Lake Oswego leaders seek out tools of tolerance
In the past year, Lake Oswego community members have engaged in a series of discussions about racism and the divisive role that intolerance plays in the city.
A grassroots organization called Respond to Racism began holding monthly meetings last summer, prompted by a racist road rage incident involving hateful slurs directed at an African American driver. Inside the Lake Oswego School District, another series of tough conversations has been taking place — first after incidents involving racist graffiti and anti-Semitic photographs, and more recently when an African American student was handed a Post-it note containing the words "n****r dog."
Assemblies for students have focused on equity, diversity and inclusion, and parents have been encouraged to "listen and learn" at their own gatherings. More than 150 people attended the latest Respond to Racism meeting in February.
But a cross-section of community leaders believe that a more broad-based, comprehensive approach is needed now. And so last week, 18 of them flew to Los Angeles for a two-day workshop at the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance.
The trip had been in the planning stages since before the most recent LOSD incident, and school officials said the workshop wasn't a direct response to any one issue. Instead, they said, it will help to inform the district's future discussions about race.
"Changing behavior is very difficult," said Christine Moses, the LOSD's executive director of communications. "This is really deep, long-range work that has to come from a lot of levels."
The museum typically hosts specialized workshops and seminars for police, educators and other specific groups of public officials, but the Lake Oswego team participated in a unique workshop that combined material from several courses. The seminar was funded by a state grant — no City or school district funds were used — and designed to equip participants with the tools necessary to address issues of racism as a community.
Participants from the LOPD included Chief Don Johnson, Capt. Dale Jorgensen, Sgt. Jay Weitman and School Resource Officer Bryan Sheldon. They were joined by City Manager Scott Lazenby and Assistant City Manager Megan Phalen.
In addition to Moses, LOSD group members included Superintendent Heather Beck, Assistant Superintendents Joe Morelock and Michael Musick, and Principals Rollin Dickinson, Kurt Schultz and Alix Pickett.
Several elected officials participated as well: City Councilors Jackie Manz and Jeff Gudman took part, as did School Board members John Wallin and Sarah Pocklington. Willie Poinsette, a retired Portland Public Schools principal and one of the co-founders of Respond to Racism, attended as a community representative.
The trip was organized by Johnson, who first visited the museum while working in California earlier in his career. A group of LOPD officers also visited the museum for a seminar several years ago.
Jorgensen, who was among the officers who attended the previous trip, said the experience this time around emphasized tools and strategies for facilitating community discussions about race and hate.
"It was a completely different program," he said.
The group members arrived in L.A. on Monday night and opened the seminar with an icebreaking session on Tuesday morning. The meeting allowed the group to get a clear picture of what they were hoping to achieve at the seminar, and to create a list of objectives.
Phelan said the group wanted to come back with tools for conversation at home, and with a plan for action in addition to discussion.
"It was always focused on Lake Oswego and our community," she said.
The participants spent the rest of the morning on a guided tour of a section of the museum focused on the Holocaust, and then heard the personal testimony of Holocaust survivor Engelina Billauer. Moses described that first morning as a powerful look into the fearmongering and propaganda strategies that the Nazi party employed during Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1930s Germany.
"I had heard it, but never really understood it," she said. "Discrediting the institutions inside the society is how you destabilize it. I knew that, but I got it on a visceral level."
In the afternoon, the group watched a video about educator Jane Elliot's famous "Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes" exercise, in which her students were temporarily segregated by eye color in order to experience what discrimination feels like.
The video became one of the topics during a discussion at the end of the first day. Group members were asked whether they would be willing to allow their own children to participate in the exercise, and then divided into three discussion groups based on whether they answered yes, no or maybe.
Jorgensen said the exercise served as an example of how to have a productive conversation with multiple points of view, including some that are polar opposites. Museum staff facilitated the conversation and urged the participants to focus on finding common ground.
In another excercise, the participants were asked to use their phones to submit the first word that came to their minds when asked to describe Lake Oswego's community values, with the results tabulated on a screen. According to Manz, words like education, schools, families and parks were among the most frequent.
"It was telling that we could all agree on what the good things about the community are," she said.
The excercise was then repeated, but with a question about the best ways for the community to respond to instances of racism.
The group also discussed strategies for calling out racist behavior in day-to-day life, and strategies for starting conversations with people about it. The goal is to keep the discussion positive, Manz said, but people can respond in different ways to conversations about race and their own behavior.
"There was a lot of discussion around 'avoiders,'" she said. "Someone who may understand that there's a problem but wants to avoid having to deal with it."
Morelock said the first day focused primarily on looking at the context of how hate can spread and take over a society, while the second day focused on applying those lessons to contemporary issues.
"The lens you view this through is the Holocaust, but it can apply to racism, bullying or any form of marginalization," Manz said.
The group toured additional history-focused segments of the museum on Wednesday morning, followed by some of the museum's point-of-view experiences. The second day concluded with a longer workshop about how to utilize the discursive framework that the group had learned the day before to encourage further discussion in their own community.
More broadly, the workshop also focused on how the participants could bring what they had learned back to Lake Oswego and continue community discussions such as Respond to Racism.
Part of the focus now, Morelock said, will be to find areas where the community already comes together, rather than trying to create those spaces from scratch. One of the best ways to facilitate a discussion among a group of people is to find shared experiences, which is why existing events are great starting points.
That's what enabled the seminar participants to have such a productive discussion, Moses said — the trip itself became the basis for the conversation.
"We now have a great shared experience," she said. "The next step is to decide how we talk about this. What's our shared vision?"
The conversation can be difficult, Jorgensen said, and it has to happen at multiple levels throughout the community, including schools, workplaces and households. Each of the meeting participants can impact the lives of others in Lake Oswego, he said, but only in limited ways on their own.
"This has to be a full, community-wide conversation that happens," Morelock said.
Continuing the Respond to Racism meetings was identified as one strategy, along with starting similar conversations at other city events like the farmers market or with other groups like LO for Love. Manz also said the City could encourage more workforce diversity among its own staff.
"This isn't going to be a particularly easy task, but that's one of the things that I want to follow up on," she said. "As a civic leader, this is a tough one because if you live in a homogenous community, how do you introduce people to the concept of 'others'? That's one of the things I think we were all talking about."
In terms of addressing racist incidents in Lake Oswego's schools, Morelock and Moses said the discussion model is not expected to resolve the issues instantaneously. But it will be helpful for the district as it confronts racial issues on an ongoing basis.
"How do you have a different conversation with people that gets to their very core beliefs," Morelock asked, "and not turn them away or make them afraid to have an opinion?"