Racism is a terrible thing, says Shawn Newton, former chair of Salem’s Race Equity Task Force. “But the topic shouldn’t make people feel guilty. We can’t change the past.”
The future is another story. The city of Salem and those at The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association believe that change is possible, and it starts with conversation. Meetings of the minds within communities slowly build and foster shared values. “Over time,” says Newton, “I expect to see a big difference.”
On Monday, April 25, from 6 to 8 p.m., Newton will lead the second of four Community Conversations on racism. The public is invited, free of charge. The discussion will take place at The Gables, long known to be a safe place for conversations about sensitive topics.
Newton said that the first of the four conversations at The Gables in March went well. “I was extremely excited by how engaged people were. It was well attended and even a few young people came. Since that meeting, people have followed up with emails. They all said they wanted to learn more, that they want to make their communities better places. People want to do what they can to be better people.”
Newton is well-suited to leading these sensitive but essential conversations. His parents, who were from Barbados, moved to Roxbury where Newton lived until he was 17. He attended Salem State University and remained in Salem where he married his high school sweetheart and raised two children. “I’ve always been very involved in Salem,” he said. He worked at the university for 20 years, often in the field of diversity. He was the first committee co-chair of No Place for Hate, serves on the board of One Race and now runs the Newton Consultancy Group where he works to educate people on the topic of racism “one person, one institution at a time.”
It takes time to lay the groundwork for difficult discussions, says Newton. “When people are triggered, they are not able to hear the good information provided,” he says. “I take the time to break the ice with people first.”
Within this process of building trust while recognizing discomfort is a bit of a sweet spot. “I call it the learning edge,“ he says. “Somewhere between being in your comfort zone and having your defenses up. That’s where we learn best.”
Thus, Newton plans to continue to explore what racism and inequity mean, picking up where the conversation left off in March. “Diversity and race are triggers for many. We talk about these issues in homogenous places but when we come together like we do at The House of the Seven Gables, we all don’t have the same understanding. Under those circumstances, discussions can be explosive.”
Given his long career in this field, Newton knows to put a high value and a lot of effort into addressing safety and sensitivity. “We have a lot to learn from each other, but to get the conversation off the ground we spend a lot of time breaking the ice.”
Newton says that he likes for people to know about him as well as each other. And he likes for everyone to be aware of the shared values within the room. This process can last for two to three meetings before the results of the Race Equity Task Force are introduced.
“Racism wasn’t created overnight,” he says. “This work takes time. Since I started interacting with people on these issues, it’s always been word of mouth that makes the difference. People are yearning to know more, to positively impact their families and communities. I don’t know how you can possibly hope for more.”
The dates for the remaining discussions are Mondays on April 25, May 23 and June 27.
About The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association
The mission of The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association is to be a welcoming, thriving, historic site and community resource that engages people of all backgrounds in our inclusive American story. For more information visit www.7gables.org.
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