In Kalamazoo, Michigan, Courage & Renewal practices have helped guide conversations around healing racial trauma. By coming to deeper understandings of one another’s experiences, people are building their capacity for empathy, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
Seeds of Racial Healing Take Root in Kalamazoo
“I came here because I was losing hope. My hope has been restored with fire.”
It all began six years ago when the Kalamazoo Valley Museum hosted RACE: Are We So Different?, a national eye-opening exhibit that examined issues of race from historical, cultural, and biological points of view.
Bev Coleman remembers how energized people were by the RACE exhibit. She recounts, “Folk were saying this is too valuable! Once the exhibit is gone we’ve got to keep it going! There was determination to keep racial awareness alive and well in Kalamazoo.”
In 2011, the Racial Healing Initiative was born, which included starting a local book club. Bev Coleman and Caren Dybek, both Courage & Renewal facilitators, joined the group, and it wasn’t long before they were opening each meeting with the Courage & Renewal Touchstones. Others appreciated the practice, and it generated interest in how the Touchstones’ trust-based approach to dialogue might support more antiracism work in their community.
The following year, Bev and Caren were invited to offer one-day retreats for racial healing in partnership with SHARE: Society for History and Racial Equity. Founded by Donna Odom in 2003 (originally the Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society), SHARE is a clearinghouse and program hub that promotes awareness, action, and healing around historical and contemporary experiences of racism.
Donna Odom explains, “The book club and retreats grew out of expanding our mission to include the Racial Healing Initiative, which is based on the ‘Transforming Historical Harms’ program developed at Eastern Mennonite University. A major part of that program is built on the importance of people sharing their stories and truly listening to the stories of others in the journey towards healing the trauma of past and present injustices.”
In a 2015 interview with WMUK radio, Donna further noted, “Part of the problem is that people have not spent enough time with one another to really know who they are as individuals. That’s why the discussions, retreats, and book club are meaningful to people because we share our stories and become human to one another.
“All the activist things we do are extremely important, but we also have to do a lot of work at the individual level, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” said Donna. “You can’t very well transform an organization or institution unless the members undergo some kind of transformation themselves!”
Caren also acknowledged that there’s a need for more individual work to balance the larger societal work of activism, social justice and racial reconciliation. She said, “There’s other race work in Kalamazoo that’s more in-your-face, and helps organizations face hard questions about institutional racism. As wonderful and effective as that work is, a lot of people feel there’s something more they want or desire.”
“There’s a human need to connect, and I think that’s what Circles of Trust give people. A chance to connect and understand,” said Caren.
Telling Our Stories in Trustworthy Spaces
At the Healing Together retreats, participants are invited to engage in both individual reflection and group sharing around poetry, music, and questions, creating opportunities for people to take a journey toward individual and community healing of racialized trauma.
The experience turned out to be tremendously powerful. Folks walked away from the retreats feeling heartened, enlightened, and reinvigorated.
“It was inspiring to hear about others’ experiences and journeys. In a time when there are so many awful things happening in the world, it’s empowering to be around others who care,” attested one participant.
“I am taking away a feeling of peace and healing from this retreat. I think it is so important to have these conversations as a way of caring for ourselves and others.”
“I never thought my own personal experiences were important enough to share but this experience of open sharing has been important to make me stronger.”
Bev and Caren were encouraged by the positive reactions they were receiving. “The only negative feedback we got is that there wasn’t enough time!” laughed Caren.
Interest kept growing, and soon they were offering not just introductory retreats but follow-up programs for alumni. The retreats became more diverse, drawing people from Kalamazoo’s Hispanic and Asian communities and younger participants as well. Other local organizations and activist movements started encouraging their people to attend the retreats. Clearly, they were doing something right.
SHARE’s Donna Odom told us, “The creation of the sense of ‘safe place’ and welcome has been very important in bringing people into the work and in helping to move beyond feelings of guilt and resentment.”
It all comes back to the approach, according to Bev and Caren. Like every Circle of Trust, the facilitators emphasized how each member of the circle must help create and hold the space together.
Caren added, “Courage & Renewal practices create a container for trust. They are the bedrock. I can’t imagine having conversations with that kind of depth, honesty, trust, and safety without the Touchstones.”
Extend and presume welcome. Set aside judgment and try compassionate inquiry instead. Avoid fixing, saving, or advising others. Speak your truth and honor others’ truths. Leave room for silence…
In a space bounded by these Touchstones, participants were afforded a unique chance to deeply examine their own diverse experiences of race, consider how racism is impacting their lives, set personal goals for change, and connect with others to develop a vision for ongoing community transformation.
“The space was so welcoming and the facilitators did a wonderful job creating a ‘container’. They made me feel comfortable. It felt safe to be honest and open up,” reflected one participant.
“Taking time to truly listen to others was powerful,” reported one participant. “We, as a society, are so focused on productivity and efficiency that this wonderful and moving human connections are lost. We have so much to learn from one another!”
A Different, Gentler Way
These days there’s no shortage of tension when it comes to issues of race, racism, and racial justice. When people carry suffering within them, discussions can quickly devolve into hotbeds of vitriol and judgment. Although those conversations are important, people also need gentler alternatives.
“I think the real takeaway for people is that it’s possible to have these kinds of conversations without hostility, anger or judgment — things people usually experience when they start to talk about race, especially across the boundaries of black and white. They’re amazed there’s a way to be hospitable, tell their own stories, but not feel put on the spot or that they’re being attacked,” said Bev.
One participant said that while he was doubtful at first, the retreat helped him see that reflective process and sharing with strangers can be effective, when well-designed and effectively led.
Another wrote, “This retreat has reminded me of the importance of storytelling in the process of naming race. I am also reminded of how vulnerable such a thing can be. The secure atmosphere set by the leaders, and the incredible openness and honesty of the participants’ sharing… that was heart-learning.”
Bev and Caren are energized by the possibility that this racial healing work can make a long-lasting and positive difference in the Kalamazoo community and beyond. But they also know that any good thing worth doing usually takes a long time.
“When I think of this work, I think of sowing seeds. It’s very slow work,” described Bev. “I don’t have the expectation that something amazing will happen and that it will point back directly to someone having been in this retreat. But I feel that when folks go back… I have to believe that changes occur in how they are with each other, and how they converse with each other.”
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