Racial Healing Circles Help Bridge Differences

Photo credit: Everett Stroye
Logo used with permission

October 2, 2021—More than 10 years ago, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation joined forces with scores of people from different backgrounds, disciplines, and cultural and healing practices to co-develop a process to address the impact of racial injustice. The process became known as the Racial Healing Circles.

I have had the privilege of engaging in this transformative process as part of my work for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. The Racial Healing Circles that I have participated in have been led by Sharon Stroye of Rutger University-Newark’s Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Center.

Racial Healing Circles are not only effective, they also are essential. I am deeply impressed with Sharon’s ability to facilitate conversations that are personal, intimate, and often revelatory. I am certain that her infectious personality, compassion, and deep commitment to healing through dialogue also contribute to her success.

I recently interviewed Sharon, who also serves as the Director of Public Engagement for the university’s School of Public Affairs and Administration, to help the readers of Arts & Culture Connections learn more about this process.

Donna Walker-Kuhne: What was the path of your career that led to your involvement with the Racial Healing Circles?

Sharon Stroye: This December, I will have worked in a post-secondary institution for 30 years. I have spent at least 20 of those years providing academic, personal, professional, financial, and mentoring development to students who are low-income and/or the first-generation of their family to attend college. Students transitioning from high school to college, undergraduate to graduate, and graduation to career have experienced similar issues regardless of their career trajectory.

In working with students, you are given the honor to hear their stories, their truths, and their dreams. When you activate your listening skills to understand and comprehend, you will hear the humanity in all stories regardless of race, class, or gender.

In 2017, I was offered the opportunity to serve as one of three principal investigators on the grant application to host a Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Center. At the time, I was transitioning from the position of Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Programs to Director of Public Engagement in the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers University – Newark. This transition allowed me to work with community partners like the Newark Public Library, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

Donna: What is the Racial Healing Circle?

Sharon: A Racial Healing Circle is an interactive opportunity for individuals from diverse backgrounds to engage in personal storytelling in a safe, brave, and responsible space. The framework focuses on a shared humanity perspective for people to understand they have more in common than they are different. It is not a discussion about race.

Racial Healing Circles were designed to be held in-person with approximately 20 – 24 participants sitting in a private room in a circle format for approximately 2 hours. Each circle is facilitated by two trained Racial Healing Circle practitioners from diverse backgrounds.

Each circle begins with an introductory prompt and establishes group agreements to establish a sense of trust amongst the participants.

Participants engage in one-on-one conversation sharing their responses to specific questions. Participants from diverse backgrounds gain the opportunity to learn about people they may not have engaged with prior to the Racial Healing Circle.

Due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, Racial Healing Circles have been redesigned to work in a virtual format. The virtual Racial Healing Circles are scheduled for 90 minutes. The in-person format is followed except individuals are sent into breakout rooms to engage in the personal conversations.

Donna: Have you found that the process supports the building of a culture of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion?

Sharon: Yes. When engaged with the EDI planning committee or team, the Racial Healing Circles help to foster and establish a sense of trust and humanity for individuals to participate in difficult dialogues or uncomfortable conversations.

I believe Racial Healing Circles should be used as the introductory tool for the designing, planning, and development of EDI committees, teams, taskforces, and strategies for organizations, institutions, companies, and/or local municipalities.

Donna: What support is needed for the Racial Healing Circle process to be effective within an arts organization or cultural institution?

Sharon: To be most effective, it is important to have the support of leaders with decision-making authority to urge all stakeholders to fully participate. The circle format eliminates the position of power and dismantles the hierarchal chain of command between employees and supervisors, students, and teachers, and the perception of privilege and non-privilege. It places everyone on a even “playing field.” Once individuals hear the truths spoken by participants, it can lead to the adjustment of the biases that people hold.

Donna: What are some of the challenges of the Racial Healing Circles and how are they addressed?

Sharon: The Racial Healing Circles are a grassroots effort to engage people in an intimate setting in all industries and sectors. It is important to train as many people as possible in the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation process. Our greatest challenges range from sustainability to scalability.

Donna: What is your goal with the Racial Healing Circles?

Sharon: The goal of the Racial Healing Circle is to integrate into the ethos of society; the environments of corporate, nonprofit, and business sectors, and the belief systems of individuals. For behaviors to change, attitudes should change. Then the thinking will change, which will result in the change of belief systems and values.

Donna:  Thank you so much, Sharon. What I love most about the Racial Healing Circles framework is the reminder that the responsibility for transformation begins with each of us. By participating in these honest, powerful, and moving experiences, we are pursuing change together, as well as cultivating more humanistic relationships. That makes it possible for each of us to become a force for positive change.

As Sharon mentioned, to sustain and expand the Racial Healing Circles requires more trained practitioners. For additional details, you can contact her via email: sharon.stroye@rutgers.edu .

As always, I invite you to share your thoughts and comments. And if you’ve participated in a Racial Healing Circle, what was your experience?

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