BY KAT BRAZ
PHOTO BY CHRISTINE PETKOV
Last summer, tensions surrounding issues of racial injustice boiled over across the country in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. Locally, more than 1,000 peaceful protesters marched downtown on May 31 to rally for racial justice and take a stand against police brutality.
“Witnessing the energy of the young people and the memory, or the wisdom of the older people, together, that gives me hope,” says Rodney Lynch, pastor and director of the Baptist Student Foundation at Purdue University. “I was pleased with the number of people who were there. Most of them were white, that’s the demographics of this community. But standing up for racial justice is not a one-time moment; it’s a lifetime movement.”
Motivated by a desire to join like-minded community members to address issues of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), Lynch joined the Diversity Roundtable (DRT) when he relocated to Greater Lafayette in 2016. An outgrowth of Vision 2020, a 2000–2001 community visioning project for the future of Greater Lafayette, the DRT began in 2002 when a small group of citizens started meeting to plan a Diversity Summit held in April 2003. It became a biennial event and this month, the DRT held its 10th summit. The 2021 Diversity Summit, held virtually and free to all participants, focused on Strategic Doing: Turning Conversation into Action.
In addition to the summits, the DRT meets monthly to discuss DEI issues in the community. The meetings are open to the public and co-facilitated by Lynch and Barbara Clark, who retired as director of the Science Diversity Office and director of the Women in Science Programs at Purdue in 2015. An all-volunteer group, the DRT is a committee of Greater Lafayette Commerce.
“We are the only group in the community focused on diversity in general,” Clark says. “We’re not organized in response to a crisis or an issue. We’re focused on raising awareness and educating people about the diversity issues in the community — anything from race to sexual orientation to disability — and how diversity, equity and inclusion intersect with social issues.”
Many of the monthly meetings feature speakers from the community, such as city government officials, school superintendents, police officers and university administrators who share their perspective on how DEI is supported in their respective institutions as well as identifying areas that still need to be addressed. Clark, who has served as a co-facilitator of the group since 2009, says although the same core issues may resurface, often they’ve been redefined in some way.
“An issue that we’ve discussed a number of times is ‘driving while Black,’” Clark says. “When we first started talking about that, it was somewhat surprising to the white folks but certainly not surprising to the people of color. One of the things the DRT does is develop programming to educate the community on these issues.”
One of the programs facilitated by the DRT addressed implicit bias. Lynch, who co-led the training, would ask attendees how many of them had “the talk” with their children. Invariably, white attendees assumed “the talk” centered around sexual activity. Black attendees gave their children the “police talk.”
“Black people do not have the privilege of not educating their children about how to conduct themselves when they are engaged by a police officer, so they get home safe,” Lynch says. “White children are raised to believe the police will keep them safe. Whereas we’ve seen time and time again, Black people are afraid to even call the police because our loved ones may not live through that interaction.”
The depth of implicit bias is magnified through a video experiment shown in the training that posits two men of different races in the same scenario. In one instance, a white man is shown breaking into a car in broad daylight. In the other, the man breaking into the car is Black. The white man sets off the car alarm multiple times, fishing with a wire coat hanger for 30 minutes trying to pop the door lock. A police car drives by without stopping. When the Black man attempts to break into the car, a passerby begins filming him with a cellphone almost immediately and the police arrive within two minutes. The video ends with the Black man in handcuffs surrounded by five police officers.
“It’s assumed that the white guy is just locked out of his car,” Lynch says. “But the Black guy must be robbing that car. These are examples of the implicit biases we all live with.”
The difficulty of identifying implicit biases lies in the fact that we don’t always know we have them. These unconscious inclinations often operate outside of our awareness and can directly contradict a person’s espoused beliefs or values. The danger of implicit biases is how they affect our reactions and behaviors without our awareness. The goal of implicit bias training is to help attendees understand and acknowledge the systems of privilege in place that influence these unconscious prejudices.
These conversations are difficult to have, even among members of the DRT, who, by their very presence at meetings, are more inclined to be receptive to reframing their personal perspectives and committed to acknowledging and addressing DEI issues within the community.
“One of the things that keeps people coming month after month is that they can be honest and open at the DRT,” Clark says. “They feel safe talking about issues in a group where people have different perspectives because of their lived experiences.”
Another program offered by the DRT for the past few years centers around the book Me and White Supremacy: How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism and Change the World by Layla F. Saad. The book operates as a workbook, outlining journaling exercises and conversation prompts that force white readers to reflect on the roots of their own unconscious bias, how they benefit from the systems in place and how white supremacy plays out in their everyday lives. Small cohorts of 20 to 25 people work through the book together, meeting for weekly discussions over the course of one month.
“It’s not really fair to expect people of color to educate white people on issues of diversity,” Clark says. “If white people care about diversity and want to make a change, they need to put some energy into educating themselves. That’s what Me and White Supremacy is all about. The journaling can be difficult. The conversations can be intense, but it’s all very worthwhile.”
Before the pandemic, approximately 30 people attended the monthly DRT meetings. After switching to virtual meetings last year, the DRT has seen a slight increase of participation with up to 50 attendees. Those numbers may seem small, but the impact of the DRT on the larger community is far greater.
“We’re not only touching the people who show up,” Lynch says. “The people who participate in the DRT are armed with information they can use when they encounter injustice at their job, in the community or in their family. That’s the beauty of what the DRT offers. If someone is serious about combatting injustice, DRT is a good place to start. We can inform and educate.” ★
To receive updates about the DRT and information about its monthly meetings, email [email protected] or visit diversitytippecanoe.org.