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“It Starts with a Conversation”

Targeting racism, one discussion at a time

The planning group of the “Our Divided Community” podcast discussion series.

A constant cycle churns throughout American history, says Jarvis Patton (’14). It begins with an injustice tied to race that sparks public outrage. Then there is reconciliation, sometimes accompanied by new laws or policies. The public moves on, but months or years later, the cycle repeats because the country never addresses the underlying issue of systemic racism, Patton says.

Breaking that centuries-old cycle seems like an overwhelming challenge. But Patton and other members of the class of 2014 have made a start through education and conversation. Last year they began hosting a discussion series—open to all Leadership Birmingham alumni—centered on “Seeing White,” a series of the Scene on Radio podcast. In 14 episodes, the program documents moments that don’t make the history books—everything from the social, economic, and political invention of race to the origins of stereotypes and eruptions of “racial cleansing” throughout the United States. Participants in the open, honest Zoom discussions build upon issues raised in the podcast. For example, they have examined privilege, inherent prejudices and biases, and what systemic equity would look like in Alabama. They also have challenged themselves to answer Patton’s insightful questions, such as, “If the system is designed to benefit White people, then why would they seek to dismantle it?”

“Jarvis asks questions in a disarming way that allows others to answer honestly and unguarded,” says Rebekah Elgin-Council (’14). “The conversations are about examining ourselves, why we think the way we do, and what we can do to make our community a better place to live for all people.”

“I believe in the genuine goodness of people,” adds Patton, an emergency medicine physician. “And I’ve learned that if you really want to understand a person or situation, it’s not what people do, but why they do it.”

Elgin-Council and Patton had been having similar conversations since they met through Leadership Birmingham in 2014. But the 2020 death of George Floyd in Minnesota, and the ensuing protests in Birmingham and around the country, inspired them—and classmates Kathryn Corey, J.T. Dabbs, Corey Hartman, Sam Jackson, and Amanda Wilson—to do more. The group rallied their class of 2014 to sponsor an online forum with Tricia Rose, professor and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America at Brown University, about the origins of systemic racism and its impact across generations. Then Patton suggested that the class continue the dialogue around “Seeing White.”

The online discussions have become popular, and participants often share links to books and other resources to provide context between sessions. Elgin-Council says the conversations will continue. But what do she and Patton hope participants will do with their newfound historical knowledge and insights into different perspectives and experiences?

“We want to apply what we have learned through these discussions,” Elgin-Council says. “It’s on our conscience. So as we go about our daily lives, when we see [racism] in our community, with friends or family, or in the workplace, we are educated and better prepared to ask questions and make a difference.”

“It starts with a conversation, and it can grow exponentially” as participants share what they have learned with their families, friends, and neighbors, Patton adds. This is a role everyone can play in stopping the cycle, he explains. “Don’t sit in silence. Doing something is the only option. It’s absolutely imperative that we make strides to make sure everyone is treated fairly because it affects us all, whether you want to believe it or not.”