[Excerpts from a recent article in the Portland Tribune, After initial discomfort, race talks forge on]
“Talking about race is uncomfortable for all folks,” says Donna Maxey, a retired PPS teacher and administrator of 20 years who founded RACE TALKS four years ago. “No one wants to be thought of as racist, especially not in Portland, which is a very PC town.”
Maxey, who is black, says Race Talks was inspired by her work helping to implement Courageous Conversations seven years ago at her school in North Portland, César Chávez K-8. It was one of PPS’ 11 schools to pilot the equity work. Since then, Courageous Conversations has been implemented at every school, to varying degrees.
Maxey says the way she saw staff members change the way they spoke to kids of color — and to her — was enough to convince her that she needed to bring something similar to the general public.
She struck up a partnership with McMenamins Kennedy School, and “RACE TALKS: Uniting to Break the Chains of Racism” was born. The series, held 7 to 9 p.m. every second Tuesday of the month, regularly draws up to 175 attendees. RACE TALKS 2 at Jefferson is its offshoot.
Four years in, thousands of residents from across the metro area have sat in on the talks at both locations.
“We didn’t really know what to expect,” says Tim Hills, the historian at McMenamins, who signed on to help Maxey by providing the space and is now co-organizer of the event. “It’s succeeded to a great degree. I feel like the most important thing is to get people from different backgrounds together in one room and have a chance to talk to one another.”
Hills admits that the whole concept of white privilege in these talks can be difficult to comprehend and downright offensive for many at first.
Originally from New England, Hills says he’s been aware of his white privilege all his life, being a historian. But when he moved to Portland, his eyes opened a bit.
“I was surprised and a bit naive realizing the racial history here,” as he spoke with longtime Portlanders, studied the history and read biographies of prominent people of color who’d spent time here.