Flossmoor Community Church and roughly 70 residents of Homewood and Flossmoor have been trying to tackle the problem of racism, one podcast discussion at a time.
The Community Conversations series, launched in late October with support from the Flossmoor Community Relations Commission, was designed to get Homewood and Flossmoor residents building upon their diversity to become a more unified and inclusive community, per the event’s mission statement. Its stated aims were to increase cultural competency, advance racial equity, broaden diverse friendship networks and foster community action.
“We’re a diverse community, but that doesn’t mean we don’t deal with issues such as racism,” said Matt Epperson, who led the discussions with fellow Flossmoor resident and FCC member Stephanie Poole-Byrd.
“We need to embrace the mentality that we are not just going to be diverse but inclusive,” Poole-Byrd added. “It takes all of us. That whole racial equity piece can be the key to inclusion for all. It has to take more than us just being a diverse community.”
The series was originally designed as a three-part Zoom discussion to run Thursdays from Oct. 29 to Nov. 12, focusing on Episodes 1-14 of the NPR series “Seeing White.” But it was extended by a week when organizers deviated from the plan the week of the election to give participants an opportunity to process the uncertainty of the results.
In the 2017 podcast at the center of the program, Scene on Radio host and producer John Biewen explores the notion of “whiteness,” including where the concept came from, what it means and how it is used. Poole-Byrd said it has helped to frame and focus discussions in breakout groups.
Epperson said he and Poole-Byrd are friends who have had discussions about the topics addressed in the podcast and racism in their own community. As the Black Lives Matter movement came to the forefront over the past six months, Epperson said they saw an opportunity to get people talking close to home.
“There’s been lots of energy around this,” he said. “I’ve been really encouraged and impressed with the response.”
Joyce Anders, 83, of Homewood, was one of the series’ participants. She said when she was growing up, she was small and got picked on. But it made her a fighter.
“I wanted to see justice and fairness,” she said. “One of the reasons I’m in Homewood is because I thought it was an inclusive community. That’s what brought me here.”
She said she is always learning more about race in America. She vividly recalls when it was pointed out to her that “flesh” crayons excluded a large variety of people. And some of the events she has seen transpiring in the country got her asking more questions.
“I keep having my eyes opened to things I never, ever thought about,” she said. “I started thinking about what I can do. What does an 83-year-old white woman do?”
She signed up for a webinar, joined an inclusive book club and kept studying. She was excited to see the church launch the podcast discussion series and that so many signed up for it. And she has relished the opportunity to keep learning.
“I enjoy hearing what they had to say,” she said. “I’m hoping it’s productive.”
Doug Penman, 59, of Flossmoor, said he has known Epperson and his family for years. He signed up for the program, in part, because he is an African-American man with a wife who moved to the United States from the Philippines. And they have a family they raised in the suburbs.
Penman said to this day he is surprised by things he did not learn about in school, such as the Tulsa race massacre. He called the podcast and discussions around it “very enlightening.” The intimacy of the breakouts to smaller groups has made those conversations easier, Penman said.
Participants were promised confidentiality in the interest of having open discussions about both the podcast and how the lessons learned from it can relate back to the Homewood-Flossmoor community.
“What happens is you start talking from a personal perspective,” Penman said. “It’s really good, because it’s relatable.”
Poole-Byrd said she has seen a willingness to have sometimes uncomfortable but important discussions in those breakout rooms.
“They’re eager — much more than we realized,” she said. “People are honest and candid, but also really engaging in this dialogue. … We are open more to having those discussions than I think we would have in the past.”
Epperson said he thinks the isolation of the pandemic has made folks more eager to connect in the Zoom groups. The groups are diverse, he said, and that has led to some “deep stuff” in the conversations.
“I think people have been quite open, talking about our community,” Epperson said. “It’s not just about talking; it needs to lead to more connection and action, but part of this is getting people to start talking.”
Penman said he hopes people apply what they are learning in the sessions.
“I would love for all of us to come out of this and say, ‘This is what we can do to make it better for our whole community,’” he said. “We can’t always control everything, but we can control what we do in the world.”
Epperson said the organizers’ goals are the same.
“We see this as the beginning,” he said. “It’s Phase 1.”
Anna Carvalho is the chairperson of the governing board for Flossmoor Community Church. She said church leadership is always asking how it can help the community, and this series came about organically during those discussions.
“We thought that creating a forum on how our community can discuss racism and coming to an understanding would be helpful,” Carvalho said. “To create a forum where people can communicate is very valuable. There’s no telling what good can come of it.”
Carvalho said it was wonderful to see such a high level interest in the program. She hopes that seeds planted by the series will blossom beyond it.
“This is something we wanted to incubate,” she said. “We’re hoping people in the community will take it over.”
Poole-Byrd said the discussions she led with Epperson are a good start. But the grassroots efforts that come next are what can truly make the community a better place.
“It takes one thing to desire that, but then how does it come to fruition?” Poole-Byrd said of change. “I feel like this is the beginning of a movement, which is great to be a part of.”
Carvalho added, “We are on a journey to both learn about the topic of racism and how we can contribute to solving it. It’s very exciting.”
Exciting, yes. But Epperson knows there is still work to be done and discussions to be had.
“This stuff takes practice,” he said. “This is not a conversation that just usually happens.”
Flossmoor Community Church has a history of social justice programming. For more information on some of the church’s anti-racism efforts, visit fccfaithful.org/anti-racism.