NORTHAMPTON — An exhibit that aims to promote and spearhead “critical and compassionate” conversations around race, racism and anti-racism is set for May 1 from 6-8 p.m. at the JFK Middle school.
The REAL Talk Story Exhibit was formulated by REAL Northampton with the help of Dr. Barbara Love, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts and longtime social justice educator, as well as Safire DeJong of the Collaborative for Educational Services.
Since 2017, the group has gathered community members’ stories about their experiences of race, racism and anti-racism in Northampton Public Schools with the hope of placing the experiences of students, teachers and other community members at the forefront of hopeful change.
In a conversation with Reminder Publishing back in December about the spring exhibit, Deborah Keisch, one of REAL Northampton’s co-leaders, said that the hope is to have “cultural shifts” within Northampton Public Schools by finding ways to eliminate structural racism.
“There are a lot of folks in the district-caregivers, teachers, staff and students, who were working toward an anti-racist district in Northampton,” Keisch said, back in December. “One of the key things that [REAL Northampton] felt was necessary was more dialogue and conversation about race, racism, whiteness and how this all operates.”
According to Keisch, whenever there was a racist incident in the past, the district would treat it like an individual event or act. The perpetrator would be disciplined but then it would be over, and everyone would move on. With the REAL Talk Story Exhibit, the hope is to ignite a shift away from treating these incidents as isolated.
“What we really felt is that we wanted to be able to have community conversations that would lead to cultural shifts,” said Keisch. “That’s how we’re going to move beyond treating these incidents as if they’re separate or isolated.”
The plan in 2019 was to create a physical exhibit for the stories that were collected so far, but when schools closed in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the project was put on pause. REAL Northampton decided to transfer the exhibit to a digital platform in January 2021 through a private Instagram account to house the stories and pair them with associated themes.
Now, the exhibit is ready to be on display in person and will include six years’ worth of stories that encompass a range of emotions like hurt, gratitude, disappointment, hope, resistance, solidarity, fear anxiety and more.
A main focus on the exhibit is on “vision” and “action,” according to Keisch. The goal is not only to share stories of oppression in the district, but also to share “wonderful” experiences of anti-racism happening in Northampton schools.
“When we’re dealing with issues of oppression or inequity, we don’t want to get stuck in the trauma of that and leave the community in that trauma,” Keisch said, in December. “A lot of the exhibit will be centered around envisioning what we want to see in the district…what does an anti-racist district look like to people.”
The teachers and students, according to Keisch, were instrumental in formulating the concept of this exhibit through sharing their stories, creating themes, and offering input about the exhibit itself. “I don’t want to downplay at all the role of the students in this project,” said Keisch. “Not only their stories, but their insight about exhibit design has been extremely valuable.”
The JFK Students of Color Alliance, for example, has been a key leader in this project when it comes to coding the stories and offering input. They read each story, weighed in on themes, and identified sub-themes. They also submitted and categorized additional stories and were given the opportunity to add their own themes, like “Race & Identity,” “The Future,” “Actions & Strategies,” etc.
Readers can learn more about the exhibit by visiting the REAL Northampton website: https://realnorthampton.com/.