ATTLEBORO — It was a virtual meeting to confront a real-life issue.
The public library’s virtual discussion on racism and how to combat it last Wednesday drew more than 80 participants, Assistant Director Amy Rhilinger said, and elicited some surprising results.
“It was so powerful,” Rhilinger said, adding that one participant, a person of color, declared “they did not realize they had so many allies in Attleboro.”
The discussion, for which participants had to register in advance, centered on the ideas of Ibram X. Kendi as expressed in his books, “Stamped From the Beginning” and “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You.” Kendi, a bestselling author and activist, recently was hired to lead an anti-racism initiative at Boston University.
Conducted as a Zoom meeting, the session was not recorded. That was to ensure that participants could speak their minds freely, Rhilinger said.
“We worked hard to make it a safe space,” she said.
The participants ranged from senior citizens to teens, and Rhilinger estimated that about a quarter were persons of color.
The discussion included such questions as, “When was the first time you thought about your own racism?” and, ‘What’s the difference between someone who is not racist and someone who is anti-racist?”
“We didn’t know what to expect,” Rhilinger said, but “it was better than what we were planning.”
After the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in May and the subsequent demonstrations around the country, “We had several people reach out to library and ask what we could do,” Rhiliger said.
She said she and other staffers “are not experts on racism,” so they “brainstormed” with those who were.
Organizers of the forum included the library, Attleboro Public Schools, Be Heard, Greater Attleboro Interfaith Network, Attleboro Area Interfaith Collaborative, Attleboro Council on Human Rights, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Committee of Greater Attleboro and City Councilor Cathleen DeSimone.
Participants were given a list of resources, including articles, websites and short videos, to review before the discussion.
The Rev. Cheryl Harris, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Attleboro, moderated the initial large group discussion.
“Getting people with different perspectives engaged in a conversation has the power to create shared meaning and understanding,” she said. “That’s what I witnessed on Wednesday night.”
Harris also trained the facilitators who led smaller group discussions.
“At the closing, participants shared how their perspectives shifted as a result of the dialogue,” Harris said in an email. “Two thematic comments were, ‘Once you see, you can’t unsee.’ ‘I used to think that it was enough to be not overtly racist. Now I realize that we must be actively anti-racist and break down the systems of white supremacy.’
“It was gratifying to hear participants express an interest in attending more dialogues. One last thematic comment from an attendee, ‘I feel hopeful with this many people from the community.’ Hope — that’s what I feel from this experience. Hope that we will continue the movement toward becoming the beloved community.”
Rhiliger said the library hopes to schedule more sessions in August and September, with an increase in diversity.