Peter and Mary Ellen Murray are white, and they hail from Baraboo, a city that they describe as “very, very white.”
They’re not strangers to racial injustice. They saw it around Wisconsin as they raised their four kids, two of whom are people of color.
But they know they still have a lot to learn, so they traveled to the Monona Terrace for this year’s YWCA Racial Justice Summit, running Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.
The conference is heightening their awareness and giving them a new vocabulary to recognize subtle racism, both around them and in themselves, they said.
“As Baraboo becomes a little more diversified over time, what can we do to make sure (all) people are welcome and equal?” Peter said. “White privilege, how can we combat that within ourselves?”
Personal reflection to instigate action is exactly what the 16th annual Racial Justice Summit is about, said Jay Young, marketing and development manager for the YWCA.
“We’re really trying to change people’s hearts and minds to be more equitable, to recognize their own privilege,” he said.
With rhetoric on the rise and “hate on open display,” the summit provides a safe place to learn more about the issues, as the sessions teach attendees to engage others in conversations, disrupt racism when they see it, and be change agents, he said.
But that might look different for every attendee, he said, which is why the summit emphasizes personal reflection and conviction over prescribed action steps.
“I don’t feel like there is really one pathway to this great utopia that we all are striving for,” he said. “There isn’t one prescribed way of doing this, because otherwise we probably would have fixed our race issues in this country.”
This idea was echoed during a panel discussion on Tuesday morning. Kathy Cramer, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and director of the Morgridge Center for Public Service, and Jacquelyn Boggess, executive director of the Center for Family Policy and Practice, were asked to name one thing that could be done to further the goal of racial justice.
“Figure out what you believe in and work towards that,” Boggess said.
“Be confused, be confused,” Cramer said. “Embrace the complexity.”
That’s good advice, Young said.
“To just be able to say, ‘Do this’ would be setting up half the room for failure,” Young said. “You really have to take the time to say, 'Who am I around? What kind of privilege do I hold? How can I wield that privilege on behalf of someone that has half as much?'
“And if you do that, and I do that and someone else does that, we’re all making progress towards the goal.”
Over 860 people registered for the two-day event, which offers four keynote speakers and over 30 break-out sessions.
This year, Young said he’s particularly excited about the inclusion of Native American voices. Too often, discussion on race in America is centered solely on African-American and white relations, he said.
Three women from local Native American tribes hosted a discussion on Tuesday titled, “You Say You Honor Us, But Why Not Include Us?” Panelist Danielle Yancey said she wanted to let attendees know how they can connect with Native American communities.
“I think that we’re often overlooked or included as an afterthought,” she said. “So this is really a proactive way for us to say, ‘We are here, here are our communities, here’s who we are, along with some strategies with how to be good allies.’”
Dane County Circuit Court Judge Everett Mitchell attended a session on “Youth and the U.S. Justice System.”
“I definitely support the mission of the YWCA and the need for these conversations,” he said. “Engage the community's imagination so we can make sure Dane County is a different place.”
DeShawn Witter works for the corporate social responsibility department at software company Zendesk. He attended a session called “Historical Trauma,” and learned about some of the traumatic effects of slavery, and said it was “pretty emotional.”
Young said he appreciates the heartfelt speakers at the summit, because he thinks emotions are often the best motivator for action.
“You see someone in pain, you want to help. You see someone in need, you want to reach out,” he said. “It’s just the humanity of us.”