Conversations on Race in Our Public Libraries

Posted by Milagros Phillips on August 11, 2017 at 8:58 AM

Editor’s note: This blog describes a framework for facilitating a dialogue on race. Milagros Phillips was invited to write a blog about how libraries can be a place where conversations on race can be convened and advanced.  


When it comes to race, so often, people just don’t know where to turn, what they can do and if a difference can be made. As a gathering place for the community, the public library is the perfect venue for offering group conversations on race, preferably led by a trained facilitator. Libraries offer resources, technology, and information that can make understanding race more accessible while enhancing the learning and healing experience. Every community should have someone who can lead these conversations and the person leading them should have knowledge and mindfulness of three important elements:

  1. HISTORY – This offers a historical connection to our current events on race.
  2. SELF-AWARENESS – Can help to create a safe space for all participants.
  3. COMPASSION – Helps us deal with emotions such as grief which can arise during the conversation.


Race in the Americas and the Caribbean is very distinct and has a history that is deeper than slavery. Race is a caste system that was started by the Spaniards shortly after Columbus’ arrival in what he named “LA ESPANOLA,” (modern-day Dominican Republic) in 1492. The Early Spanish settlers needed a workforce to work the fertile Caribbean lands, where crops could be grown year-round, and they turned to human trafficking. The first Africans were brought to the Caribbean in 1509, a century before the Mayflower landed in what is now known as the continental USA. Because of the racial mixing that went on throughout the Caribbean islands, the Spanish settlers thought it important to put a system in place that identified who was European (in their case Spaniard) and who was not. This caste system known as “LAS CASTAS,” was the determinate of privilege based on melanin, economics, and position.

The scars left by this system are still with us today in the form of bias, discrimination, prejudice and personal and institutional racism. Race is not real; it is a human made construct used to classify people based on perceived biological differences. The concept of race was created to justify free labor by creating human subspecies. However, racism is very real and affects everything in our nation, from education to economics. History grounds our awareness of race in facts and gives context to the conversation. Using the public library as a resource, one can research slavery in the Caribbean to learn more, in particular, Las Castas, a pictorial chart that addresses the Spanish system of power and inheritance in the Americas.


While we want to be part of the solution, we must also be aware of the many ways that we are part of the problem. Everyone has a history with race, and everyone’s history counts, including the facilitator’s. As the leader of the conversation, your race history may be tainted by painful experiences and losses. Be aware that you carry that pain with you. While it is important that you be authentic and share that pain as part of the conversation, it is vital that you share it with wisdom and compassion for yourself and others.

When you step into a conversation on race, as the facilitator, you have a responsibility to the people that join that conversation. Clarity of your triggers (words and actions that upset you) can help you steer clear of taking things personally when someone in the group shares from his/her experience. In a conversation on race, all voices need to be heard.

As the facilitator, people will look to you for a sense of hope. The most effective facilitators do this work because they believe that things can change, that people can change. Best of all they know it because they, themselves, have transformed their view of race and can thereby be an asset and an agent of change for others.

A good facilitator not only enhances the learning for all involved in the conversation but can also be a source of inspiration for those wanting to engage in long-term dedication to racial transformation and healing.


Racism has and continues to cause great loss to our nation. When participants come to a conversation on race, they often have no awareness of the losses they have suffered and how loss causes grief. Conversations on race bring up that grief as well as anger and frustration. All of this can make us feel fragile and keep us from participating in the conversation. At the same time, conversations on race can be very healing and allow us to gain an awareness of self and others.

I was facilitating a race-healing seminar in Michigan in early 2000 when one of the participants shared how he, as a 67-year-old African-American man, had never felt safe in his entire life. He spoke with great sadness and grieved the loss of a life that felt safe, secure and whole.

In the lobby of a hotel after speaking at a conference, a white woman in her sixties shared the loss of her best friend, an African-American child with whom she walked to school. Her grandparents told her she couldn’t play with her any longer; at the age of 6, offering no explanation to her friend, she never spoke to her friend again. For more than five decades this woman carried the shame of her behavior, her grandparents’ fear, and the loss of her best friend as a secret she never shared with anyone. It was double the loss, as the African-American child may have questioned, “what happened?” There is a lot of loss and grief when it comes to race in America, and it needs to be handled with compassion and understanding.

Race is a community problem, and public libraries are a place where the community gathers. Libraries are in a powerful position to offer training for facilitators and to convene conversations on race. The library exists as a safe place where all are welcome and diverse experiences, and perspectives collide. Such an environment creates a powerful dynamic that can foster meaningful conversations for the community. It is the perfect mix and a ready-made place to host and facilitate dialogues on race.


Examples of successful dialogues on race hosted by libraries:

Skokie Public Library: Coming Together - in Skokie & Niles Township

Friends & Foundation of the Rochester Public Library: Conversations on Race


Milagros Phillips is the author of “11 Reasons to Become Race Literate, a Pocket Guide to a New Conversation,” and “8 Essentials to a Race Conversation & Manual to a New Dialogue.” She has been facilitating race seminars for more than two decades in corporations, churches, colleges, and universities, and with business and national leaders.


Milagros Phillips

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