Educator brings race workshop to Vermont
By NICOLE HIGGINS DESMET
Jan. 16, 2018
BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) — A North Carolina dialogue expert zeroed in on Burlington-area race relations ahead of a white allies workshop because, he says, people don't know how to talk to each other anymore.
"As a society we have lost the ability to talk across the ideological divide," David Campt said on Thursday at the Davis Family Library in Middlebury ahead of his Burlington workshop.
Campt, 56, who received a master's degree in public policy at Princeton University and a Ph.D. in city planning from the University of California at Berkeley, wants to inspire a million conversations on race — between white people.
The subject line of the email announcing the event stated, "WHITES ONLY." That provocation was on purpose, according to Campt.
"There's the steak, and there's the sizzle," Campt said, explaining that it was true, the workshop skills are geared toward white-on-white conversations because black-on-white conversations can start off with racial tension before a single word is spoken.
"White people can have a conversation about race without racial anxiety being part of the conversation," Campt said.
In Chittenden County last year combative conversations over race erupted at School Board meetings.
In Milton accusations of racial bias in hiring and race-based bullying in school boiled over in June board meetings. In South Burlington, a team mascot name change from Rebel to Wolves united students but created a racial firestorm that split the community. Burlington School District officials dealt with community members' accusations of racially motivated expulsions.
Members of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), a loose-knit national group of white race-activists with a chapter in Burlington, took advantage of Campt's presence in central Vermont. They set up an interactive workshop to give locals an opportunity to practice the skills to de-escalate and engage with fellow community members.
Susan Schoenfeld, 65, of South Burlington, was one of a handful of SURJ members who helped to co-sponsor the Saturday event with the University of Vermont's Department of Social Work.
"There is a perception people have of Vermont as a progressive place," Schoenfeld said on Wednesday. "But if you tell someone that what they are saying is inherently racist, the conversation stops."
An example Schoenfeld used to illustrate inherent racism is when a person says "there is no racism in Vermont or "I don't see color."
Campt's solution is to help white people tackle these kinds of ideas by creating a collective sense of the world through an engaged dialogue.
"At some point you can talk about data and facts, but first talk about experiences," Campt said. "Facts don't connect the same way."
Dartmouth researchers studied what they dubbed a "backfire effect," in which corrections to misinformation actually increased misperceptions when people were presented with an incorrect article and a fact-based correction.
Campt said about half the country sees racism against blacks as an issue.
In a 2017 poll taken by National Public Radio, 55 percent of white Americans feel their group is discriminated against within the U.S.
A Washington Post-ABC poll taken in July 2016 found that 63 percent of people in a random sample of cellphone users said they thought race relations were bad.
To combat that, Campt advocates generating empathy through shared storytelling.
"You tell me a story, and if you are even a halfway competent storyteller, I'm going to put myself in your shoes," Campt said.
The core method Campt uses in his workshop is preparing oneself to listen and then asking about another person's opinion and paying attention to it, finding a commonality within the story, a universal truth. Then share a personal story about that.
"Like maybe they believe people of color cause their own economic problems and you don't agree with that, but you certainly would agree that hard work pays off," Campt said.
That is a truth embedded in their opinion, according to Campt, who said the next step is sharing a story about how hard work matters.
"Now we feel connected. That story has some alignment with you. We are on same team," Campt said, explaining the next step would be to tell a story that illustrates that people of color do have more obstacles.
And he's not looking for immediate success. He described his process as "the long game."
Vermont institutions meanwhile are connecting with Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director at the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity in Brattleboro. Reed's 2014 "City of Burlington Diversity and Equity Strategic Plan" helped inform hiring practices to better reflect the communities police serve.
Reed will facilitate on Saturday a training, separate from Campt's workshop, for Vermont Fish and Wildlife game wardens.
"We will provide them with a perspective on changing demographics and how changing demographics will affect what they do and how they do it," Curtis said on Tuesday. "We don't want them to have that deer-in-the-headlights look when they see a black hunter or outdoor enthusiast."
Reed was unfamiliar with Campt's work but said he might run into Vermonters idiosyncratic beliefs which include the idea of Vermont exceptionalism, that there is no racism in the state and that its residents are enlightened.
But Reed said someone "parachuting in" might not hold clients accountable with follow up conversations, but there was work enough for everyone.
Campt was at Middlebury College to help facilitate a two day PEN America Convening, a response to campus racial tension following the violent fallout at conservative speaker Charles Murray's talk in March. PEN is an international group that defends and protects free expression in the United States and around the world, according to its website.
Vermont, to Campt, is fertile ground for his discussion-based activism.
"Use your resource," Campt said. "That Vermont is in fact so white, might make it good ground for experimentation." ...
Information from: The Burlington Free Press, http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com