Healing Racism Through Community Conversations

“Ten years ago,” Vanessa Otero recalls, “Racism was a topic no one really talked about in Springfield. It was the elephant in the room.”

Yet back in 2011, along with a contingent of Springfield community leaders, there Otero was in Grand Rapids, Michigan, listening to a presentation on the work to heal racism in the midwestern city.

Impressed and energized by what they heard, the Springfield leaders — led by John Davis and with Otero on the steering committee — rolled up their sleeves upon their return home. They formed the Healing Racism Institute of Pioneer Valley, modeled after that in Grand Rapids.

Since its founding, the Institute has led many community conversations across Western Massachusetts with racism at the forefront. Participants have included college students, law enforcement personnel, bankers, and teachers.

Tony Cox, lead facilitator, presents. Photo courtesy of the Healing Racism Institute of Pioneer Valley. 

The Institute’s skilled trainers facilitate the discussions, creating safe spaces for participants to examine racism as both personal and societal problems. They have opportunities to reflect on themselves, and, crucially, to learn steps to combat racism in workplaces and communities.

The Community Foundation recently awarded grants totaling $150,000 over three years to support the Institute’s dynamic work.

Otero, now the Institute’s executive director, envisions a region where residents are actively anti-racist — and work together to solve community problems like joblessness and poverty while including residents most impacted by those issues. According to Otero, when power is shared more equitably among community members, public policies and institutions can create real, sustained change.

She shared an example from a recent Institute training: “Someone decided that she was going to speak for her colleagues of color. I appreciated her voice and what she had to say but I asked her to let them speak for themselves. She did. She really, really did. It’s in those moments that we see progress.”

“We want to make this a better place to live for everyone,” she says.

The key to healing racism, and central to the Institute’s methods, is “starting with the individual,” Otero says.

“Our two-day program provides a courageous and safe space for folks to hear about their privilege, learn how it’s systemic, learn how that privilege is written into law, and begin to think about their role and next steps in this journey toward anti-racism.”

“The work we have to do as individuals is a prerequisite for what we bring to our families, work environments, colleagues, and everybody we address in every form…When you really start thinking about this and critically interrogate why you see the world the way you see it, there is a shift. I wish that shift for everyone.”

Participants gather at Holyoke Community College in 2019. Photo courtesy of the Healing Racism Institute of Pioneer Valley.