Circle of Chairs

A Circle of Chairs, dialoguing about race

February is Black History Month in the United States, a time to reflect on the centuries long journey and accomplishments of African Americans.  But it has also been a month in which Black Lives Matter continues to be a rallying cry and organizing principle in the protest against the devaluation of black lives.  And a month when it has been necessary to explain what is ugly about the use of “black face” in entertainment.

Black History Month

We’ve been fighting about racism since the Civil War, first over the literal freedom of the slaves and in the past century and a half, over civil rights. And  fifty years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we are still puzzled by the intractable presence of racism, either in explicit or implicit form.

A Circle of ChaisIt is an uncomfortable topic, not one that easily enters mainstream conversation.  But a local program called “A Circle of Chairs” has taken on the challenge of seeking understanding and even healing through face to face dialogue.

Two years ago, a group of retired activists living in the Pilgrim Place community in Claremont, California, began to wonder if they might explore the problem through conversations with their friends and neighbors.  Founded in l9l5, Pilgrim Place was started to provide housing for missionaries who returned to the country but it has grown to include those who have worked in humanitarian organizations, religious or charitable.

The Diversity Recruitment Advisory Group from Pilgrim Place reached out to the Pomona Branch of the NAACP and to the National Council of Negro Women to propose a series of dialogues, perhaps like the Living Room Dialogues of South Africa during the ending of Apartheid.  Their aim was to get at the core of prejudice and to see how it manifested and to explore ways to change hearts.

Facilitator Rosie GuadarramaRosie Guadarrama is an activist who has volunteered at Pilgrim Place and who is known for her years of experience as a facilitator and arbitrator.  She was invited to serve as one of the facilitators in dialogues that were certain to require that participants step outside their comfort zones, as they explored the racism around and within us.  And she shared her experiences with us.

The process they settled upon was to invite participants into a general assembly and then to break up into small groups of five or six with one or two facilitators, with as much diversity as they could manage.  And their name was changed to “Circle of Chairs,” referring to the smaller, more intimate groups. It is by invitation only.

Guadarrama knew that facilitating these conversations would be unlike teaching a class where a specific learning outcome was desired.  Her role was to make sure each participant was free to speak in an open and non-judgemental sphere. She was to make sure that each person had their fair turn and to avoid at all costs, directing or molding the discussion.   Above all, she was challenged to make split second decisions to ensure the process remained open and fair to all participants. The payoff came with the “aha!” moment when she could see understanding blossom.

Racial bias comes in overt, covert and unconscious forms.  Often a person who does not hold with the notion that one race or group is inferior will have unconscious biases that creep into their behavior.  It can be triggered when in contact with those of a different race, religion or nationality. It might lead to treating someone differently who is making a purchase, assigning them to a less desirable table in a restaurant, being less friendly.    It can result in lower levels of friendliness, lack of racial inclusion, lower evaluations in the workplace.

It is also referred to as “implicit racism.”   But with implicit racism, people unaware of these biases still make instantaneous decisions based on visual cues, such as skin color, speech patterns, clothing, hair.

As a result, minorities might suffer inequalities in housing, education, jobs and the indignities of everyday racism.   [see Thomas Gale, “Implicit Racism.”  ]

The small group would begin in a circle, with each person given a few minutes to share a thought going round in one direction.  When everyone had been offered A Circle of Chairsa chance to speak or to pass or to reclaim their passed time, they would reverse directions and give everyone a chance to speak again but going the opposite way.

The participants got down to the nitty gritty in the smaller groups, according to Guadarrama, where everyone was more comfortable sharing personal experiences and thoughts.  It was designed to push people out of their comfort zones to the understanding of behavior that might have been hurtful. It was aimed at determining what might be a positive action and what was not.

And after the “Aha!” realization would come an understanding that could be taken out of the group into the world as an action that would start healing the destruction of implicit racism.

Participation was by invitation, the facilitators were volunteers, and hosted in space at Pilgrim Place.  Over the year, slightly over 100 participants were reached in the monthly meetings.  After that, the participants expressed a desire to include younger people and perhaps to go outside and put their insights into practice.  They were able to recruit the students from a Black History class through the Draper Center for Community Engagement at Pomona College in Claremont. Through the Center, they connected with the Haitian Alliance, a group helping Haitian immigrants who were being held in detention centers after being recruited for work in Mexico.  When the jobs petered out, many made their way into the United States and detention as illegal immigrants. They had been isolated, having difficulty communicating with the outside.

It was decided that a student would be paired with a senior from the dialogue group and perhaps a facilitator and meet with one of the detainees.  The students would hear the Haitian’s story, learn something about the black experience and in turn discover how they might lend a helping hand. The immediate conclusion was that the detainees needed phone cards, so they could contact their families and reading material to pass the time.  The visitors immediately passed the hat for the first set of phone cards.

Trips to the Detention center will continue through May and evaluations are scheduled for winter.  Students and their senior teammates are required to attend two sessions where their experiences will be discussed.  Things people wonder about is whether observations among the team members will be similar or if they might differ by age or race.  

Guadarrama reflects, “In spite of peoples’ age, they were willing to open up, see that what they did was a learned behavior and not heart felt and not what they wanted to do. Why go out of your way when you are retired?  It’s awesome that they took the time to feel uncomfortable. They were willing to step outside, look in to that ‘aha!’ moment, and decide that now they could go out and do something about it.

They never looked back, just decided to try to fix this injustice, make this wrong right.”  

Pilgrim Place


Corrections have been made to the following: 1) the number of participants in the first year and  2) the duration of the detention center visits will continue through May and evaluations conducted in the winter. 


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