‘Racial Healing Circles’ Aim to Bring People Together at Middlesex Community College

“A community without racial hierarchy, that actively challenges racism, that is equity minded, and responsive to our diversity.”

That’s the mission of Middlesex Community College’s Center for Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation, described as “a convener, a hub for internal and external communities to engage in racial healing and build deeper collective capacity toward racial equity and justice in relationships, structures, policy, and practice.”

The center, one of only two on Massachusetts campuses, was approved for Middlesex last fall by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU).

One immediate result is a series of “racial healing circles,” one of which has been scheduled for Friday, May 20, in the library on the Bedford campus. Several local residents have been invited to participate.

“Fundamentally, one of the things we are trying to do is to bring people together through the circle as one way of listening deeply,” said Dr. Darcy Orellana, the college’s director of equity and inclusion and coordinator of the center’s activities. “It’s not diversity training, it’s about relationships.”

“We are in the process of planning how to use the racial healing center methodology as a way of bringing people together,” she said. “Through relationship-building and the acknowledgment of the damage inflicted by racism, we can form more equitable, just communities.”

She called the experience “an exercise of sharing and listening. Through story-telling, people can find their common humanity. We often don’t take the time to do that. Any group of people is going to have a variety of thoughts. Social transformation in a healing framework is how we change the narrative.”

The work in a circle is usually done in pairs, followed by “problem-sharing with the larger group,” Orellana said. “People will hear someone’s story and find something related to their experience.” Prompts during the process are “designed to engage people in a conversation and for someone to listen deeply.”

Orellana said the process to secure the center got underway almost a year ago, after college officials participated in an AACU Institute. She said President Philip Sisson led the delegation, which also included Provost Arlene Rodriguez, faculty, staff, and a community member. “That team was the reflective body for us to think about doing this.”

College officials then developed an action plan for the center, enumerating several goals: “to broaden and deepen our culture of equity-mindedness by integrating this into our strategic plan; to normalize racial healing practices and serve as a resource for our community; to build internal and external equitable communities.”

“We do want to bring this to the community – it’s a really effective model,” Orellana said. “Every time I co-lead one, it’s a new experience.” For example, “One of my favorite guidelines is when things get difficult, turn to wonder – meaning, ‘I wonder what they are feeling right now.”

“We know that none of this work is going to be done overnight,” Orellana acknowledged. “The bedrock is this notion of racial healing, knowing that in practice no circle, no dialogue, is one-and-done. It’s ongoing.”

About 30 faculty and staff members and students have been trained so far to preside at a circle, Orellana said, and the training continues. Each circle involves 20 to 30 participants. Sisson and Orellana are expected to take part in the program on the Springs Road campus.

“It’s aspirational,” Orellana acknowledged, adding, “But without those aspirations I would be extremely discouraged.”

Mike Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected], or 781-983-1763

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