Facing Race Conference: Opening Ceremony

[Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of blogs written by guest blogger, Jacqueline Lawton, a DX collaborator who first collaborated with Dance Exchange as the dramaturg in the development of ‘From the Desk of Rachel Carson.’ Her collaboration with the company has continued through our 2014 Summer Institute and ongoing partnerships with artists and activists in Dallas, TX. You can read her first post in this series here. Stay tuned over the next several days as Jacqueline reflects on her experiences on the ground with DX in November. -AN]

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson put pen to paper and signed the Civil Rights Act into law. That same year, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent resistance to racial prejudice in America and shared his vision for the future in his speech: 

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. I believe that even amid today’s mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”

As we mark the 50 anniversary of this landmark legislation and reflect on the achievements and work ahead, it makes sense that more than 1500 activists, artists, scholars, historians, journalists, educators, politicians, and healthcare workers convened at Race Forward’s 2014 Facing Race national conference.

Dance Exchange artists and collaborators prepare for the start of the 2014 Facing Race Conference

Dance Exchange artists and collaborators prepare for the start of the 2014 Facing Race Conference. Photo by Matthew Cumbie.


On Thursday, conference participants had an opportunity to tour Dallas before registration began. Since I took part in the private tour with Dance Exchange, I spent the day planning my schedule, leaning more about the speakers, and pouring over the program. On page 7, they make a point of sharing a useful and thorough set of ground rules, which I thought would be useful to share here for others doing this work:

  •  Be mindful of our wonderful diversity: Speak at a slower pace to help reduce language barriers. Accommodate people with different physical abilities. Let people decided for themselves which bathroom they belong in. Be aware of your privilege and share the verbal space.
  • Listen well and be open-minded: We came to this gathering at different points in our journeys—some as first-timers, others as seasoned social justice veterans. Be willing to learn—and to teach—with compassion, humility, and patience. When someone makes a mistake, strive to be forthright, forgiving, and open rather than defensive.
  • Engage rather than avoid: Our commonalities and our difference are an asset. Rather than avoid difficult conversations, engage in them. Remember the power of using “I” statements and sharing stories from your own life experience.
  • Allow people to self-identify: If you’re unsure how someone wants to be identified, simply ask them rather than make assumptions based on appearance. You can ask, “How do you identify?” or “What gender pronoun/racial identifier do you prefer?” “People of color” or “queer” can be positive unifying terms, but people may still prefer their specific and chosen identities to be named. No term works for everyone and language and meaning are continually changing.

In terms of racial and gender identity, Race Forward has cultivated a set of respectful and inclusive linguistic habits and shared how they navigate specific situations:

  • We call ourselves people of color. We never use the word “minority.” People of color is a politicized term of self-identification. It has a long, rich history of building solidarity in our communities, and we value its ability to speak to our experiences
  • We use both black and African American, and both American Indian and Native American. We also use Latino rather than Hispanic, and note that South Asians (from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka) are often confused with South East Asian (from Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand).
  • We use LBGT for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender, and sometimes we also use queer. The word transgender does not have “ed” at the end.
  • We don’t use the i-word. The world “illegal” dehumanizes immigrants by turning their immigration status into a permanent status, even though the word itself is flawed in terms of accuracy. For more information, visit or Drop the I-Word Campaign site.

While not everyone at the conference adopted these habits, space was created to discuss the need for racial awareness and cultural sensitivity.

At 7:00pm, I headed to the opening ceremony. The 3-hour event opened with our conference weaver Soyinka Rahim who helped us ground our mind, body, and spirit in breath so that we could commit to the work more fully. Then, Rinku Sen (President and Executive Director or Race Forward and Publisher of Colorlines) and also Maria Yolisma Garcia (North Texas Dream Team) delivered a rousing welcome address. From there, we enjoyed a variety of performances: prayer song and drumming by the Bear Claw Drum Group and Darrell Blackbear; poetry and dance by Ashley Wilkerson and Michelle Gibson, an excerpt from a play, Santos: A Wandering Soul, present by Teatro Dallas;  spoken word and live painting by Alejandro Perez, Will Richey, and David Rodriguez. The opening ceremony concluded with a special comedy performance by Hari Kondabolu.

The 2014 Facing Race Opening Ceremony

The 2014 Facing Race Opening Ceremony


Dance Exchange was also a part of the opening ceremony with an interactive presentation called, Find the Burning Question. This performance brings together the powerful work from the summer institute. The questions that still resonate with me are:

  • Who will I pass this work on to?
  • Whose legacy am I building on?
  • What can I contribute?
  • How do we know we’re talking about the same thing?
  • Will what we learn here leave here?

During this performance, we were reminded that the intergenerational aspect of the work around racial justice and equity is essential and sometimes overlooked.  Also, that this work is on a continuum. Wherever you are right now is a good place to start. Finally, we were asked to consider what sustains or inspires us to move forward to build work towards racial justice. The entire ceremony was uplifting, affirming and inspiring. I left feeling invigorated and eager to take part in the conference.

About Jacqueline Lawton

JACQUELINE E. LAWTON was named one of 30 of the nation's leading black playwrights by Arena Stage’s American Voices New Play Institute. Her plays include: Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful;The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: the African Roscius; Lions of Industry, Mothers of Invention; Love Brothers Serenade (2013 semi-finalist for the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference); Mad Breed; Noms de Guerre; and Our Man Beverly Snow. Ms. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener Fellow. She is a 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color award recipient, National New Play Network (NNPN) Playwright Alum, and member of Arena Stage's Playwrights' Arena. She is also a proud member of the Dramatist Guild of America.