ALBANY — Using art to facilitate their discussions, 60 students from the Dougherty County School System and Deerfield-Windsor School had open conversations about the difficult topic of race on Friday in a 4 ½-hour workshop at the Albany Museum of Art.
This was the second Courageous Conversations About Race workshop conducted this year at the AMA. The workshop for high school students was a collaboration of the museum, the Dougherty School System, Deerfield-Windsor and the Albany Civil Rights Institute.
“The world is pretty crazy now, but it is refreshing to see — especially as a young generation — that people can sit down and talk about the world issues in a civilized, organized manner,” Preston Jones, a student at Deerfield-Windsor, said.
Courageous Conversations About Race is designed to provide participants with a safe environment in which they can openly discuss race and racism. The program conducted in February was open to all ages, but Friday’s workshop was for students selected by their respective high schools.
“The museum provides a safe place for these conversations,” Albany Museum of Art Director of Education and Public Programming Chloe Hinton said. “Museums are always open to ideas. They’re places where people can express themselves freely.
“It’s especially critical when dealing with difficult topics for people to feel they’re in an environment where they won’t be judged and what they have to say matters. You have to create that safe space for these types of important conversations.”
The program was facilitated by Gloria J. Wilson, assistant professor of art education at Virginia Commonwealth University and a Fulbright Scholar, and Sara Scott Shields, assistant professor of art at Florida State University. The pair guided the students on a journey through difficult topics that included racism, systemic oppression, colorblind racism and privilege.
The students participated in exercises such as listing their top fears on sticky notes that they attached to the wall of the AMA auditorium, discussing personal experiences, discovering the roles of art and artists in the conversation about racism, and engaging in group activities.
Joshua Aberdeen, a student at Dougherty Comprehensive High School, said he hoped to gain understanding from the workshop.
“It’s going to open more opportunities to see what’s going on and to respond to it in different ways,” he said. “You can’t respond to everything negatively. You have to be optimistic and positive.
“Even though somebody may say something to you that you feel is wrong, you still have to respond to them in forgiveness, really. They might not know what you’re going through. You have to be forgiving and a have a humble tone.”
Kenneth Dyer, superintendent of schools for Dougherty County, said Wilson and Shields were “excellent facilitators” who kept the students engaged.
“They’re encouraging our students to be open, but not forcing them to have conversations,” Dyer said. “Some students are more open than others. Some are sitting back and absorbing more, and you want to get them to the point where they feel comfortable raising their hand and saying things they may not have been comfortable saying when they got here.
“I’ve seen that since I’ve been here. There are some students that started out a little more reserved who are speaking out. I think that’s important.”
Both Dyer and Geoffrey Sudderth, headmaster of Deerfield-Windsor, said they expected the collaboration among the four organizations to continue and to benefit the Albany community.
“We’re in a moment — whether it’s locally, regionally or nationally — where we’ve got a great opportunity,” Sudderth said. “We’ve got great organizations in Albany that have wonderful leadership.
“This is an opportunity where those organizations have come together to say, ‘What can we do to ensure Albany has a wonderful future?’ I think this is step one of much more to come. We’ve got lots of big ideas.”
One characteristic of the event that many mentioned was its sharp contrast to the tone often found on social media such as Twitter. The consensus was that the students and teachers who participated kept the conversation respectful and civil.
Noting that high school students are “kind of digital natives” heavily engaged in social media that can be a divisive platform, Wilson said they also shine through in workshops like Courageous Conversations About Race.
“We’re all affected by what’s surrounding us with our culture all the time,” she said. “I feel like, as I’ve said before, the youth are the risk-takers. They just dive in and give it a go.”
Ma’ac Oliver, a senior at Monroe High School, said she was glad she did just that.
“I thought it was very eye-opening,” she said. “I thought this was an event that needed to happen. I’m thankful I was a part of this event, and I really enjoyed myself today.”
Preparations are under way for the next Courageous Conversations About Race at the Albany Museum of Art in spring 2019.