'The change starts with me': After racial justice training, some keep the conversation going

Confronting difficult truths about racism in our history and society can be uncomfortable, intense, even unsettling. Nearly 3,000 people have willingly taken deep dives into the history of racism in this country by participating in a series of programs offered by Greater Cincinnati Foundation.

The Foundation’s Racial Equity Matters program is a series of trainings ranging from half-day sessions to two full days of intense dialogue that can lead to profound insights that take time to process. For many, the experience lights a spark that burns into their everyday lives, leading to deeper conversations and actions in their personal and professional worlds.

Jessica Spencer took both the Foundation’s half-day introductory program called Groundwater, and its follow-up, a two-day session called Phase 1, which is done in a smaller group with more back-and-forth interaction between the participants. Those experiences left her wanting more.

“It stripped away a lot of my assumptions,” she says. “Then I was like, well what do I do now?” It would have been easy to simply go back to her life and get back into her routines. There was certainly plenty to keep her occupied. There was a pandemic to cope with. She has a fulfilling job as director of natural resources at Great Parks of Hamilton County.

“After I took the Groundwater training, it was easy for me to lapse for two or three years, there's a pandemic and everything else, and just get back into my own comfort zone and being content. I didn't want that.”

She emailed some of the people she had met at the Phase 1 sessions to see what they thought about what they had experienced.

“I thought I'm going to reach out to see how everyone else is doing after absorbing all this information and see how they're applying it in their roles,” she says.   

That led to a small group that is continuing the dialogue on their own, taking the learnings from the programs and running with them. Their group of six people meets virtually once a month, beginning their meetings with a relevant book or video to discuss. A recent documentary on the agenda was “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America.” But the real value comes in continuing to engage in talking about the difficult truths they confronted in the Racial Equity Matters programs.

“This group helps me remember on a regular basis that there are severe inequities in the world and we should be doing something about it,” Spencer says.

Most of the group began their journey with a program called Groundwater, which has been offered in Cincinnati by Greater Cincinnati Foundation since 2018. Thanks to the support from bi3 and other generous sponsors, this training is offered at a subsidized rate.

The Groundwater sessions are part of the Foundation’s Racial Equity Matters initiative, a regionwide program to create dialogue about racial equity, build connections, and create insights that lead to positive change around an issue that affects our lives here and around the country.

Groundwater is a program of the Greensboro, N.C.-based Racial Equity Institute, a nonprofit that was founded to help create more equitable institutions and challenge traditional assumptions about race.

Groundwater is typically a half-day, large group session. The Foundation also offers follow-up sessions called Phase I, two-day workshops with fewer people that involve more interaction and present a historical, cultural, and structural analysis of racism.

In 2020, following the deaths at the hands of police of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a more intense focus on racial justice took hold among businesses and organizations here and around the country, with some recommending the Racial Equity Matters trainings for their employees.

Jenn Dye is the director of the Nathaniel R. Jones Center for Race, Gender and Social Justice at University of Cincinnati’s College of Law. She learned about the programs through her work at UC, participated in them, and now the small group provides a more relaxed way to keep those issues in mind.

“I work in this space daily, and it's pretty draining work,” she says. “I really appreciate this group just because it is a community group and a safe space to talk about these kinds of things.”

The idea of a safe space to share thoughts and ask questions is something the small group’s members say they appreciate.

Lindsey Bonadonna, a life coach and yoga teacher, learned about the Groundwater program through her boyfriend, the human resources director at a local brewery, which recommended the training for its employees. She participated in Groundwater and then the Phase 1 sessions twice, where she met other members of the small group.

“Something that’s neat about this group is it's like we're all in this together and want to keep it very casual and conversational, and have it be this space to be able to process through different challenges that we're having either in our personal lives or professional lives and have it be a safe space to ask questions,” she says. “I call them ‘dumb white girl questions.’ This is a space where I feel safe to ask these questions and not have it be judged or approached in a close-minded way.” 

Anne Wallace has worked in health care, for a nonprofit, and now runs her own coaching and mentoring business. The Groundwater and Phase 1 training and then meeting in the small group has taken on new, personal importance for her. “My oldest is non-binary and came out several years ago,” she says. “So the whole idea of what it means to be an ally and how do I show up for people took on a whole new kind of urgency and importance for me,” she says.

Participating in the small group was an opportunity to continue to learn how to advance diversity and inclusion. “I jumped at it,” she says. “I love this group, because that's what we're all about.”

Stacy Kessler is a small-business strategist who joined the group for the first time in December. After the Groundwater and Phase 1 sessions, she wants to continue to do her own small part to work on a big problem.

“It's a massive problem that's been going on for 400 years,” she says, “but I feel like I have some agency to continue to work at it and make a difference.”

The trainings and the subsequent small group meetings have led to further action in their personal and professional lives.

"This is exactly what we want, this organic formation of a group of people that will work on these issues together," says Meghan Cummings of the Foundation's Racial Equity Matters program. "Dismantling systemic racism is hard work. There is no easy answer or ‘one size fits all’ action steps that we can prescribe; but, having a small group of people to lean on is so important for all of us as we do this work."

Spencer lauded the training at her workplace and recommended that others take it.
For Bonadonna, it meant some changes at home. “I have two daughters. It encouraged me to think differently and be more intentional about books I bring into the house and to source ones that share some of this historical information and also celebrate diversity and inclusion in a meaningful way,” she says.

She’s also starting a new venture, a space for healthy food, yoga, and retreat and reflection. Her racial equity experience has influenced its creation. “It is going to be more of an eyes wide open approach in how I'm creating this space to ensure that it is inclusive, and that these tough conversations that we are all trying to have in our own personal lives and in our country can happen,” she says.

Participating in the group is one way to begin to take action with others on a issue that can seem overwhelming and intractable. “It opened my eyes to what meaningful, intentional action looks like,” Bonadonna says. “And it gave me permission to step back from saying ‘How am I going to change the world’ to 'Wait, the change starts with me,' and how I'm looking at things. And that starts with my house, and that starts in my backyard and in my community.”

To learn more about Racial Equity Matters, please visit www.gcfdn.org/rem
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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.