Vowing to change the nation's culture of racism by beginning locally, hundreds of Palo Alto residents gathered at the University AME Zion Church in Palo Alto on Monday, July 27, to watch a film on white privilege.
The event is just the start of a commitment by nearly 200 people to openly explore their own attitudes on race and to understand the perspectives of other races and cultures in the wake of the Charleston church massacre and police killings of black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and other cities, said Rev. Kaloma Smith of University AME Zion.
In the coming months, there will be a book group centering on important writings about race, panel discussions and, in September, a youth community day at which people can get to know one another.
More than 21 groups, from churches to youth organizations, are planning the event, Smith said. The church will hold a planning meeting on Monday, Aug. 3, at 6:30 p.m., which is open to the public.
"One comment that was made is that we are stratified here," Smith said. "The goal is to bring kids of different backgrounds together, not to sit around the campfire and sing 'Kumbaya' but to naturally interact in a creative environment."
Smith opened his church on July 6 for the first community discussion, and more than 200 people attended. Monday's event, which included a viewing of the film "White Like Me: Race, Racism and White Privilege in America," drew about 160 people, followed by a robust discussion about what white privilege looks like.
The self-examination was at times painful, Smith said.
"People truly did not understand the nature of their biases" before the movie, he said. "The discussion wasn't angry people yelling at angry people. Some people were shocked, angry and frustrated in a reflective way."
People are realizing there is a certain level of responsibility the individual must take to create true social change, he added.
"Some said, 'You can't take the emotional weight and responsibility and put it on blacks or Latinos.' The people speaking the hate are speaking for you (if you are not black or Latino). The problem of the world is the good people who stay quiet," he said.
Ultimately, the answer is not to be right but to make sure we have change, Smith said.
"I just want us to go through a process where we all grow together."
Michelle Ho, education programs assistant at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, attended the film showing and panel discussions. She joined University AME Zion's conversations on race after the Charleston massacre, but her passion for racial reconciliation was planted a long time ago, she said.
"I lived in New Haven, Connecticut, and went to Yale. It was a formative time. I saw the power of a multi-ethnic community in life together," she said.
Then Ferguson happened. The killing of a young, unarmed black man by a white police officer led Ho to post her thoughts on Facebook. She was stunned by her friends' comments.
"What a chasm in dialogue. I don't even know where to begin. These were my dorm mates from college and friends from my own church community. I feel we're on completely different parallel universes here," she said.
"It woke me up to the reality; it was a very hard moment. In church, I found refuge in conversation," she said, adding that she was organizing a discussion on race at her church, Palo Alto Vineyard, when she learned of AME Zion's programs.
The discussions at University AME Zion have brought something she longed for.
"I craved connecting. I'm so thankful there is this space," she said.
While there is diversity in the Bay Area, "The way in which we have organized our lives, the way we work and play," has mostly remained isolated from other races and ethnic groups, she said.
Any true examination and resolution of racial issues in America must begin with the black experience, she added. Black people, because of their history and current treatment in this country, are positioned as the most powerful icons for change.
"It's through the lens of blackness that we understand how the structure of white supremacy permeates the whole society. That's why we need their voices to see clearly and see humanity from that," she said.
The book group, which Ho is spearheading, will launch Oct. 10 and with a continuation on Nov. 14 for a discussion of "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," by Michelle Alexander. The book group will take place at 10 a.m. at AME Zion Church.
Monday's planning meeting for the youth community day will take place at University AME Zion Church, 3549 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.
An upcoming panel discussion in September will be led by a range of people: persons of minority heritage, the young and the old and those from various socioeconomic backgrounds. Information is available from Smith at 914-374-4255 or pastor@universityAMEZ.com.