A journey toward understanding

Students, faculty and staff invited to join the Welcome Table

For four days this summer, a group of black and white faculty and staff members gathered in a classroom in Hamilton College. There, they formed a large circle and began the messy work of racial reconciliation.

These trained facilitators will lead dialogues on campus this fall, and in South Carolina communities in the months to come, as part of the South Carolina Collaborative for Race and Reconciliation. The collaborative — and its signature program, the Welcome Table SC — works to encourage communities to address racism by building stronger relationships across racial lines. It’s based on a successful program started at the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi.

“South Carolina, like Mississippi, has a painful, traumatic racial history,” says Susan Glisson, the founding director of the Winter Institute who led the training at Carolina. “It’s a history that demands honesty, like it does in Mississippi and Georgia and Alabama. And because it’s small and there are some existing relationships, that can be a good basis for conversations."

The Collaborative for Race and Reconciliation at Carolina was born in the wake of tragedy. After the murders of nine churchgoers at Mother Emanuel in Charleston by a white supremacist in June 2015 and the wounds that were revealed when the Confederate flag was removed from the State House grounds, it was evident the state and university needed to come to a place where real conversations could happen. That led the university to contact Glisson, who now is a partner in the consulting firm Sustainable Equity, which works with corporations, police departments and public institutions to foster racial dialogues.

“The collaborative started out of a recognition that as a university we have a unique opportunity to help our city and state; yet, as a microcosm of our broader society we — as a university — also have our own challenges that we must face and address,” says John Dozier, the university’s chief diversity officer who heads the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, where the collaborative is housed. “For healing to begin, we must have honest conversations about race, conversations we’ve maybe not had before, in part because they are difficult or uncomfortable.

It’s a journey into family and local history.

Bud Ferillo

“They are difficult because we all hold stereotypes and biases born out of the places where we were raised; circumstances and communities that have influenced how we see the world and our neighbors.  The conversations are uncomfortable because they are charged with feelings associated with a past that we’ve not effectively addressed as a society.  How do you begin to have these difficult conversations? The Welcome Table SC — introduced to us by Dr. Glisson — provides the structure for us begin and is a natural extension of what we should be doing as the flagship university in our state.”

The first Welcome Tables were held on campus last spring, and a new round begins this fall with trained faculty and staff facilitators leading discussions among students, faculty and staff members. The plan is to create five Welcome Tables, with about 20 participants in each, to meet on campus starting in mid-September. The program is open to anyone, and registration has begun. Participants commit to six meetings on campus, along with a half-day retreat.

“It’s important work on campus because racial reconciliation needs to happen in the university community just as it does in neighborhoods, small and large communities in our state,” says Bud Ferillo, the coordinator for the South Carolina Collaborative for Race and Reconciliation. “We are especially proud that the flagship university is hosting this project, especially in this tumultuous period where race issues are top of mind in our state and nation. It is a leadership position that plants USC’s flag in the midst of the need for deep and effective conversations, interracial alliance building and concrete action plans to address race issues in our communities that arise in the sessions.”

The process follows the Winter Institute’s curriculum, and much of the work is done through storytelling. By truly listening to people of different races and backgrounds talk about their life experiences, participants are able to relate to those stories, break down the barriers of differences and begin to trust each other. The idea is that once you trust someone’s story, you no longer doubt the validity of that person’s beliefs.

“The idea is to get participants to talk about their own racial identities, when those identities were formulated in their minds, what they learned from their families, when they learned about other races and whether that was a positive, negative or mixed impression. They also talk about how that changed over time from childhood to adolescence to adulthood,” Ferillo says. “It’s a journey into family and local history.”

Dozier says he was skeptical when he went into his first Welcome Table gathering. He said that like most people, he walked into the room and immediately started making judgments about other participants. He said that like all participants, his stereotypes were quickly proven wrong and through the process, a trusting, motivated community was formed.

“I’d say that if we want to create a better university community, we should start by better understanding who is in our community and ways that we can live the Carolinian Creed. That can’t happen through an hour in diversity training,” he says. “That can’t happen by simply assuming that you know things about the people around you. It can’t happen without committing to a space and a process that allows you to begin to trust, understand, grow and reconcile the things that you believe with the thing that you do. That’s what the Welcome Table provides — that’s the power of this space and process.

The university has trained 16 faculty and staff facilitators, with 12 ready to lead groups this fall. Ferillo says eight communities across the state have contacted him, including Columbia, Darlington, Orangeburg and Beaufort, wanting the collaborative to bring the Welcome Table to their towns in the coming months and years. A Welcome Table is set to begin in Camden this fall.

Some who will sit around the Welcome Table will be lifelong South Carolinians, others will be part of an incoming population that doesn’t have deep South Carolina roots and ties to the state’s history.

“That diversity and inclusion is very healthy for a state that has been known as a closed society for so long,” Ferillo says. “Our participants get to talk about that in great detail. Out of it comes a sense of community-mindedness that offers a hope for unity.”

Ferillo says attitudes about race are measured at the beginning and end of each session to see how successful the dialogues are in moving people from who they are to who they want to become in terms of racial sensitivities.

“I get a lot of pushback from some members of the community that we need to do something, that we’re tired of talking. But it is my belief that it is indeed the talking, and intentionally creating spaces to have difficult dialogue across society’s entrenched racial boundaries, that’s able to educate and change people’s hearts. That’s the action we should be taking, because I believe that it’s the only action that has lasting impact,” Dozier says. “Policies and laws are absolutely needed but are often ineffective if they don’t reflect cultural norms. The work of the Welcome Table is an effort to help each participant to think differently about the members of our communities. It’s shifting our cultural paradigm one Welcome Table at a time.”

As Glisson says, the conversation offers a chance to “reconnect with what matters — compassion, mercy, gratitude, forgiveness, patience. We know this work is going to be messy, but conversations can lead to an epiphany, and that can lead to a different way of doing business.”

Join the Welcome Table

Registration is now open for university faculty, staff and students to participate in a Welcome Table on campus this fall.

The dialogues are guided by trained facilitators who help group members understand and talk about racial divisions that have hampered unity and social justice. The hallmarks of these discussions are candor, mutual respect, listening and learning from each other and are based on trust and perseverance. The discussions remain confidential.

Participants must commit to attend six sessions along with a half-day retreat.

For more information, contact Bud Ferillo, coordinator for the South Carolina Collaborative on Race and Reconciliation, ferilloj@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-1108.

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