Lectures To Offer Tools For Race-Based Conversations
C.H. Booth Library has launched a concerted effort to host programming related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). A Board of Trustees DEI special committee was recently appointed, and several special events are being presented under the Newtown Together banner.
Among them are three to be led by Katie Burton and Aqua Drakes, cofounders of Drakes and Burton Consulting. Founded in March 2020, the firm is dedicated to offering anti-racist education through history-based courses and facilitated conversations.
Their programs are scheduled for Wednesdays, April 7, April 21, May 5. Each will begin at 7 pm and run for 60 minutes.
“A History of Race in the United States” will kick off the series.
In speaking with The Newtown Bee earlier this month, Drakes said this program will concern “the creation and the maintenance of racial categories in America.” The program will additionally offer basic vocabulary, historical precedents, and current conditions of race in this country.
Past and present connections will demonstrate how legacies of injustice shape systems and society in the 21st Century. Attendees will be able to submit questions via the chat function.
The second program is “Allyship in Focus” on April 21.
Drakes said this will include discussion of “what ‘allyship’ is, and focus on it historically, while using modern language and modern examples.” Audience members can again submit questions via chat, and the speakers will select and respond to some during the final portion of the program.
“Allyship in Action,” on May 5, concludes this trio of discussions.
“That’s really where we’re going to be going through scenarios and different situations, to give people the tools to come out as an ally,” Drakes explained.
Burton said, “There’s a huge benefit to going to all three, but they’re also designed so that you can go to one and still be totally engaged.”
Ready For Conversations
Katie Burton and Aqua Drakes believe people want to talk about systemic racism.
“I think people are really ready to have these conversations,” Drakes said. “People are really looking to have conversations, and people want the language. People want to be able to talk to each other about these things.
“We find sometimes people are hesitant to talk about some of these issues, particularly in public or with strangers, because they feel like they’re going to say the wrong thing, or they don’t know the words to use,” Drakes explained.
Burton feels that the events of last summer, for many white people, “were a dramatic moment in terms of understanding the depth and breadth of racial injustice in our country. I think there are many people who know that familiarly and intimately, who have known that for a very long time.”
Piggybacking off what Burton said, Drakes added that there is “a very large segment of the population who is very familiar with these concepts. They are lived concepts. However, what we find is that people who have lived these experiences don’t necessarily have the language to express what has happened to them. That is hugely important.”
One of their main goals, Drakes said, is to give marginalized people the words needed to explain what has happened to them. Many who have been on the receiving end of microaggressions, she said, do not know how to explain that.
“We also want to give people in power some understanding of how they are affecting people,” she added.
Their presentations, Burton said, are meant to be a starting point.
“We are not providing a solution,” she said. “We are offering tools.”
While both women are trained conversation facilitators, their presentations hosted by Booth Library will be structured more like lectures.
“This program will be more about us giving information,” Drakes said.
The women met in late 2018 while both were working at The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford. Drakes is a former visitor services manager, and Burton a former museum educator and program manager there.
It was while at the historic site that her education in facilitation began, Drakes shared on March 12.
“While we were there, one of the major pillars of the Stowe Center’s work was discussions about race, class, and gender, but specifically about race,” she said.
“I was able to participate in the facilitation of conversations on race after becoming comfortable with it, because I can’t say I was initially very comfortable with that,” she added. Part of increasing that comfort level came with taking the facilitator conversation course with RE-Center in Hartford (formerly the Discovery Center).
Drakes has a background in nonprofit management and a degree in history from North Carolina Central University.
Burton earned a PhD in literature and social justice at Lehigh University.
“I went through a unique program that really focused on how literature participates in past and present conversations of injustice, and can act for positive change,” she said.
Burton also earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Language and Literature at the University of Connecticut, and then her Master of Arts, in the same subject, also at UConn.
When Burton arrived at The Stowe Center, she was interested in educational programs for students from kindergarten through college level, and also in working with teachers.
“A lot of my facilitation skills and background in those kind of conversations come from a focus on working with young people, and empowering young people,” she said.
Burton also did some training through RE-Center and The Center for Reconciliation in Rhode Island, she said.
“Part of what Aqua and I realized,” she said, “was we have a really good rhythm together, and our brains work really nicely. There’s a lot of overlap in ways that we think about things, but also I think really unique experiences that bring us to think about things really differently, in very productive ways.”
A major motivator to create Drakes and Burton Consulting, Burton said, was seeing the experiences of people she cares about who are impacted by racism.
“Seeing how white people are intentionally and unintentionally complicit in racism gives me a lot of motivation as a white person to make contributions there and guide people,” she added.
When the Stowe Center began moving away from facilitated conversations on racism and racial equity work, Drakes said, “We realized that there was definitely a need for those conversations to continue, and we have the ability to fill that need. We really just decided we need to continue doing this.”
Although the partnership was launched in March 2020, the two have yet to share office space. Thanks to COVID-19, they have continued to work remotely.
“The moment we decided to fully begin working together, officially, at Drakes and Burton Consulting, wasn’t entirely coincidental that it started during the pandemic,” Burton said.
For most people, she said, spring 2020 “was a moment of total disruption and destabilization, and also a moment of really intense self-reflection and trying to understand what’s important, and what kinds of contributions we need to be making to the world.”
The consulting firm was introduced to C.H. Booth Library Director Douglas Lord by Newtown resident Melissa Houston. The director of education at Keeler Tavern Museum & History Center in Ridgefield, Houston had worked with Burton in the past when the latter provided training for docents and volunteers.
Houston appreciates, she told The Newtown Bee on March 19, Burton’s ability to lead discussions while providing historical context and relevance to today’s challenges around race.
“She guides conversations in a way that is challenging but never confrontational, building understanding with empathy, and gives participants tools to use when speaking about hard history around race,” Houston noted.
A member of Newtown Allies For Change, and chair of the group’s Learning Subcommittee, Houston reached out to Lord after he expressed a desire for the library to hold discussions on race.
“I have a vested interest in seeing our community grow in empathy and equality,” said Houston, who has lived in town for 12 years. “Building our community’s understanding of race is essential to advocating for racial equality.”
Registration is required for each lecture at chboothlibrary.org. Contact the library at 203-426-4533 for additional information.