogue has opened up the dialogue I have with my friends and community.”
For more information about the City-Wide Dialogues or to register for an upcoming series, visit www.bostondialogues.org.
“Boston has a terrible reputation for race relations and I thought, ‘Someone is trying to do something about it,’” said one former participant. More »
In the most pointed speech of his campaign, Barack Obama tackled black grievance, white resentment and the uproar over his former pastor’s incendiary statements. More »
Read excerpts from Sen. Obama's landmark speech on race in America, delivered March 18 in Philadelphia. More »