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Tough talk out in the open: Authors in Farmington share stories of living in Minnesota as minorities

Three authors of "A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota" discussed their experiences in the state. Sherry Quan Lee (left) spoke along with fellow writers Shannon Gibney and Rodrigo Sanchez-Chavarria. Kara Hildreth / contributor 1 / 3
Writer and spoken word poet Rodrigo Sanchez-Chavarria said “Our intention is for this to be the start of a bigger conversation - this just does not stop here because the reason for the anthology is to start a dialogue in your own community.” Kara Hildreth / contributor 2 / 3
Sherry Quan Lee led the author panel and community discussion. Kara Hildreth / contributor3 / 3

Talking about race in a truthful way can be uncomfortable. Talks may be inspiring and build bridges to spark meaningful conversations.

Ultimately, community conversations can perhaps improve race relations across Minnesota.

That was the community mission of One Book, One Farmington events in October.

Besides weekly library events in October, three authors spoke at Farmington High School on Oct. 24, to share personal stories and essays from the book, "A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota."

The anthology shares provocative essays written by 16 Minnesota authors' living as a people of color in Minnesota. The essays explain how Minnesota communities struggle with some of the nation's worst racial disparities.

Author talks

Rodrigo Sanchez-Chavarria is a writer and spoken word poet who moved from Lima, Peru, to St. Paul in 1988. His parents fled a turbulent government and economic crisis to chase the American Dream.

"It is hard to talk about race across racial lines because people's realities and lived experiences all differ," Sanchez-Chavarria said. "Race can be invisible to those who benefit willingly or unwillingly, knowingly or unknowingly, and no one wants to make an observation, share an inquiry regarding their race and be dismissed or misunderstood, mocked or worse."

Sharing his childhood story of hearing racist comments at school, Chavarria recalled an especially hurtful remark from a neighbor kid that stung in high school.

"He said I was worthless and he would sell me as a slave at a garage sale he was having the next day, and I snapped and I started punching and kicking him by the picnic table all the way to the door of his house," Sanchez-Chavarria said.

Another speaker was Shannon Gibney, a writer, activist and professor of English and African diaspora studies at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. She is the author of "See No Color" and she works to improve racial justice issues. In her essay "Fear of a Black Mother," she discusses how black mothers face worries in raising black children.

"Though we wish for our children to remain children for as long as possible, what we wish more is for them to live, and grow and flourish into adulthood," Gibney said. "This requires a delicate balance between educating our sons about the way they are seen by law enforcement, and the general public at increasingly younger ages before it may be developmentally appropriate, and helping envelop them into the magical world of childhood for as long as possible."

Gibney shared a list of black boys and black men shot in the United States: Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Freddie Gray and Walter Scott.

"These are not just names of the dead for the black mother; they are the eulogy and a predictable prologue to a mother's worst fears: the death of her child," Gibney said.

Minnesota native Sherry Quan Lee described herself as a Baby Boomer with a Chinese father and Negro mother. "Yes, I know that I don't look black, and yes, I know that I don't look Chinese, but I am Chinese, I am black and I am a feminist," Lee said.

Educators' feedback

Farmington Superintendent Jay Haugen said the author panel was interesting and the community discussion afterward led to great conversations.

"It was a great book that is timely and really important to read," he said.

Farmington Public Schools educate 1,248 students who fall into different minority groups. About 159 students or 7 percent of that group are Latino students. About 210 students are enrolled in the ELL (English Language Learners) programs throughout the district, Haugen said.

Chris Caduff, a multi-age teacher at Riverview Elementary, attended the event to listen and learn. He wanted to improve himself professionally as an educator and personally on a humanity level.

"I think the connections between people are so important, and we try to stress that with the kids and I just like hearing other people's stories to make myself continually aware," Caduff said. "We all have our own stories and I try to encourage kids to develop and share their own stories, and at the same time, we need to be aware of other people and use that to build relations because it is all bigger than the classroom and bigger than Riverview."

"I think these are difficult conversations to have, but we have to think and feel this is the time to have them with all that is going on in the world and country, with how people are being treated and looked at, and so we have to continue to build those connections rather than divisions or see differences," Caduff added.

Barb Svoboda, branch manager at Dakota County Farmington Library, said the goal was to provide a platform for "these kinds of feelings and ideas to be heard, and I think in that sense it was successful."

Seeing residents come into the library to talk about it and check out the book, Svoboda said many residents bought extra copies to share with friends.

"Reading together is even more important," she said. "I know the book went out all over town and people are sharing it and having conversations within their own circle of influence."

Caduff said "the human component is what is missing from things right now" in race relations.

"There were sad parts to their stories but they were also inspiring to me and made me want to do more and get involved and ask our kids to do the same thing in our world."

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