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A probation officer deals with uncomfortable conversations on tackling racism

Kirsten Parker-Smith, a probation officer for the 24th District Court Service Unit in Lynchburg, Va., talks about her experience facilitating a dialogue this past spring in the city's "Many Voices-One Community" dialogue-to-change program on racism. Parker-Smith helped her dialogue group surface some uncomfortable conversations and led them through the process of identifying ways that the community could help tackle racism in Lynchburg. Her facilitation experience also gave her ideas on how to initiate conversations on racism with the young people she works with on an everyday basis. 

Today we’re talking with Kirsten Parker-Smith, a probation officer for the 24th District Court Service unit in Lynchburg, Virginia. She took part a facilitator in the many voices one community dialogue to change program on racism and also joined Everyday Democracy in Denver for the making every voice matter conference. Kirsten, thanks for joining us today.

Thank you.

First, can you tell me a little bit about your job and how you became involved in the many voices one community program?

Well I meet with delinquent youth, youth that have committed a crime, who come into the system. Basically the goal is to rehabilitate them. We do that by finding out what motivated them in the first place to commit crimes and we facilitate our brokerage services a lot of times with therapist, mentors, and basically anything that particular individual needs. That’s why it’s really important to meet with them firsthand, and what we’re really focusing on is motivational interviewing. I could certainly go on a tangent about that because I’m pretty passionate about it. What I also do too is I work with active gang members. I’m working on becoming the gang specialist for my unit.

Yea that must be intense work.

It is.

How is it that you became a facilitator in the dialogue to change program in Lynchburg?

It’s interesting because although Lynchburg has been my community for a long time. At that particular time that it was going on I was working in Charlottesville, which is about an hour and a half away. I hadn’t heard a whole lot about it until I came into Lynchburg  I ran into one of my old professors who was heavily involved, who told me about it and actually insisted  I apply to be a facilitator. I’m very passionate about issues of race and racism. It comes up everyday, everyday in what I do working with the youth that I work with. We deal with issues of race and racism, whether it’s the victims or the perpetrators. So I’m certainly interested in that topic. I applied to be a facilitator and they accepted me and that’s how I got involved.

What was your experience like?

It was very good. I had a great experience.

It was interesting because we truly did have a diverse group, which is always ideal when  you’re doing things like working on peoples’ issues with race and racism, bridging gaps, working on these issues. It’s always good to have a diverse group. It actually presented a lot of challenges that as a facilitator we were supposed to kind of keep the conversation going, remain a neutral party as a facilitator, but help the group kind of maintain this appropriate discussion. Sometimes discussions would get heated. These are topics that people have personal issues with and lots of stories came out and stories that some people would agree with or it would be a positive thing for them to share and have the rest of the group experience and other things that weren’t so positive for the rest of the group to experience and that was interesting. It was a very positive experience as a facilitator. Certainly I think, I even speak for my partner in that, when you’re passionate with this subject and you’re a facilitator and you’re to remain neutral, there were many times where I caught myself having to just sit there and bite my tongue. It actually was a really amazing experience because as a facilitator I was able to go from party to party and listen to the whole dialogue. Sometimes the activities would break people up into groups and I had the pleasure of being able to...

What kind of ideas came out of the dialogue you facilitated?

Oh gosh, there were so many. That was probably the most challenging day. We stayed 45 minutes after we were supposed to. I think we allotted two hours for it. Our top two, one was developing a curriculum for the school system that dealt specifically with race and racism that started at pre-school and followed them all the way through high school. It would be a mandatory program and it would be age appropriate and specific. As a pre-schooler you’re kind of introducing these concepts, that there are differences, acknowledging that. You’d have basic language and develop and give that age group a language to understand specific things and as they go on go into deeper and deeper topics. That was one of the plans that was developed. The second one was creating almost say a network of mentors. Obviously when you’re discussing issues of race and racism a lot of other inequities will come up in regards to poverty and how that affects a specific race. One of the things we talked about was you develop this network and if you have a man or woman, old, young, whatever, and needs assistance with something like opening a bank account. You’d have within the network someone who’s savvy at that and who knows how to do that. They don’t necessarily have to be a banker, but who is willing to donate their time and who is good at exploring those resources and kind of working with that person on a mentor basis, and doing a little hand-holding so it’s not an overwhelming process. That would be one example.

Do you know if the many voices one community program, the action teams that are working on ideas that came out of the program if those two ideas that you had given surfaced up to the top and if people are working on that?

The curriculum did. Apparently other groups had come up with an identical action plan. I think our group we jokingly said that we’d love to believe that it was specifically our plan that surfaced to the top, but several groups had come up with that. I know that that was in there and that’s something that they’re working on. I don’t know if the mentoring network made it into the top ten. I should know that. I know that it has resurfaced again because there was actually a lady in my group who was so inspired by what was going on that she’s kind of taken off and is creating a service very similar to that She’s creating her own network of people. She’s getting all her ducks in a row to start this non-profit organization.

On a final note you joined us in Denver for the making every voice matter conference. That was probably your first time being exposed to other program around the county doing the same kind of work that Lynchburg is doing. Were there any kind of lessons or tools that you took away from the conference?

It became very clear that issues of race and racism and so forth need to be discussed on a regular basis. I discuss this almost on a daily basis with these kids, but I’ve become much more proactive in discussing with them what would they like to see. I actually am trying to take on the same concepts of the study circles and think about how you get rival gang member together peacefully together working on issues. I had a young man the other day who told me that I was the first white person who ever talked about issues of race and racism. I don’t know if it was the first time he’d ever felt comfortable or if I was the first white person who ever brought up these issues in talking about stereotypes of young African-American men. There certainly is a prevailing stereotype; I would assume nationally, but certainly in my area that if you’re a young African-American man you’re probably in a gang and probably selling drugs. So we talked about that that some of these behaviors he’s engaging in are actually perpetuating this stereotype of his race and age and gender. And when it was all done he said to me this is the first time I’ve ever talked to a white person about this. I don’t know if this was solely because of the conference but it was certainly a catalyst for bringing up those issues and certainly keeping them on the forefront of my mind.

Thank you so much for joining us today. We really appreciate it.

September 16, 2008

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