Facing Race Conference: Day One

[Editor’s Note: This is the third 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 posts in this series here and here. Stay tuned over the next several days as Jacqueline reflects on her experiences on the ground with DX in November. -AN]

Dance Exchange and partners getting geared up for their conference experience. Photo courtesy of Kevin Ormsby.

Dance Exchange and partners getting geared up for their conference experience. Photo courtesy of Kevin Ormsby.

One of the most challenging aspects of the conference was deciding upon which breakout session to attend. There were so many wonderful choices! The opening plenary addressed work of youth activists and organizers and the evening key note offered a powerful intergenerational conversation around racial justice and equity. My break sessions offered a meditation on the intersection of race and ethnicity and the role of both the arts and government. What follows are my notes from each session:


This is How We Do It: Youth Led Racial Justice

Description: A new generation of racial justice leaders are interrupting and innovating in the ways racial justice work is made relevant in our times. In various ways, young people are working creatively, intersectionally and courageously to set our nation on course for the racially just future we deserve. Click here to learn more about the session and speakers.

It was excellent way to begin the day by focusing on youth activist and organizers. Their ambition, focus, and ideals were insightful and inspiring. While they are seeking counsel and guidance from elders, they aren’t waiting for adults to step in and intervene on their behalf. Here are the greatest takeaways for me from this panel discussion:

  • Our greatest focus should be on youth work and educational justice. We must fight to improve the quality of education.
  • We must talk to children about race. Yes, it’s hard and complex, but it won’t ruin their innocence. Consider that math is hard and complex, but children need to learn how to count. Of course, Death is frightening, but we must teach our children to beware of fire.
  • Hashtag activism is great, but what are you doing on the ground? What are you doing after the 3 week buzz dissipates?
  • We have to take out fight to the ground, field and streets, because that’s where our people are oppressed.
  • Remember that storytelling is such a powerful tool.


Reclaiming Government: A Dialogue about the Intersection of Race, Ethnicity and the Public Sector’s Role in Advancing Equity 

Description: The challenges and opportunities of an increasingly diverse America demand that we rebuild broad public support for an active governmental role in creating opportunities and reducing inequities. The implicit and explicit racialization of policies, programs and public systems can not only exacerbate inequities but also influence the public’s perception of and relationship to government. Click here to learn more about the session and speakers.

We began the conversation generating a list of questions that we wanted to address. Here are the ones that guided the conversation:

  • What is the government’s role in helping people advance social justice and racial equity?
  • How do we negotiate through the rigid structures of government that are further complicated by racism?
  • How do our lived experiences shape our perception of government? Of public education? Of incarceration?
  • How do you talk about and address issues of race in policy? In school? In the arts? In the military? In the food and service industry? In healthcare and science?
  • The public is such a diverse group of people. However, if mostly white men are heads of institutions, how do we define and shape the image of the public?

The discussion that followed was as rich and thoughtful. Here are some of the suggestions and observations that stayed with me:

  • We can have impact if we create coalitions. We need an inside organizing strategy for government.
  • You may not care about the community, but the negative economic impact on communities of color impact everyone.
  • We have to recognize that the economy isn’t working for everyone. There are stagnant wages. People of color are working hard, but they’re at lower paid jobs and aren’t able to move ahead. You have to reframe the conversation.
  • We need to learn how to critique our government and public systems without undermining our communities.
  • We are citizens of this system, and we have a voice in how it’s run. Revolutions are started by individuals who are willing to speak up and out about what is and isn’t working.
  • If we were to redesign out public systems, and what would that look like? How do we show how these systems impact our lives?

From there, we began to address specific way to be in dialogue with members of the public sector. If someone opposes racial justice or reform police, then convincing them to support it requires several things:

  • Using images and words in a story format in addition to data.
  • Help them see themselves in the problem or as a part of a larger interest beyond people of color.
  • Consider what you can concede. Sometimes we have to use oppositional language or agree with parts of the opposition’s position to achieve the bigger goal.
  • Message order matters a lot. They recommend the following:
    • Affirm: Start off the dialogue by mentioning phrases and images that speaks to the audience’s values. They key is took and engage your audience.
    •  Counter: Lead audience into the discussion of race with a brief snapshot of the historical context and by calling out race directly in order to dismiss the race wedge. The key is to open audience’s mind to alternative explanations about race.
    • Transform: Leave audience by starting to change their perception on race and with an engaging solution. The key is to present a solution so that the audience feels resolved and feel as though they are progressing forward.

Then, we discussed the careful negotiation of data. Of course, we need to gather data and research to prove our claims and support our initiatives. However, data can drive people away.

  • When a belief is strongly held, presenting evidence that refutes it serves only to reinforce the incorrect belief.
  • Knowing your audience, understanding that there are people who will never move, but know that there are those who can be impacted.

It is important to lead with values, contextualize the data with stories or narrative, and know your audience. Here is where stories are so beneficial:

  • Stories are universal. When we relate to the protagonists or other characters in stories, this helps us to bridge cultural, linguistic, and generational divides.
  • Stories help us process information.  We think in narrative structures, so stories help us remember facts and statistics.
  • Stories shape identities. The stories we tell define the way our audiences identify with us and our issues.
  • Stories help us make connections. Imagine we all have a circle around us. The circle keeps us from wasting time with people or information we don’t will be useful or helpful. Before we are willing to let people into our circle, we want to know that they get us and we like to feel that we get them.

For those working in the arts, I strongly encourage you to visit the Performing Arts Alliance and make use of their Advocacy Basics for Performing Arts Organizations.


Creative Convening: Moving Racial Equity Forward Through the Arts

Description: Dance Exchange breaks boundaries between stage and audience, and theater and community. For 38 years, we have been stretching the range of contemporary dance through bringing ideas into action. We are partnering with Dallas Faces Race to ask how communities can use creative strategies to advance racial equity, in Dallas and beyond. Click here to learn more about the session and speakers.

Cassie and Paloma facilitating at the 2014 Facing Race Conference. Photo by Jacqueline Lawton.


During this session, participants engaged in personal storytelling and dance. They were asked to focus on their personal histories and to examine how these histories informed their decisions on an individual and structural level.  While the work didn’t focus specifically on race, participants demonstrated the listening skills, collaboration, and intergenerational work required to undo racism and move towards a more equitable future.

Working in pairs, participants were asked to reflect on and share verbal responses to the following prompts:

  • What brought you to this session? What do you hope to learn or contribute?
  • How does your identity directly impact your journey? How do you navigate that?
  • When has your journey brought you to meaningful work across generations?

From there, participants worked in pairs to share stories and make creative responses (sounds, movements, and gestures) to the following prompts:

  • Connection – What has been passed on? What will you pass on? –
  • Support – Who has supported, inspired, or pushed you in your work?
  • Unsettling – What happens when we hit unsettling moments, when a history is revealed that contradicts what you thought you knew?
  • Building – What’s something in your history and your community’s history that couldn’t have happened alone?

In closing, participants were asked to meditate on something they would carry forward from this experience and pass on in some way. While there wasn’t time to hear the verbal response, we were able to see pairs dance and it was beautiful work.

This breakout session is part of a 2-year engagement that Dance Exchange has with Dallas-based partners. It’ll be exciting to see what develops and what materials are created to pass this work on to others.


Keynote Address

The keynote speakers for this year’s Facing Race National Conference were Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, Toshi Reagon, and Tashawn Reagon. It was a passionate and inspiring conversation that illustrated the significance of art, activism, and the intergenerational work around racial justice and equity. These thoughts and reflections resonated most with me:

  • It is important if you’re going to operate in this country that you understand that country exists because hundreds of thousands of people were killed and uprooted from their homeland. What occurred here was theft of self.
  • The more you know about the quality of oppression, the sooner you can meet communities in need.
  • How do we acknowledge that racism exists while working to address issues of injustice in the schools?
  • While working to address the needs of your community, it’s important to be involved and engaged in other communities.
  • Our generation needs to spend every last dollar of our currency on young people. Spend it now.
  • Any privilege you have, risk it. Put it on the line. You can’t change and you can’t win, if you don’t risk losing the space you hold. If you don’t risk all that you have, you won’t know who are you are. You won’t experience the breath of life you have.

We were encouraged us to dig deep and lean into discomfort. We were reminded to engage in work that brings about healing and meets each other with kindness. And however tired we might feel at any given moment on this journey, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes. The room shook with the truth they were speaking. I went to sleep that day feeling a renewed sense of purpose and hope for the work ahead.


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.