Our Story: Brave Conversations about Race

Posted By Brad Walker

Changing hearts through sharing personal stories is literally at the heart of a new community-oriented program launched by Rotarians Matt Kane, North Raleigh club, and Katie Gailes, Holly Springs club.  The tragic, painful death of George Floyd this summer, followed by weeks of protest and violence around the country, proved to them both that America needs to talk to itself, and Rotary could be the perfect vehicle for making that happen.

Matthew Kane, North Raleigh Rotary Club

PEACE is at the heart of so much that Rotary does, internationally and at home.  Indeed, Rotary International’s mission statement is both simple and clear: “We provide service to others, promote integrity, and advance world understanding, goodwill, and peace through our fellowship of business, professional, and community leaders.“ 

Kane, a long-time Rotarian and well-known figure in D7710 leadership recalled watching Floyd’s tragic death and asking himself, “When will this issue of race ever end?” While he noted that America has made some progress toward racial reconciliation,  with various efforts in equity and diversity education, none of these actually change hearts.  “No forums exist where Blacks and Whites can talk about their experiences with race.  We can’t even agree on three words: Black Lives Matter,” Kane said. “Is that good?  Is it not good? We don’t understand each other because we don’t know each other.” 

Gailes, a newer Rotarian described by Kane as the “entrepreneurship expert” for Wake Technical Community College, agreed that more is needed than the “one and done” training often solicited by companies or other institutions.   Such situations, often mandated, make Blacks question why they are always expected to educate White people. Participation needs to be voluntary, she said, and all participants need to feel that they can speak openly.  “It takes courage to be honest and authentic. “We need to focus on the human race, not just white or black. We need to focus on hearts.” 

Katie Gailes, Holly Springs Rotary Club

The program itself is a six-week, small-group experience with one 90-minute session weekly, led by trained facilitators, and requires some homework.  The small cohorts (no more than 10) are selected deliberately for the greatest diversity which, in turn, generates energy.  Thus, organizers seek participants who can provide equal or well-balanced racial, gender, generational, and professional representations. 

So far, six cohorts have emerged from the Our Stories: Brave Conversations on Race program, creating a community of 51 people maintaining relationships through Facebook, a Book and Media Club, and other efforts.  “We want to do something that sticks,” said Gailes.   ‘We are growing organizationally and organically, and we’re very pleased with the trajectory.” 

Applications are now being accepted for the next program, scheduled to begin in late January.  For the online application, click HERE to access the Our Stories website (designed by Rotarian Michael Loftin) and to listen also to testimonials from past participants.  

A Q&A session after the program reflected interest among members, with thoughtful comments from  Joe Paulonis, Bob McCamy, Michael Loftin, Mark Vasconcellos, Enoch Holloway, and President Karlene, also a former program participant.  Describing the experience as “fabulous, difficult, challenging, moving, fascinating and a wonderful opportunity,” she encouraged members to apply and be a part of the conversation to “help our community.” 

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