Using the Racial Healing Circles in the Community

By: Nick Demske, Community Resources Librarian, Racine Public Library (Wisconsin) and Elkid Alvarez Maldonado, Community Engagement Specialist/ Especialista de Alcance Comunitario, Kenosha Public Library (Wisconsin)

In January 2019, before COVID-19, George Floyd, and before the Racine/Kenosha community was literally on fire every night, ALA put out a call for applications for library workers to become “Racial Healing Circle (RHC) Facilitators.” After reading all the materials provided, neither one of us understood what it was, but it was evocative. We applied and were two of the 42 participants nationwide to be in the cohort. 

We had a 3-day training in Chicago that March. We read more materials, went through a day of presentation – and we still didn’t understand what this model was. We found that Racial Healing Circles are very hard to explain verbally to someone. But the next day, as soon as we experienced one, it made perfect sense. We were both impressed with how much more effective this model was compared to the “diversity circles” and “courageous conversations” models we’d experienced.

The engineer of RHCs is Dr. Gail Christopher. Her website may be the best place to begin understanding what an RHC is but, in the meantime, the closest we’ve come to describing it is: a community-building model that alternates between group conversation and one-on-one dyads, which aims to have participants experience each other’s full humanity in much deeper ways than usual.

Dr. Gail Christopher

We have brought RHCs back to our community and participants seem equally impressed. We’ve done one virtual RHC, which allowed us to bring together people from distant communities as well. We even held a community potluck for the 2020 National Day of Racial Healing last January, which brought out over 80 people to the Racine Library, of all different identities and backgrounds, to share a meal.

Feedback is invaluable as we work toward bettering our RHC practice. Because each circle is unique, the feedback varies depending on each group. Overwhelmingly, participants express they’ve found RHCs to be positive, enriching experiences. Many of them tell us they had no idea how much they needed something like this. The frequency of this sentiment is understandable considering there is nothing else quite like this to satisfy the unrecognized human need for it.

Patrons having a potluck

After the first RHC we held, one participant expressed disappointment that there was no follow up built in; they felt so bonded to the others in the group so instantly. Due to the confidential nature of an RHC, ongoing communication can be a tricky proposition. Even encouraging participants to ask for each other’s contact information would be especially sensitive in this context, so we were a little stumped on how to handle this.

Ultimately, we took the feedback and set up a system for people to share their contact information after an RHC, should they feel so inclined to keep in touch. This alleviates unwanted pressure for those who don’t wish to or are simply more private or introverted. This has proven to provide that missing piece several of our participants desired. However, with virtual RHCs, we’ve found when the circle is composed of people who don’t share a geographic community, there’s less interest in keeping in touch afterward.

For the next steps, we plan to reach out to the participants from our virtual RHC and ask if they have someone in mind whom they would like to recommend from their community to be a participant in the future. Potential participants may not know the facilitators well enough to be interested, but we hope the recommendation of someone they trust would influence them to accept and join.

In the work towards shared liberation and anti-racism, a multitude of tools, approaches and partners are required.  Libraries must be critical accomplices in that work and, while no model is a cure-all, we think RHCs can prove to be a valuable tool in the toolbox of any library or institution committed to working for racial justice.

Nick and Elkid

If you wish to learn more about Racial Healing Circles or bring one to your community or institution, check out this clip of Dr Gail Christppher speaking at TEDxCharlottesville or feel free to follow up with Elkid or Nick at ealvarez@mykpl.info or nick.demske@racinelibrary.info .