Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Protesters raise their fists during the Good Trouble Ride Protest in Chattanooga in honor of John Lewis, a historic civil rights leader who died this July following a battle with pancreatic cancer.

This summer, as protests swept the country in light of George Floyd's death, white privilege became the center of widespread debate. I'll admit, it made me uncomfortable.

I've always been taught that while your circumstances shape you, they do not define you. How you respond to them does. And I'm a performance-driven and fiercely independent individual. My accomplishments are a large part of my personal identity.

As the dialogue shifted, those became unpopular views. It felt like being left holding a tinder box on a dark, cold night, your personal beliefs, word choice, even thought processes potential matches that could turn everything to flame.

But where fire consumes, it cleanses. And as it burns bright, shadows scatter, illuminating things before unseen.

Lakweshia Ewing teaches a program called Unlearn Everything and Live. Available as a small group training for anyone who is ready to confront some of life's hard realities, she will guide you through the groundwork of systemic racism, using history, personal anecdotes and metaphors to spark discussion and understanding.

I'd heard of Ewing professionally before I signed up for her class through the Mayor's Council Against Hate. From my time at the paper, I knew her name from her previous positions with the school district, UnifiEd and United Way. I'd met her in 2017, when she was selected as one of Chatter's "20 Under 40" for her work. Looking back now, I see Unlearn Everything and Live listed among her titles in that piece, but it didn't register at the time.  

I believe in divine timing and intervention. With the protests galvanizing the country, I did some soul searching of my own. Through the internet searches that often accompany that, I came across Ewing's site in September and pitched her anti-racism training as a story to my editor. She responded with a press release promoting a limited number of free spots in a special session Ewing was offering through the city.

Working with groups of up to 10 people, Ewing typically takes participants through seven sessions that touch on the pillars and culture of systemic racism in this country. History plays a large part, as does group discussion. I was nervous, but excited.

Discussion is a necessary part of personal evolution, but I had been afraid to participate in any meaningful conversation around such issues for fear of saying the wrong thing. I also realized that my close friend circle was sorely lacking Black perspective.

Before the first session, each participant must fill out a questionnaire that forces them to examine their own upbringing and experiences and how they have shaped their attitudes and assumptions. It's an interesting exercise, in some cases exposing thought patterns you weren't even aware of — for instance, my tendency to think that people naturally self-segregate... which doesn't account for the redlining that occurred as a result of the National Housing Act of 1934.

Ours was a condensed version of what Ewing typically offers corporate and nonprofit groups, presented in four, two-hour Zoom sessions. Though we numbered fewer than 12, we represented a broad cross-section of the population: Asian, Black, Caucasian, Latino; male, female; young, old; civic, corporate, social work, student.

Alongside the opportunity to hear from people outside my social set, it was Ewing's analogies that I found most helpful. Pulling from extensive research and personal experience, she unassumingly distills what can be sensitive information. Rather than shame, she turns it into something objective and obvious: an illustration of groundwater poisoning fish, for example.

Racism can seem entrenched, a topic so large we can't wrap our arms around so we don't even try, instead chalking it up to "the way things are." Ewing started the course with a powerful observation that offers some insight into this frame of mind. We think of Anne Frank, Martin Luther King Jr. and Barbara Walters as existing at different times, but they were all born the same year.

Overall, the course was a good primer into the historical context of the systems that continue to shape our realities, but due to the breadth of the material, I would've preferred the full seven sessions. I also think in-person interaction would have made the experience richer, though I understand the city's decision to host it virtually.

As we begin a new year, it's always a good idea to examine and challenge ourselves. Ewing's course offered a safe space to explore the boundaries of my own experience and perceptions, a jumping-off point for personal responsibility, for more research and questioning.

Having honest conversations about racism is hard. It's personal and leaves you vulnerable. But I think that is what true change will take, a willingness to be uncomfortable, to perhaps say the wrong thing and have the guts to apologize, to have respect for another person's point of view and open yourself up to the new ways of thinking it can bring. That conversation won't look the same for everyone, no matter your views or background. But it's important.

I have determined that I will actively seek diversity in my life. And I will use my voice not to perpetuate my own experience, but to try to understand others'.

We live in an era of kneejerk reactions and shallow realities. We rely on quick fixes and labels, shortcuts that only serve the interest of time. And yet, we spend more time questioning each other's motives than examining the bigger picture.

If we're honest, what most often holds us back in life is shame and fear. I recently heard a podcast in which the speaker reframed fear for me.

We often ask ourselves, "What's the worst thing that could happen?" Instead, why not ask ourselves, "What's the best thing that could happen?"

"We have the opportunity many times a day, every day, to be the one who listens to others, curious rather than certain. And the greatest benefit that comes to those who listen is that we develop closer relationships with those we thought we couldn't understand. When we listen with less judgment, we always develop better relationship with each other. It's not differences that divide us. It's our judgments that do. Curiosity and good listening bring us back together."
— Margaret Wheatley