St. Louis on the Air
2:36 pm
Tue August 19, 2014

In Light Of Ferguson, How Do We Talk About Racism, Marginalization And Disempowerment?

Amy Hunter and Reena Hajat want to help us communicate. They want to improve the dialogue between people of different races in the city.  

“I think [the unrest in Ferguson was] a long time coming,” said Hajat, executive director of the Diversity Awareness Partnership, which helps community organizations navigate difficult conversations about race, racism, marginalization and disempowerment. She said the city has not been communicating well about racial issues for decades.

On Sunday night protesters gather near Red the BBQ Man restaurant to defy curfew on West Florissant Avenue after a day of demonstrations in Ferguson.
Credit Stephanie Lecci / St. Louis Public Radio

Hunter, director of racial justice for the YWCA, agrees. “We haven’t even shared each other’s experiences of what it is like to be in the same city, in the same town, so I think communication is going to be key going forward,” said Hunter.

Hunter said circumstances in Ferguson have created an “opportunity to have the conversations we haven’t been having. It has given us a wonderful platform to talk across racial lines, socio-economic lines, generational lines.”

“This is an opportunity to open up the dialogue with our police department, certainly, but our school systems, our health care, to notice who we’re missing and why, and to start as a country to care about everyone,” Hunter said.

However, she added, we cannot solve the city’s problems simply though dialogue. The tension, she said, is from more than just prejudices.

“We have to think about this in a bigger context of employment and education,” Hajat said. “If we are not doing justice by these young people in terms of providing them quality educations and then providing them employment opportunities, we see what the result is. And we have to have that conversation as well as this bigger racial tension conversation.”

Hajat said a fear of coming across as insensitive or out of touch cannot stop dialogue if the situation is ever going to change.

“Amy and I, as diversity professionals, are not exempt from making mistakes,” Hajat said. “The approach is not you say something and I call you a racist and that’s it, conversation over. It’s let me help you understand a different perspective. Let me share with you some different experiences that maybe you are not in tune to. That is what dialogue is about.”  

Can anything really change?

Hajat acknowledged dialogues after similar situations have ended when the situation died down. However, she hopes that along the way a few people’s perspectives are changed and that helps the conversation going forward.

“One of the things I experienced the other day is brown, white, black, working together, and the diversity is on those streets is phenomenal,” Hajat said. “On an individual level we are breaking down some of those barriers, which is huge.”

Regardless of what happens going forward, Hajat said the important thing is how residents communicate going forward. 

“The point here is that we need to be communicating in ways that are respectful and inclusive of all people and that is what we need to change,” Hajat said.

Both the Diversity Awareness Partnership and the YWCA offer training around racial awareness and dialogue. Find out more about the Diversity Awareness Partnership’s programs here and the YWCA’s programs here.  

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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