We Are Of: Staying Curious in the Face of Community Conflict

Megan Cacciola • August 4, 2022

Staying Curious in the Face of Community Conflict

A little less than a month ago, I received a phone call from a local journalist in our community with a dedicated following, Joel Davidson. Mr. Davidson was interested in learning more about an event we’re hosting in August, “We Are Of: A Weekend of Relating to Race and Land.” Our conversation was quick and professional, and he asked a lot of questions about the first day of the event, which we’d originally described as “for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) folks.” When Mr. Davidson reached out, I was familiar with his work, and I knew it was unlikely he was going to write a glowing recommendation for our event. I also knew that he was a member of our community and that his perspective mattered. A few days later, he released an article describing the event as segregationist.

Suddenly, the Alaska Humanities Forum found itself at the center of an intensely polarized discussion about what it means to be inclusive and what it takes to defend against racism in our community. In the weeks since, I’ve debated whether and how to respond publicly.

During our 50-year organizational history, we’ve often taken the role of community convener in the face of polarized community issues. For many years now, we’ve been hosting workshops that help people sustain and strengthen relationships in the face of deep ideological disagreements. Recently, we even published a guide to Depolarizing Conversation broadly. The guide explains:

"When we talk about 'polarization,' we’re not talking about the inevitable disagreements and conflicts that arise in any diverse community. Instead, when we talk about 'polarization,' we’re talking about the ways we regard the people we disagree with and our stamina for maintaining relationships with them. We’re talking about our habit of stereotyping people with different politics, of talking more about them than with them, and our impulse to stop talking to them altogether."

We know from many years of experience that depolarization is difficult, slow, and often emotional work. And the answer isn’t about giving up our deeply-held beliefs and “meeting in the middle.” Our Depolarizing Conversation guide explains why this hard work is so important:

"When people in our own community disagree with our most deeply held beliefs, it’s easy to see them as threats to a thriving future and to fall into patterns of demonizing and dismissing them. But when we regard large swathes of our fellow community members with that kind of contempt, we are giving up on the democratic ideals our country aspires to. We are giving up on community.
"When we depolarize, we expand our shared sense of belonging, we develop deep connections that transcend common ground, and we practice democracy at its most basic level."

When I was thinking about whether to write this piece, many of my friends and family members questioned me: what was my purpose in responding? I wasn’t going to change any minds. I wouldn’t please anyone. But no matter how many people pushed me, I just couldn’t let go of the sense that I would be abandoning the Forum’s vision and mission if I avoided a public discussion of a polarized topic. This is our work.

In response to the article, lots of people in our community reached out to share their disappointment and frustration with the framing of the event. They felt excluded based on their race. Some biracial folks wrote to us to say they felt the event divided them in two, preventing them from showing up as their full selves. Others wrote us with appreciation. They shared that our efforts to create a space for BIPOC folks to connect with each other about their experiences felt more inclusive, not less inclusive, and they were frustrated by the framing of Mr. Davidson’s article. They encouraged us to stand firm.

I share these responses not to equate them or to suggest we should sit somewhere in between, but rather to describe the full, complex community response accurately: it’s likely that most readers here are only discussing this issue with people who are like-minded (that’s human nature). Our community is not like-minded on this issue, and we are often using the same words with very different understandings of the words we are saying. Mr. Davidson used the term “segregationist” to refer to an event originally advertised as “for BIPOC folks.” For me, the term “segregationist” doesn’t apply, because my understanding of the definition is that it’s the systematic separation of people into racial groups in daily life without an objective and reasonable justification.

The purpose of the first day of the event was to make a space for people with shared experiences to talk about those shared experiences. Time and time again, I’ve heard from BIPOC community members how critical it is for them to have places where they can process together, free from the intervention or opinions of people who have not experienced the same oppression. I think that’s an objective and reasonable justification, and it’s certainly not systematic or daily. It feels like a similar justification when veterans ask for spaces to discuss their experiences of war with other veterans, free from the intervention or opinions of people who have not experienced combat.

But there’s no doubt that race is a special category with special legal considerations. Shortly after Mr. Davidson published his article, a member of our community made a complaint to the Alaska Human Rights Commission that we had discriminated against him in our event promotions (Although complaints are typically confidential, he shared his allegations with the media, so we are not disclosing anything that’s not already public). He cited Alaska Administrative Code section 30.320, which says it is unlawful to “circulate… a written or printed communication… that states or implies… that the patronage of a person belonging to a particular race… is unwelcome, not desired, or solicited.” He argued that by saying the first day of the event was “for BIPOC folks” we were implying that other folks were unwelcome.

We’ve shifted the language promoting the first day of the event to make it unambiguous to everyone in our community that the first day is not about excluding White people. It’s not about White people at all. Saturday August 6th will be a conversation focusing on BIPOC experiences and their relationship to race and land. The heart of this event is shared experience, not exclusion. Everyone is welcome.

When Mr. Davidson interviewed me, he asked me whether we would be rejecting non-BIPOC folks at the door. The truth is that I wasn’t prepared for the question. It had never crossed my mind. At the Forum, we put a lot of thought into how to set up our events to ensure people feel welcome even if they end up arriving late, even if they come alone and don’t know anyone there, even if they’re uncertain how to participate. I’m a pretty shy introvert myself, so I try hard to make sure the events I facilitate are ones I’d feel comfortable walking into. I’ve never worried about how to keep people out.

I still believe that there is something really special that happens when we make specific spaces for people with shared experiences to talk to one another about those experiences together. I wouldn’t ever want to deny that opportunity to BIPOC folks in our community, and I am troubled that a civil rights statute might be used to prevent them from doing so.

I love that I live in a community that is as politically diverse as it is racially diverse, and I am committed to staying curious about the wide array of perspectives people bring to questions of inclusion, exclusion, and belonging: especially the perspectives I disagree with. I believe that is the art of community.

When Mr. Davidson reached out to me earlier this month, I knew he was not calling to support our work. But I took his call because he is a member of my community and his perspective matters. I wrote this article to stay in conversation with him. We will never agree on everything, and we may not ever agree on much. But we’re still part of the same community: a community that we both love fiercely enough to fight for.

Alaska Humanities Forum

The Alaska Humanities Forum is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that designs and facilitates experiences to bridge distance and difference – programming that shares and preserves the stories of people and places across our vast state, and explores what it means to be Alaskan.

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