Here's what happened when one retired school principal, Willie Poinsette, decided to create a safe space for her community to talk about race.  

By Jennifer Chen
Updated February 25, 2020
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Credit: courtesy of subjects

It's rare that a heated, bitter pile-on in social media comments results in anything good—especially when the topic is race. But that's how events transpired for Willie Poinsette and Liberty Miller in Lake Oswego, Oregon, a predominantly white suburb of Portland. When someone shared a piece on Nextdoor about a black man being called a racial epithet by a white driver, the commentary devolved into arguments and misunderstandings.

As the negativity spiraled, Liberty asked if everyone could sit down and discuss the issue—in person. The request got exactly one volunteer: retired school principal Willie. The two met for coffee and decided to repost the request along with a photo of themselves. They hoped that seeing a picture of two people of different races talking (Liberty is white; Willie is black) would inspire neighbors to show up.

That was three years ago. The first meeting of Respond to Racism drew 66 people for a discussion led by Liberty and Willie. Lake Oswego residents of color candidly described their frustrations and the ways they'd experienced overt racism. When the meeting ended, the group decided to keep the discourse going. Since then, up to 200 people—including elected representatives, reporters, and police officers—have joined the monthly meetings. "For some, it was an eye-opener," Willie says. "I can remember one person said, "I never thought about race or racism at all.""

Meetings usually begin with potluck appetizers and chitchat, leading into a talk by a guest speaker and then breakout discussions. Sometimes there are formal exercises; at a recent meeting, members paired off to open up about the first time they noticed race. Willie has occasionally closed with a Civil Rights–era song ("Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around" has been a particular favorite). "Some nights, these meetings are the most diverse gatherings in Lake Oswego," participant Jan Standlea says. "This is a place where people can tell the truth about their experiences."

Slowly but steadily, the group has inspired changes: Participants have helped create diversity committees in the community, encouraged local minorities to run for office, formed relationships with Lake Oswego political leaders and police officers, and cosponsored a diversity and inclusion summit.

During Respond to Racism's first year, Liberty relocated for family reasons, but Willie has made the organization her second act. She finds fulfillment in bringing her community together to help heal long-standing wounds. "I've learned that saying "Let's sit down and talk and collaborate" builds meaningful relationships," she says.