Questioning Assumptions and Starting Conversations

On a crisp day this past spring, I visited the Siskyou Field Institute in Grants Pass to lead my Conversation Project program, “Where Are You From? Exploring What Makes Us Oregonians.” Oregon's population is growing and changing, becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. Considering that Oregon has a history of racial exclusion, these changes prompt questions about Oregonian identity and values. It’s no surprise that people all over the state want to talk about it.

As an East Indian adoptee who has spent most of my life in small Oregon towns, I’ve encountered a lot of people who make assumptions and think that I don’t belong. By leading “Where Are You From?” around the state, I want to question assumptions like those and start conversations about what really makes us Oregonian and how we can create inclusive communities. Each time I lead this conversation, it’s a different experience.

That day in Grants Pass, I led an energized group of twelve community members in discussion. I asked people to share experiences of their inclusion or exclusion and to brainstorm characteristics of those experiences. Then I asked them to consider how they have excluded others both personally and systematically in their own lives, through actions such as holding meetings without childcare or not speaking up when someone was threatened.

They discussed these themes as a large group and in small ones. People impressed me with their willingness to to be vulnerable and bring their experiences to the conversation. When I asked about experiences with inclusion or exclusion, one person brought up how the #metoo movement has helped them feel empowered as a survivor of assault.

I was heartened and impressed by the group’s openness to learn, foster change, and continue talking. Time went by so quickly—some folks were disappointed they couldn't share as much as they wanted to. I was yearning for more time as well, by the end. It was a group of people with rich experiences willing to share and brainstorm.

Driving away, I thought about the energy in the room. I think people were there in part because this part of the state has very racist foundations and undercurrents. I think folks were looking for hope and inspiration while also having a platform to connect with others and share. This group had diverse experiences with mobility, gender, orientation, and sexual harassment. It was different from some other groups I’ve worked with because participants had more direct experiences with the Ku Klux Klan and alt-right in their community. Their recollections of cross burnings and white supremacist groups trying to take root confirmed firsthand some of the things I've heard about racism in Oregon.

At the very end a few attendees thanked me for doing this work and said it was a gift. That felt good, and it’s something I’ll take with me on the road to the next conversation.

Kerani Mitchell is an East Indian adoptee who has spent most of her life in small Oregon towns. She is a coordinator at the year-round arts and cultural nonprofit Sisters Folk Festival, Inc., and serves on the Bend International School Board of Directors. She also leads the Oregon Humanities Conversation Project program, “Where Are You From? Exploring What Makes Us Oregonian

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