with Sharon Purvis
Speaking Down Barriers is a Spartanburg-based non-profit that seeks to foster dialogue and trust among people of different racial backgrounds as well as those from different genders, orientations, and ethnicities. The group builds community through affinity groups, offers workshops on diversity and inclusion, and hosts a monthly book club, Reading for Transformation, that selects challenging texts and encourages honest conversations about the ideas presented. The following is a conversation with Davelyn Hill, Program Director at Speaking Down Barriers.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about the impetus for starting Speaking Down Barriers and how long the organization has been in existence?
It began in 2013 as an ongoing community dialogue called “Poetry and Conversation,” which offered a unique opportunity for residents of Spartanburg to share stories and art with one another, building community with people who were different from them. There is no expert in this kind of dialogue. People can learn from the person sitting next to them instead of simply looking to the person who is facilitating the conversation. Many of the poems shared were and still are autobiographical. It is difficult to argue with somebody’s lived experience. This kind of sharing often brings forth empathy instead of division.
It has since been renamed Speaking Down Barriers and formed as a nonprofit (501c3) working across differences of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, national identity, and religion. We offer transformative and healing dialogue alongside the arts to challenge, overcome, and break barriers that separate us. We believe that our differences do not have to divide us. Difference can be a source of our collective strength.
Q: In this present moment, with the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death and what feels like a much more significant outpouring of support for the African American community and Black Lives Matter by white Americans than we’ve seen before, has your group been doing anything new or different to get people talking in constructive ways?
We continue to work in ways that will end oppression and promote equity for all. Our work has not changed. We have been holding dialogues and provided healing opportunities since 2013. We did bring back affinity groups sooner than we planned to meet the needs of the moment and to facilitate in-group conversations that heal and challenge.
Q: Your two primary means of engaging with the community are through your Reading for Transformation Book Club and your community gatherings. Can you give us an example of a barrier being broken down through those programs?
When a retired white woman and an adult black man can share a meal and talk about white supremacy, barriers are broken down. What kind of mental barriers collapsed because they saw each other as people? Being a part of this conversation was healing for me and perhaps others were moved as well. She listened and affirmed, he listened and affirmed. We were all affirmed in our humanity.
When a white person publicly admits that racist comments sometimes come to mind when they are angry and they are actively working on dealing with their implicit bias, barriers are broken down. I begin to trust them a little more because they were truthful, accountable, and not gaslighting me by telling me racism does not exist.
Q: Do you find that you have the same group of people coming to your gatherings? If so, do you feel like that is a good thing, forming a community where dialog can develop over time?
We have a core group of people that attend our events. We believe length of time and building trust allow us to have deeper conversations around white supremacy and its impact on all of us. At each of our gatherings there are new people and we want them to come and join us as we build intentional community across our differences. After all, creating an equitable society is going to take all of us.
Q: The Healing Us/Learning Us separate gatherings for black and white people, respectively, is an interesting approach. What do you see as the biggest advantage of having those two separate groups?
Healing Us is space for Black people to engage in activities and dialogue focused on healing and joy. We encourage people to bring all their emotions. Learning Us is space for white people or people of European descent to engage one another on topics of whiteness and implicit bias, working together to understand oppression as it exists within them and around them. Dialogue and activities are focused on healing and responsibility.
Our hope is that affinity groups prepare us for being in diverse groups. In affinity groups there are many things you do not have to explain as much because there are so many shared experiences. There is also less unintentional harm in affinity groups when discussing race, especially from people just becoming aware of their bias. If offensive or racist comments are made in an affinity group, then their peers can challenge them without harming people outside of the group.
Q: Have you made any changes to the books you plan to discuss in your Reading for Transformation book club considering the current events?
We have not changed our book list. This list is current because the issues of racism and structural oppression have not changed. Black lives have always mattered to us. We do not need to make a statement because our work is our statement. For example, the book for June is I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters. Very timely.
Q: Like most of us, you have had to make the switch to meeting virtually in the past several months. How does that impact that quality of the conversations you have?
I worry about access. Not everyone has technological access to our programming. It has created a new barrier. Virtual gatherings have increased access for some people. We have had greater participation in Reading for Transformation through virtual spaces. There are many reasons for that. We have been able to keep the same format for our Community Gatherings (except for the potluck for course) through using breakout rooms and screen sharing. I am thankful that we have been able to continue to build community. The quality of our conversations continues to evolve as everyone learns what it looks like to share our lives with one another over screens.
Q: Do you have plans to expand your programming, either in terms of different groups and gatherings or moving out of Spartanburg to reach more of the Upstate?
We have been able to expand programming out of state. We have partners in Michigan, and we do work with Philadelphia FIGHT. We helped our partners in Muskegon, Michigan, The Community Gathering Initiative, create a model for holding community conversation that is much like the work that we do. We have also started a new affinity group called “Seeing Us” which is for non-black people of color. We will be offering a Children’s Reading for Transformation this summer and hosting a deep dive into the book, My Grandmother’s Hands by Resma Menhakem.
Q: What would you like people to know about Speaking Down Barriers that we have not touched on with the previous questions?
Speaking Down Barriers is a team of artists, educators, writers, poets, healers, therapists, theologians, activists, and non-profit leaders from different backgrounds, ethnicities, genders, and orientations who have come together because we believe in liberation for everyone. On the way to liberation, our mission is equity for all. We want to end oppression. We value everyone. And, until all of us are safe and free, none of us are safe and free.