ALBANY ─ In America today, few topics are more difficult to discuss than race and racism. On Friday, however, 60 high school students from the Dougherty County School System and Deerfield-Windsor School engaged in a Courageous Conversations about Race workshop at the Albany Museum of Art.
The program, the third conducted at the AMA, is a collaboration of the museum, Deerfield-Windsor and the Dougherty School System that aims to create understanding and provide open communication in a safe, neutral environment.
Emmanuel Deen, a senior at Dougherty Comprehensive High School, said the morninglong program gave students opportunities to learn and understand the viewpoints of others who have different experiences.
“I think it allowed us to express our feelings more,” Deen said. “I feel like we’ve got a lot of things that need to be out instead of stuff we keep held inside. It allows us to be engaged in a conversation and gives us better ideas and more insight into how other people feel, and how we can go back to our own schools and implement it in how we talk in different conversations.”
Andrew James Wulf, the executive director of the AMA, said that is the intention of the program, one avenue in which the museum offers a safe space for conversations about difficult topics.
“Museums today are properly being put to use for community interactions — and what better place to have conversations on difficult topics than in a safe place of tolerance, the art museum?” Wulf said.
Dougherty County School System Superintendent Kenneth Dyer said it is vitally important for students to express themselves and to share their opinions with each other about race and race relations. It makes them aware of the challenges of breaking barriers, he said.
“They’re doing a beautiful job of expressing themselves, and they don’t seem to be shy about talking about the challenges and difficulties they have,” Dyer said. “That’s the first step in making progress.
“Every time I see our students interact with each other, I’m amazed by the level of maturity they display on sensitive topics like this. They do better than adults do, expressing themselves in a very respectful way and a very convincing, compelling way.”
During the program, the students engaged in exercises such as posting notes about their greatest fears on topics including racism, systemic oppression, privilege and others. They also discovered the important role that art has played over the decades and centuries in regard to addressing race and other societal issues.
Lauren Ray, the advancement director for Deerfield-Windsor, said the frank discussion was valuable to the students. The exercise encouraged students to think more broadly and not rely on assumptions they may have had.
“I think it’s critically important to spend intentional time talking about race,” Ray said. “It’s worth it to be able to create relationships that maybe weren’t there to begin with and to be able to maybe experience discomfort, and then find out that maybe a lot of people feel just like you do and that we’re all in it together.
“I think it’s a wonderful exercise. My only regret is that we can’t do it at least once a month.”
Facilitators for the workshop were Gloria J. Wilson, an assistant professor of Art and Visual Culture Education at the University of Arizona, and Sara Scott Shields, an assistant professor of Art Education at Florida State University.
Wilson said a major benefit of Courageous Conversations is to give students a way to describe what they see and feel.
“They will have new vocabulary to apply to the knowledge they already inherently have through their lived experiences,” Wilson said. “They have embodied knowledge. Their bodies feel what’s happening, but often times they don’t know how to articulate it.
“When we do these workshops, we try to provide them with language so they can apply what their experiences are and they can place them in context so they can have a dialogue versus not having the language and just feeling frustrated. It’s almost a source of freedom and liberation to have the language.”
Sarah Katherine Harris, a Deerfield-Windsor student, said the program was “a good opportunity for students to interact and view other perspectives that they’re not typically exposed to.”
She said she learned “to be more open to what other people have to say, and to listen with an open ear without being so quick to judge, or just recognizing things you don’t typically see. It’s easier to talk about it when you all notice the same things.”
Madison McCoy, a sophomore at Westover High School, said she hopes to be able to participate in a future Courageous Conversations workshop.
“I really enjoyed myself today, learning about how I can better talk about racism and how it affects me,” McCoy said. “I’m very appreciative that I got to experience this and meet a lot of different kids that live in Albany and learn how they view racism.”
Charles Peeler, a junior at Deerfield-Windsor, said the program will help him “identify underlying racism within society. It’s not as noticeable as it was, so I thought that was very useful, especially living in Albany.”
Both Peeler and McCoy said the program made them more aware of the role art plays in dealing with societal issues.
“I didn’t expect it to be as much about art,” McCoy said, “but it did tie in real good with racism and how different artists view their art to show basic topics that are going on in the community and the United States.”
Deen said he appreciated the safe space the museum provided for the discussions the students had.
“It allowed me to express how I feel about other races and our own race, too,” he said. “If we do it out in public, there’s always that sour, rotten apple that wants to take it to that certain level.”
He said it’s important to find common ground and understanding while not expecting others to convert to a certain way of thinking.
“We have to realize everybody’s not going to agree,” Deen said. “Not everybody’s going to feel the same way that we do. We weren’t set up the same way, we weren’t raised the same way, we didn’t come from the same background, so my story’s not your story. I’m not going to feel the way you do.
“We have to learn that we can come to common ground and talk about something. If we could do in the world what we did in here — expand that — stuff would come together more quickly. We can live better, we can be at peace better and everything will just flow out.”
The key, Deen said, is education.
“If we learn more about our history, take our history more seriously, we can appreciate the things we have now,” he said. “I feel like a lot of times today we neglect what happened to us in the past. If we remember those things and teach those things to our children — and also our adults — we’ll learn to appreciate what we have now.”
McCoy said she will share what she learned with her family and friends.
“I took down a lot of notes,” she said. “I’m going to go home and tell my parents about it. It’s a good experience.”
Dyer said the thoughtful, respectful way the students interacted, especially in a world where social media often take the low road, gives him hope for the future.
“Everybody talks about the state of youth in the country today,” Dyer said, “but when I look at students like this and the way they conduct themselves in a very mature manner and have intelligent conversations on sensitive subjects, I think the future’s bright and we’re in good hands.”