Originally published in The Weekly Packet, September 10, 2020
Lecture on racism attracts capacity audience
by Benjamin Truesdale
On Thursday, September 3, The Blue Hill Public Library live-streamed its latest online lecture, “An Authentic Dialogue on Race,” as part of the ongoing Robert K. & Linda B. Slaven Series. Guest speaker Shay Stewart-Bouley, also known by her online moniker Black Girl in Maine, drew a crowd of 80 Zoom participants.
“Registration was at full capacity,” said BHPL Assistant Director Hannah Cyrus, who coordinated the event. “A lot of people in our community have followed Shay’s blog for years, and we’ve been trying to get her here for a long time.”
Stewart-Bouley, an African American, is an author, educator, activist, and community organizer. She currently serves as the Executive Director of Community Change, Inc., a Boston-based civil rights organization. Though a Chicago native, Stewart-Bouley has resided in Maine for nearly 20 years, and much of her professional and creative work has addressed issues of racism, injustice, and inequity in the state.
The aims of her Slaven Series talk were “to deepen participants’ knowledge of racism in 2020, examine their own biases, and learn techniques for starting conversations on racism and how to be an effective ally.” She acknowledged that this was no simple undertaking for small-town residents, who might feel removed from the forefront of protest movements and broader societal debates currently happening elsewhere in the United States, often in more urban spaces.
“We all have to agree on three things,” she began. “First, we must agree that we will have work to locate ourselves, to acknowledge who we really are and where and why; second, we must agree to listen, really listen, but we must abandon any expectations of ‘understanding,’ or any easy sense of closure; third, we must agree that our meeting tonight is not what some people like to call a ‘safe space.’ It’s a brave space, though. You’re brave for showing up.”
Stewart-Bouley’s program was one-third lecture, two-thirds public colloquium; this was part of a deliberate strategy meant to more fully engage her listeners. “Shifting your worldview is not putting up a Black Lives Matter sign in the front yard and calling it a day. It’s not occasionally listening to a guest speaker who happens to be a person of color. Instead, we must actively work here to develop a new, common vocabulary to confront racism.”
After introducing her audience to new ways in which they might “take risks, and dismantle embedded patterns in thinking and speech,” she coordinated several breakout groups. The assignment was for each group member to share personal experiences of racism in American society, and more specifically the problem of racism in Downeast Maine.
The event concluded with a question-and-answer forum, and many participants shared highly personal anecdotes, or asked some of the difficult questions which had arisen in the breakout sessions. “I noticed that a lot of people, not just Shay’s fans, were willing to put themselves out there,” Cyrus said.
Stewart-Bouley ended her talk saying, “You might be surprised to hear me say that this evening’s lecture didn’t solve anything at all,” as she signed off to audience applause. “But maybe it will be one step closer to the truth.”
Cyrus views the Slaven Series as just such a step. “There’s a lot of local interest in our lectures on race and racism, and it’s growing,” she said. “There’s an appetite in Blue Hill for being part of the national conversation.”
More information on Shay Stewart-Bouley, including links to her TED Talk, can be found on her websites blackgirlinmaine.com and communitychangeinc.org For information on upcoming events in the Slaven Lecture Series visit bhpl.net or call Assistant Director Hannah Cyrus at 374-5515.