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Talking it out: Inclusive Communities makes hard conversations the featured menu item at Omaha Table Talk


My, how Omaha loves to talk about race and then not. Everyone has an opinion on race and the myriad issues bound up in it. Most of us save our opinions on this topic for private, close company encounters with friends and family. Only few dare to expose their beliefs in public or among strangers. Inclusive Communities organizes a forum called Omaha Table Talk for discussiing race and other sensitive subjects in small group settings led by a facililator over a meal. It is a safe meeting ground where folks can say what’s on their mind and hear another point of view over the communal experience of breaking bread. I am not sure what all this talking accomplishes in the final analysis since the people predisposed to participate in such forums are generally of like minds in terms of supporting inclusivity and respecting diversity. But I suppose there’s always a chance of learning something new and receiving a if-you-could-walk-in-my-shoes lesson or two that might expand your thinking and perception. For the voiceless masses, however, I think race remains an individually lived experience that only really gets expressed in our heads and among our small inner circle. But I suspect not much then either, except when we see something that angers us as a racially motivated hate crime or a blatant case of racism and discrimination. Otherwise, most of us keep a lid on it, lest we blow up and say something we regret because it might be misunderstood and taken as an insult or offense. The dichotomy of these times is that we live in an Anything Goes era within a Politically Correct culture. Therefore, we are encouraged to say what is on our mind and not. And thus the silent majority plods, often gitting their teeth, while talking heads let out torrents of vitriol or rhetoric.

 

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Talking it out: Inclusive Communities makes hard conversations the featured menu item at Omaha Table Talk

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the January-February 2016 issue of Omaha Magazine

 

When Catholic Charities of Omaha looked for somebody to take over its open race and identity forum, Omaha Table Talk, it found the right host in Inclusive Communities.

Formerly a chapter of the National Conference for Christians and Jews, the human relations organization started in 1938 to overcome racial and identity divisions. While the name it goes by today may be unfamiliar, the work Inclusive Communities does building bridges of understanding in order to surmount bigotry remains core to its mission. Many IC programs today are youth focused and happen in schools and residential camp settings. IC also takes programs into workplaces.

Table Talk became one of its community programs in 2012-2013. Where Table Talk used to convene people once a year around dinners in private homes to dialogue about black-white relations, under new leadership it’s evolved into a monthly event in public spaces tackling rotating topics. Participation is by registration only.

The November session dug into law enforcement and community. The annual interfaith dialogue happens Jan. 12. Reproductive rights and sex education is on tap March 22 and human trafficking is on the docket April 22,

The annual Main Event on February 9 is held at 20 metro area locations. As always, race and identity will be on the menu. Omaha North High Spanish teacher Alejandro García, a native of Spain, attended the October 13 Ethnic Potluck Table Talk and came away impressed with the exchanges that occurred.

“I had the opportunity to engage in very open conversations with people that shared amazing life stories,” he says. “I am drawn to things that relate to diversity, integration and tolerance. Even though I think I have a pretty open mind and I consider myself pretty tolerant I know this is an illusion. We all have big prejudices and fears of difference. So I think these opportunities allow us to get rid of preconceptions.”

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New IC executive director Maggie Wood appreciates the platform Table Talk affords people to share their own stories and to learn other people’s stories.

“It’s exciting to be a part of a youth-driven organization that’s really looking to make a difference in the world. It’s about putting the mic in people’s hands and giving them the opportunity to voice what they feel is important.

“What I think Omaha Table Talk does is really give us the opportunity to have conversations we wouldn’t normally have in a structured way that helps us to think about other people’s ideas. Nobody else in town is doing this real conversation about tough topics.”

“These conversations do not happen in day-to-day life, at least not in my environment,” Garcia says. “I see people avoiding these topics. They find it uncomfortable and they are never in the mood to speak up for the things they might consider to be wrong and that need to be fixed. If you don’t talk about the problems in your community, you will never fix them.”

“The really beautiful thing about Omaha Table Talk,” Wood says, “is it really brings about hope for people who see how more alike we are than different.”

 

Maggie Wood

 

Operations director Krystal Boose says, “What makes Inclusive Communities special is we are very good at creating a safe space. It’s so interesting to see how quickly people open up about their identities. Part of it is the way we utilize our volunteers to help navigate and guide those conversations.”

Gabriela Martinez, who participated in IC youth programs, now helps coordinate Table Talk. She says no two conversations are alike. “They’re different at every site. You have a different group of people every single place with different facilitators. We have a set of guided questions but the conversation goes where people want to take it.”

 

Gabriela Martinez

 

Wood says the whole endeavor is quid pro quo.

“We need the participants as much as the participants need us. We need individuals to be there to help us drive the conversation in Omaha starting around the table. We’re now looking at how do we put the tools in participants’ hands to go out and advocate for the change they want to see.”

She says IC can connect people with organizations “doing work that’s important to them.”

IC staff feel Table Talk dialogues feed social capital.

“We’re planting seeds for future conversations” and “we’re giving a voice to a lot of people who think they don’t have one,” Martinez says.

“It’s not good enough to just empower them and give them voices and then release them into a world that’s not inclusive and shuts them back down,” Boose says. “It’s our responsibility to help create workplaces for them that value inclusivity and diversity.” Martinez, a recent Creighton University graduate, says milllennials like her “want and expect diversity and inclusion in workplaces – it’s not optional.”

 

Krsytal Boose

 

 

Boose says growing participation, including big turnouts for last summer’s North and South Omaha Table Talks and new community partners, “screams that Omaha is hungry for these conversations.”

Organizers say you don’t have to be a social justice warrior either to participate. Just come with an open mind.

Main Event registration closes January 15.

The IC Humanitarian Brunch is March 19 at Ramada Plaza Center. Keynote speaker is Omaha native and Bernie Sanders press secretary Symone Sanders. For details on these events and other programs, visit http://www.inclusive-communities.org/.

Collaboration and diversity matter to Inclusive Communities: Nonprofit teaches tools and skills for valuing human differences

May 9, 2014 1 comment

Lots of organizations are highly reactive when incidents of racial, gender and cultural insensitivity surface but few teach skills and tools for valuing human differences.  One that does is the Omaha nonprofit Inclusive Communities and it’s been doing this kind of work for a long time.  It not only responds to existing problems in businesses and schools, whether offensive language or bullying, but it offers training sessions and workshops yearround that provide people with the skills and tools to defuse situations and to educate others about the value of respecting diversity.  My story about Inclusive Communities for Metro Magazine follows.

Nonprofit teaches tools and skills for valuing human differences

 

 

 

 

Since its 1938 founding in response to religious and racial bias, Inclusive Communities has embraced human diversity, tolerance and unity. 

The good work of individuals and organizations in promoting equality and inclusivity will be celebrated May 22 at a Humanitarian Dinner featuring guest speaker Robert Edsel, author of The Monuments Men. One of Omaha’s longest-running philanthropic events, the dinner is “paramount for our organization because as our only fundraising event it provides more than 50 percent of our annual operating budget,” says executive director Beth Riley. She adds that it brings together board members, donors, volunteers, staff and community partners “who are very committed, active and engaged” in fulfilling the mission of breaking down barriers.

“People who most often need a voice aren’t represented and that’s where Inclusive Communities steps in and says, ‘We think it’s about all people and not just some people.’ That’s really our mantra we live by,” Riley says. “We work with businesses, schools and in the community to confront prejudice, bigotry and discrimination and we do that through educational programs and advocacy work.

“We provide people the tools to meet others where they are. A lot of times in businesses that means creating positive dialogue skills and diversity and inclusion programs that have a measurable impact, not just to check off a competency. In schools it means creating leadership development programs that take into account all different kinds of students.”

Education and advocacy

Inclusive Communities has worked with major companies and with every high school in the Omaha Public Schools.

The organization is also involved in drafting and advocating legislation that supports inclusion and makes exclusionary practices unlawful.

“The citywide equal employment ordinance is a great example,” Riley says. “We were an active partner with Equal Omaha on that. We’ve taken an active role with Equal Nebraska advocating for a statewide ordinance for protection of folks in the LGBTQ community who don’t have the kind of protection they need. We’re working with members of the state Judiciary Committee on that.”

Riley most readily sees her human relations organization’s impact in young people. At the nonprofit’s residential IncluCity program held at Carol Joy Holling Conference & Retreat Center near Ashland, Neb. delegate students from area schools gather for an immersive experience to learn constructive dialogue and empathy building skills. She says the intense activities stir emotions, change attitudes, promote self-reflection and encourage conversation. It’s so well received that graduates regularly show up at her office volunteering to be camp counselors or applying to be interns. Many graduates go on to lead diversity clubs and social justice awareness activities at their schools.

“Most students who complete the program write on their evaluation they would recommend it to anyone, it’s changed their life and they they want to come back to volunteer.”

Inclusive Communities program associate Emilio Herrera participated in IncluCity as a high school student. He later served as an intern and now he’s on staff while finishing his master’s in social work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

“Our programming had such a transformative effect on him that this has become his life’s work,” Riley says.

Herrera says the experience of Inclusive Communities has made him want “to become a beacon of hope in the Omaha metro area for those who feel misunderstood or misrepresented.”

A safe place

Riley says a Native American student from the Rosebud Reservation in S.D. has been similarly transformed. During a camp exercise called Culture Walk the student chose to identify himself as gay in front of peers, adult supervisors and community observers. He’s since become a diversity advocate in his school, a camp volunteer and the rare Native student pursuing a post-secondary educational path.

“The most gratifying thing to me is to know we’ve created a place where he feels safe and can feel supported in accomplishing all of his dreams,” Riley says. “It’s a meaningful thing to know you can impact a youth in that way. In return he’s created this amazing club within his school where other youth have felt safe coming out and being open about their own sexual orientation and gender identity. He’s also created a multicultural club and other safe spaces for youth in his own school. I’m very proud of what our staff and volunteers have done for him and of all the things he’s giving back to inspire youth.

“That’s the real power.”

Inclusive Communities is anything but abstract or theoretical.

“Our work is very human relations-based and focuses on how people interact with one another,” Riley says. “The conversations we promote are really much deeper than what is someone’s race or ethnicity or religion. We talk about systemic things that tie us together as a society and that make us who we are as a culture.”

Programming is tailored to clients’ needs.

“We get called by a lot of nonprofits and small businesses when they’re looking at starting a diversity and inclusion group,” she says. “The number one reason we get called to work with businesses is they need language and terminology. Businesses have a lot of issues with that. There may be one employee using language considered inflammatory that’s making an entire office or department feel uncomfortable.

“We promote doing daylong workshops where in a safe environment you give people the opportunity to engage in dialogue and learn to have meaningful conversations at work that can defuse situations. So when things do arise and somebody says something perceived as inflammatory by somebody else there is a foundation there for dealing with it. It’s getting everyone on the same page and helping people learn to be allies for one another and for themselves.”

 

 

Youth focused

With students she says the curriculum focuses on teaching youth “how to stand up for themselves and to learn dialogue tools to articulate their own identity and to meaningfully and peacefully resolve conflicts. It’s getting them to understand the difference between dialogue and debate. It’s helping them understand appropriate language skills.” She
says anti-bullying strategies are “a huge piece of what we do – we have an entire section on our website devoted to resources.”

She says her board has laid out a strategic plan to increase youth services and Inclusive Communities is well along in realizing that goal. The organization’s recently extended its reach into schools on the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Reservations in S.D. It’s also now working with schools in Lincoln, Bellevue and Ralston, Neb. and Council Bluffs, Iowa as well as with area private schools, including Omaha Creighton Prep and Duchesne Academy.

“We’ve doubled the size of our youth programming. It’s driven by the public’s need, by schools reaching out and asking for assistance. We’ve been an expert at this programming for a long time and it will always be really important to this organization because every time you impact a youth you get such a return on your investment.”

Last year’s record proceeds from the Humanitarian Dinner made possible increased youth and adult programming, additional staff and relocating to the Community Engagement Center at UNO. Inclusive Communities joins several nonprofits housed at the center, whose mission is to foster collaboration, something Riley’s organization is already well-versed in and is looking to do more of.

Cultivating collaborators and growing partnerships

“Some of our partners include Nebraskans for Civic Reform, Nebraska Appleseed and Greater Omaha Young Professionals. The more we collaborate with others the better opportunity we have for people to learn about the work we do. It’s planting a lot of seeds. That’s what this space is all about,” Riley says of the center. “We had outgrown our previous space and being here is such a great fit for us because of its central location, because many of the students we serve are students at UNO or go on to be students here and because of the opportunity to collaborate with the other nonprofits in the building and with faculty, staff and researchers at the university.

“We think there are great partnership opportunities on campus.”

Meanwhile, Inclusive Communities is launching its Building Blocks of Inclusion series at various businesses and doing a diversity series with Greater Omaha Young Professionals.

Riley says the organization has more capacity to grow and remains “very nimble” responding to emerging needs and issues. She adds Inclusive Communities may be old in years but remains ever relevant with its young staff, vibrant board and passionate volunteers.

Follow its work and get Humanitarian Dinner details at http://www.inclusive-communities.org.

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“Our work is very human relations-based and focuses on how people interact with one another.”

 

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