PORTSMOUTH — Amidst a nation ruptured by racial tensions, from Charlottesville, Va., to St. Louis to Durham, a call to action was issued to the greater Seacoast community Saturday: Start telling the truths of racial injustice.
In partnership with the Seacoast Peace Academy, the Truth Telling Project held a heavily attended presentation at the Portsmouth Public Library. Born from the 2014 Ferguson, Missouri, uprising after the police shooting of Michael Brown, the Truth Telling Project is an initiative bringing conversations on race, violence and reconciliation to communities across the country.
What Truth Telling Project Co-Director David Ragland called a “community hearing,” the event drew educators and students from the University of New Hampshire, a campus in the midst of conversations between students and administrators regarding the demands of the “8 percent,” the percentage of students of color.
In addition, the Racial Unity Team of Exeter, Portsmouth’s South Church and Showing Up For Racial Justice of Southern Maine were all represented.
Ragland, who has been recognized by 1960s activist Angela Davis, said the point of the Truth Telling Project was to answer, “How can we tell our truths so the people can hear it?”
“We’re reinforcing folks’ human dignity by sharing a narrative,” Ragland said.
Family members of Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and Tamir Rice have all participated in the project, sharing their experiences in a community hearing format.
“When you listen to the story of Sandra Bland, you learn not only about Sandra Bland dying in a police station, but you learn about the community where she died where the past is still living with us today,” Ragland said.
Ragland introduced “It’s Time To Listen,” an online learning commons that can be used as a tool for school curricula, churches and even “living rooms.” Featuring videos of youth of color, the website addresses issues of mass incarceration, police brutality, problematic mainstream media, structural poverty, grief, housing inequality and more.
The last part of the online platform is a “take action” section, where participants can find resources, organizations and contacts.
“Our priorities are wrong at the top levels, which results in people at the bottom being abused and their lives having no meaning,” Ragland said.
He spoke of white people having control of the narrative for people of color, something the Truth Telling Project aims to change.
An attendee visiting from Chicago, Dwight Wesley, a pastor for 32 years, said healing racial injustice “starts at the bottom.”
“No one at the top is going to buy out to whatever we’re saying here today,” Wesley said. “It starts at the grassroots. The children have to be taught this is wrong, that is number one. Number two, firing a police officer does not change anything because the culture is there. The culture has to be changed. There’s only one way to change the culture. That’s at the bottom.”
Wesley said conversations “have to come from the heart.”
“You have to feel the pain of the people that are suffering,” he said. “We can get on our knees and pray, we can talk to God all day, but until we learn to talk to each other and care about each other, then everything we do is going to fail.”
Jaime Nolan, associate vice president for community, equity and diversity at UNH, said the university has been looking at a proposal from Ragland and Melinda Salazar of the Seacoast Peace Academy, for how the Truth Telling Project could be implemented for students, including aligning “a couple semesters of work with them.”
“As I learned more and more about the Truth Telling Project, I think there are a lot of aspects that would be very powerful for our work at UNH,” Nolan said. “It could create a real opportunity for authenticity. I would really like for this difficult moment to be a true catalyst.”
More than 300 people turned out Sept. 11 for a forum held by the Seacoast NAACP and several multicultural groups on campus. Nolan noted how the “many layers” to the Truth Telling Project, from artists to activists, could bring more voices to the conversation at UNH.
“I think that’s the question of the moment,” Nolan said. “In 25 years of doing this work in higher ed, it’s how do you engage with the majority, people who operate with more privilege than others. Until we are really willing to truly move off the silos, I don’t think we’re really going to move the needle. We have to help our students see themselves in it. If it feels like people are being told who they are, and nobody likes to be told who they are, we lose that connection.”
In small group sessions to establish tangible actions people can take, the UNH group said they wanted to share the “It’s Time To Listen” resource with students, as well as establish a racial advisory board for teacher training and holding decolonization discussions on campus.
Sean McGhee, director of the UNH Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, said the discussions so far on campus have been “oversubscribed,” with unexpected numbers showing up.
“People are wanting to get engaged, they want to stay engaged,” McGhee said. “This work, in order for it to be transformative, has to be sustained. People’s minds aren’t changed overnight.”
Darnelle Bosquet-Fleurival, UNH’s assistant director of residential life, asked if the Seacoast Peace Academy had plans to partner with Oyster River Cooperative School District or the town of Claremont, where instances of racial injustice were reported recently. Salazar said within the past few days, the academy had been in contact with Oyster River faculty about potential peace resolution opportunities.
When asked what brought the most promise for transformation in communities, attendees noted visiting the Black Heritage Trail in Portsmouth, organizing January’s Women’s March and reading black literature as some examples.
To end the program, attendees wrote their names and addresses on a note card with personal goals for combating racial injustice. The Seacoast Peace Academy plans to mail the cards back in six months as a “check in.”
“It comes back to that spiritual connection we all need, the oneness of humankind,” said UNH graduate Giselle Hart.
Originally Posted on SeacoastOnline.com