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There are a lot of issues that can drive people away from the table, so to speak. Mass shootings, the rise of hate crimes and, of course, politics – the list goes on. But on an overcast Saturday afternoon, at least 40 people show up to the Marina Library for what the National Coalition Building Institute calls a CommUNITY Talk, a facilitated conversation around difficult topics like immigration, race and sexuality.

On this particular day, the conversation was about race and was structured around questions written on cards divided between what “white people wanted to ask people of color,” and what “people of color wanted to ask white people.” About midway into the conversation, a black person asked the white participants, why do white people always take over movements in the black community? The question was framed in the context of Black Lives Matter, and the All Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter movements that followed.

A white participant raised her hand and began her response with a phrase rarely heard in conversations between two very different groups: “Excuse my ignorance… ”

And that phrase is what it’s all about, according to Fred Jealous, who founded the Monterey County Chapter of NCBI in 1993. “As a white person, I’m expected to know all the answers,” Jealous explains.

Talks like this invite people to make mistakes – and learn from them, which is why it’s NCBI’s Big Idea in the MCGives! campaign. In these discussions, it’s OK to be vulnerable. It’s OK to ask honest questions. It’s OK to admit ignorance.

Big Talk

NCBI Chapter Director Sue Parris (bottom left) says CommUNITY Talks helped her understand her privilege: “I have to think in terms of white people. I can’t be the exception.”

These conversations don’t instantly translate into real-world solutions. They give people a place to practice listening and responding, which sets up a foundation for different contexts. For Reilly Skinner, a board member of Monterey Peninsula Pride and a longtime member of NCBI, that context was building diversity in the boardroom. “We realized if we wanted to be a resource for all of the folks in the LGBTQ+ community, we had to intentionally make room for people of color,” Reilly says. That led to deliberately shrinking the size of the board in order to engage more directly with diverse board members instead of drowning them out.

For Cecilio Avilas, the impact of these talks has been personal. Once hesitant to speak about his sexuality in public, he’s now often asked to speak at events about overcoming hurdles as a Latino and gay man. “I’m not afraid to speak up anymore,” Avilas says.

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