Healing the Divide

Talking about race in Southern Oregon

Alma Rosa Alvarez

In July 2016, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival published an open letter decrying racially motivated violence—including a verbal assault and a death threat—directed at the theater company’s employees. In January, a Medford man was arrested for posting pro-Nazi flyers around Ashland. In the wake of these incidents and others, many Southern Oregon residents are finding it more important than ever to have frank conversations about race. 

In response, the Racial Equity Coalition of Southern Oregon and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival hosted two public events in Ashland in July and August titled “Unpacking Racism”; together, more than 450 people attended the events. Alma Rosa Alvarez, a cofounder of the Racial Equity Coalition, says, “The audience numbers showed that there are a lot of people who care, are interested in following up, and are hungry for something more.” 

The Racial Equity Coalition is responding to that need with the Race Toolkit Project, which aims to provide entry points to conversations about race with a set of discussion aids and a series of workshops that train participants in how to use the toolkit with others. The toolkit contains tips on how to frame the conversation, five films, a question game, a spinner with discussion questions, and a bookmark with resources. The first workshop took place in February in Medford.

In each workshop, trained facilitators use the toolkit with participants in small groups and talk through their challenges and questions. At the February event, sixty people came together to discuss race—many of them for the first time. Participants included students, teachers, and community members. Alvarez says that participants left the workshop feeling hopeful, and many wished for even longer, more in-depth conversations.

Matthew Reynolds, who teaches drama and dance at Crater Renaissance Academy, a public high school in Central Point, was among those who participated. He says, “Even though we knew there would be difficult moments, we were all willing to be there with each other and move forward.” 

More than three-quarters of attendees from the February workshop committed to hosting their own conversations about race using the toolkit. Reynolds was one of them. His school’s particular focus this year on the values of trust, decency, and kindness is a fitting way to connect discussions about race, and he plans to share the toolkit with all of his coworkers and students. 

“The race toolkit speaks to gaining trust in the community that you’re in from a racial perspective,” Reynolds says. “I saw a strong connection to our curriculum and values, and the toolkit gave me a lot of ideas to build a sense of trust throughout our campus.” Reynolds hopes to work with Crater Renaissance Academy to implement race conversations schoolwide.

The Racial Equity Coalition aims to distribute three hundred toolkits in all. Alvarez hopes the program, made possible in part by an Oregon Humanities Responsive Program Grant, will encourage people to recognize the often-unacknowledged histories of how we got where we are today, such as laws that excluded Black people from living in Oregon. 

“Without having some of that knowledge, we have a type of divisiveness,” she says. “If we can begin incorporating those encouragements into some of our histories, we can get moving on healing the racial divide.”

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