COLUMBIA — The group of about 40 split in half.
About 20 people who identified as nonwhite sat in a circle and discussed what life's like for minorities. The other 20 people, who identified as white, sat in a circle around the first group and listened.
The two groups then switched places, and the people who identified as white shared their feelings about race and diversity.
The activity, called "fishbowl," was part of the "Listen, Talk, Learn" program hosted Thursday evening by the Diversity Awareness Partnership, a St. Louis-based nonprofit. The goal was to raise awareness of unconscious bias.
Kenneth Pruitt, director of diversity training with the Diversity Awareness Partnership, started Thursday's session at the Veterans United Uniform Training Building by encouraging attendees to acknowledge that everyone has unconscious biases.
“We actually have to work straight through it in order to begin to have conversations that are honest and sometimes, frankly, uncomfortable,” Pruitt said.
The Diversity Awareness Partnership started "Listen, Talk, Learn" in response to the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager who was shot by Darren Wilson, a white police officer.
Brown's death triggered weeks of unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and sparked nationwide conversations about racism.
Pruitt said the group thought conversations about race after Brown's death weren't constructive. So, the Diversity Awareness Partnership created "Listen, Talk, Learn" to help people understand the difference between constructive dialogue and combative debate.
So far, about 2,200 people in Missouri have attended the sessions, Pruitt said. To expand its reach, the Diversity Awareness Partnership opened a Columbia branch in March.
Nikki McGruder, who manages the Columbia branch, said she thinks the "fishbowl" is the most constructive activity that the organization facilitates.
John Clark, who has said he is considering running for mayor in Columbia’s upcoming election, attended Thursday’s meeting because it was an effective forum for change, he said.
“I believe the work needs to be done at a personal, experiential level that doesn’t deny the absolute existence of structural racism,” Clark said. “Building the foundation really only happens person-to-person.”
Hickman High School Principal Eric Johnson also participated in the meeting. He suggested concrete steps to address racial inequality. One of his solutions: hire more diverse teachers.
McGruder said it can be discouraging to hear negative or hurtful conversations about race, but she's encouraged by people's conversations at the Diversity Awareness Partnership’s meetings.
“They’re willing to get in there and help do the work,” she said. “That gives me hope.”
Supervising editor is Daniela Sirtori-Cortina.