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‘Let’s Talk About Racism’: A New Educational Ministry

HNP Communications Around the Province

After reading about the killing on May 25 of George Floyd, Paul O’Keeffe, OFM, felt compelled to take action. As he spoke with a black friend about racism and the Black Lives Matter protests, Paul asked, “What do you expect me to do as your friend?”

“He told me, ‘You can educate people,’” Paul said. “White people need to be educated.”

In response, Paul invited John Aherne, OFM, Jay Woods, OFM, and Maria Hayes, HNP’s director of marketing, to join him in creating a virtual anti-racism program for young adults. Together they developed “Let’s Talk About Racism,” an educational ministry that assists participants in identifying their own implicit biases and teaches them about white privilege and systemic racism and their effects on various societal institutions, including the education and prison systems.

Bringing Together Parish Communities
Initially, the organizers were uncertain as to how many people would be interested in attending the program. Approximately 20 young adults from four locations – St. Anthony Shrine and St. Cecilia Parish in Boston, St. Mary Parish in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, and St. Francis of Assisi Parish in New York City – participated in the initial session, held weekly in the evening from July 9 to Aug. 20.

After receiving positive feedback at the program’s conclusion, the organizers decided to offer “Let’s Talk About Racism” again in the fall, this time making it available to people of all ages. More than 60 participants signed up, exceeding their expectations. The weekly sessions ran from Oct. 15 to Nov. 19. One group of parishioners plans to continue to meet to identify ways that they can be better allies to people of color in their communities.

“The program showed that it is possible to have intelligent, reflective, instructive conversations about race,” said John. “It can be a very difficult topic to discuss, but we provided the space for people to enter into a conversation without feeling threatened, allowing them to have difficult conversations about a difficult topic – discussions that we think will lead to personal growth.”

“Racial injustice is a significant part of many of the social and interpersonal crises we see in our nation, Church and even our province,” said Russ Testa, director of the HNP Office for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation.  “Programs like these can help us move to correct this sin.

“I was fortunate to be able to participate in the summer series and was impressed by the quality of the material, level of discussion and willingness of participants to reveal vulnerability about the topic. I hope we can make this program and other similar ones widely available.”

(Photo courtesy of Brett Sayles from Pexels)

Developing the Curriculum
Jay, John, Maria, and Paul created the program’s curriculum with the goal of providing participants with tools and resources to enable them to continue to educate themselves and take action beyond the program’s conclusion.

Each one-hour session begins and ends with prayer and contains 30 minutes of teaching, followed by group discussions to allow participants to further process the information.

The first session includes exercises designed to help participants identify their implicit racial biases. The following session focuses on white privilege and why it is difficult for people to discuss issues related to race. During the third and fourth sessions, participants listen to video testimonies from black people who share their experiences of racism in schools and in the foster care and prison systems, as well as the experience of raising black sons in the United States.

The fifth session focuses on racism and the Catholic Church – its teachings against racism, prominent Black Catholics who have led anti-racist movements within the Church, and the instances when the Church itself has been complicit in racism. The final session focuses on the question “What is ours to do?” and encourages participants to identify ways that they will take what they have learned from the program and take action.

“I’ve been encouraged by the participants’ openness and desire to learn,” said Maria. “Their willingness to be vulnerable with and support one another as they work to identify their own biases is heartening and gives me hope for the future.”

“I hope that people who participate gain a better sense of self-awareness, and the desire to act,” said Jay, who is stationed in Chicago. “I hope that they realize that even if they feel shame or guilt, that they don’t allow it to paralyze them – that instead, they are encouraged to act and to be better advocates.”

Jay, John, Maria, and Paul plan to offer the program again in the springtime. Friars who might be interested in offering a similar program at one of their ministry sites are invited to contact one of the organizers for more information.

Editor’s note: To contact the organizers of “Let’s Talk about Racism,” email the HNP Communications Office at communications@studio91.wpengine.com. 

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