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Greensboro-Based Organization Teaching People How To Talk About Race

Illustration of students of different races raising hands, good for education stories on diversity and segregation.
John LeMasney
Flickr Creative Commons

Race plays a significant factor in almost every aspect of community life. But often, there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how those conversations should be happening.

Now, a Greensboro-based organization is teaching people how to talk about race openly.

The Racial Equity Institute wants to make one thing very clear: this is not your standard Starbucks diversity training.

"One of the challenges today is trying to understand race and racism, its origins and how it's operable in the world and in our systems,” said Deena Hayes-Greene, the institute’s managing director. “It is not understood by people, even people experiencing that."

Hayes-Greene wants to help people of all races examine their interactions with racism and understand how ingrained it is in everyday life.

"We think it's really critical for people of color and for white people to have a shared language so that we can speak with each other without all the misunderstandings,” Hayes-Greene said. “Because if you think race and racism is about individual acts of meanness, and I think it's the way that it has been created and then embedded and institutionalized, then we're not even talking about the same thing.”

Hayes-Greene says the organization has grown four-fold over the last decade. She credits word of mouth referrals.

Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue has been to three of the institute’s trainings and says the conversations can be difficult.  

“They're particularly difficult when you're a police officer participating in a training where people are talking about their own personal experiences, sometimes at the hands of police officers,” Blue said.

Blue has turned his experience from these trainings and his evolved perspective into action. The local NAACP praised his officers for restraint during the toppling of Silent Sam. Blue has also deprioritized some citations, such as low-level marijuana offenses, because they disproportionately affect black people.

“I know I and my colleagues, police colleagues, have left that training feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, frustrated, but also I think better prepared for the next tough conversation I think we referred to it as, you know, getting inoculated for tough conversations,” he said. “I think REI certainly helps us do that.”

The institute’s Hayes-Greene says the process of examining the cognitive dissonance around race is a necessary first step in making change, but it won’t happen overnight.

Organizations can hire the Racial Equity Institute to conduct trainings. Organizing Against Racism Alliance hosts REI trainings for individuals in the Triangle and the Greensboro Health Disparities Collaborative offers them in the Triad.

Rebecca Martinez produces podcasts at WUNC. She’s been at the station since 2013, when she produced Morning Edition and reported for newscasts and radio features. Rebecca also serves on WUNC’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accountability (IDEA) Committee.
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