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Donna Brumfield uses storytelling for racial healing and reconciliation

Donna Brumfield is a south suburban resident with 20 years’ worth of experience focusing on racial healing and understanding as CEO of Smith-Brumfield Communications. She has cultivated diversity in workspaces and daily interactions through designing Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion education, training and programming. Her work spans educational, corporate and community settings. 

Diversity and Restorative Justice
Brumfield’s interest in diversity started in the 1980’s when she worked for IBM as the Equal Employment Opportunity compliance manager. Her role in tracking the numbers for minorities hired led to an interest in diversity, which was not a popularized term at the time.

In addition to her work at IBM, she was involved in restorative justice practices at various high schools. As an instructional assistant at Homewood-Flossmoor High School, Brumfield was the first person to offer a peace circle. Peace circles are an opportunity for students to engage in conflict resolution, healthy decision making and healing. The goal is to reduce the amount of suspension days. 

South Suburban Diversity Dinners
When Brumfield moved to Matteson in 1987, she saw the predominantly white suburb become predominantly Black within two years. At Homewood-Flossmoor High School, she witnessed a similar shift.

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“Just because the community has changed, doesn’t mean that’s a negative. The negative part for me is people felt they needed to leave for whatever reason,” said Brumfield. 

Brumfield has also been an active organizer for the South Suburban Diversity Dinners. The dinner co-founded by Barbara Moore, former director of community affairs for Park Forest, and Congresswoman Robin Kelly, who previously served as the director of community affairs in Matteson.

The dinner was started in response to white flight in Matteson, or the large-scale migration of white people from areas that are becoming more diverse. 

The dinner brings different members of the community together for a meal and conversations about diversity, particularly about race. While the dinners were first hosted at residents’ homes, it grew to an event with near 400 attendees.

“The real effort was to bring community members together,” said Brumfield.

Racial healing and understanding
For Brumfield, one of the keys to racial healing and understanding is to hear and empathize with another’s story. She recognizes while we may not agree on everything, seeing life from another’s perspective helps us see the humanity in others. 

“I believe one of the guiding principles I use in all my work is that all of us have a story. Our stories matter, no matter your background,” Brumfield stated. 

In June 2020, Brumfield shared a question on Facebook, ‘When was the first time you became aware of your race?’ She received over 300 responses. The responses led Brumfield to write her book, “I Know Who I Am: Stories of Race, Racism & 21st Century Realities.”

According to the flyer for the book, Brumfield collaborated “with 17 diverse, intergenerational contributing authors as they share their deeply personal stories of racial encounters and the profound impact these encounters had on their lives. With courage, conviction and candor, each contributing writer recalls in raw emotion the vivid details of when they came face-to-face with racism.”

The book challenges readers to step outside of their comfort zone. In her workshops, she looks at topics such as law enforcement , managing implicit bias programs or increasing diversity in organizations. 

“A lot of the times we are fearful of the unknown. The only way you are going to deal with that is through encounters with them and their experiences,” Brumfield said. 

Brumfield’s hope is that her work has an impact on systemic racism over time.

“It’s a slow process and it is not going to happen overnight, but you have to start somewhere,” she said.

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