Traverse City News and Events

Bernard And Wolff Aim High With Title Track

By Craig Manning | July 17, 2020

College students, retirees, musicians, a member of Rotary Charities, and the head of a local Montessori school: They’re just a few local community members who have been convening over Zoom for two hours each Monday evening to discuss matters of race and racism.

Bringing the group together is a five-week anti-oppression workshop hosted by Title Track, a nonprofit that launched on Earth Day 2019 with a mission of “engaging creative practice to build resilient social-ecological systems that support clean water, racial equity, and youth empowerment.” In its first year, Title Track’s efforts included the Clean Water Campaign for Michigan, which “uses storytelling and music events across the state” to call attention to clean water issues; and the Earthwork Detroit Music Festival, which took place last July and featured musical performances, presentations on a variety of community and social justice efforts; and youth workshops in songwriting, poetry, and permaculture. Title Track also played a key role in helping to form the Northern Michigan Anti-Racism Task Force and now serves as that group’s fiduciary.

According to Title Track’s founder and co-executive director, local musician and activist Seth Bernard, this spring’s protests over the killing George Floyd led to “a huge increase in interest in the work that we do,” as well as a “a willingness from folks in northern Michigan to learn more” about topics such as racism, oppression, and white supremacy. Inspired by this new show of interest, Bernard and Elizabeth Wolff, Title Track’s cultural healing facilitator, decided to put together a five-week curriculum on anti-oppression. The first session, now heading into its third week, includes Zoom calls as well as reading and podcast resources for participants to complete on their own time. Title Track is planning to host additional five-week sessions in the future, with the second starting in mid-August and the third one tentatively scheduled for late September. Bernard says the plan is to keep the workshops going “as long as there is interest.”

For the initial session, Title Track hit its goal of having a 40-person group of students. Wolff says the participants run the gamut in both age and experience, from young people taking the first steps to learn about racism to community leaders who have been working to facilitate these conversations in northern Michigan for years. One core goal, Wolff tells The Ticker, is for everyone to feel welcome, regardless of knowledge level.

“One of the things that's really important for this work is to have a container that is safe and productive,” Wolff says. “The course is really intentional in that way. Seth and I are both longtime facilitators, and we're both people who understand what it takes to have a productive conversation. Part of that is about having a really strong community agreement to say, 'Okay, what are the ground rules? How do we build a common and shared understanding of what it is that we're even talking about?’ So many times, in conversations about race and racism, people don't have the same definitions. They don't have the same language. And so they're talking past each other. One of the biggest things that I have learned as a facilitator of this work is to help cultivate a shared language system so that we're all talking about the same thing.”

The first week’s workshop curriculum lays that foundation by defining key concepts, going over the basics of racial theory, and exploring historical perspectives. Week two examines lingering systems of oppression in modern society. Week three uses songwriting and other forms of creative practice to help participants “integrate intellectual understanding” of the course concepts. Week four focuses on the societal trauma caused by racism and explores the process of healing. Finally, in week five, the workshop concludes with action steps, intended to provide tools and strategies participants can use to take meaningful action in the fight against oppression. In addition to the full Zoom group sessions, each week incorporates time in small five-person “breakout rooms,” which Bernard says is helpful for facilitating more personal conversation.

The course, which is co-sponsored by Rotary Charities, is priced on a sliding scale, depending on what students feel they can afford, from $125 to $500. There is also a scholarship fund set aside, funded by Oryana and several individual donors.

For Wolff, who has been trying to facilitate this type of workshop since the 2016 presidential election, it’s been heartening to see locals warming up to the concepts.

“There are a lot of people that, previously, were reflexively defensive [about racism], because they thought it didn’t have anything to do with them,” Wolff explains. “That's part of what this course is helping people to understand. It's not about saying, 'Oh, I'm a good white person. It's not my fault. I didn't put this stuff in place. I'm not responsible for my ancestors' actions.' It's about understanding that we have inherited this whole paradigm, and about looking at how we can take responsibility for it. We're all complicit, despite our best intentions. We're trying to cultivate a community where it's okay to acknowledge all of that and not go into a place of shame and collapse.”

“Sometimes, it can seem like people [talking about racism] are getting into an intellectual debate,” Bernard adds. But when we go into the heart more and tell our stories and connect with feelings, it's a lot easier to feel the pain. I have a six-year-old daughter, and if she was African-American, she'd be 10 times more likely to go to prison. That's just a fact, and it pulls on your heartstrings when you think about your own children….we live in a real polarized time, but it's an opportunity for us to take a different approach.”

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