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Conversations on Race

Rochester Public Library, NY

Innovation Summary

The Rochester Public Library became engaged in the National Stand Against Racism Day in 2011, and grew that engagement into a broader discussion series called Conversations on Race. This discussion series responded to an expressed community need for deeper, meaningful discussions on racial inequality in the greater Rochester area.

Problem Statement

The question of race has been hotly debated in Rochester for many years. Civil unrest, rooted in race riots that occurred in the 1960s, continues to simmer as the city copes with an abysmal high school graduation rate, increasing poverty, and a declining population. Rochester’s population is 50% white and 50% other races, while surrounding suburban towns are predominantly white. Despite numerous efforts to begin and continue discussions on racial inequality, solutions have not been easy. The Rochester Public Library has long been known as “neutral ground” in the community – a “safe place” where all are welcome and respected regardless of race, ethnicity, income, religion, or gender. In 2011, RPL became involved with the National Stand Against Racism movement, and included a review of the book Witnessing Whiteness in a regular lunchtime book review program at the Central Library. The topic was so compelling that many people stayed after the program was finished to continue the discussion. The honest, frank, and sometimes unsettling conversation prompted those participants to express a desire for a continued conversation, and so Conversations on Race was born. More than 13 conversations have been held in city and suburban town libraries and, most recently, in three area colleges. Dialog has been open, uncomfortable, but very honest, with people of multiple races speaking with each other, many for the first time.


In 2011 the Rochester Public Library became a participating site for National Stand Against Racism Day. That year, Jean Carroll, the President of the YWCA of Rochester, presented a program at the Central Library where she discussed Witnessing Whiteness: The Need to Talk About Race and How to Do It by Shelly Tochluk. At the conclusion of the program several audience members spoke together informally about the need to continue conversations on race in the Rochester area, an idea which was supported and encouraged by the library director. The committee to create and plan a series of Conversations on Race first met in August of 2011. The committee evolved to include a racially balanced group of individuals who were recognized as being stakeholders in an equitable and integrated community, and included representatives from the faith community, Metro Justice, Gandhi Institute, Center for Dispute Settlement, and the library. The committee recognized the opportunity created by two major exhibits scheduled to visit Rochester in 2013. RACE: Are We So Different? was scheduled to be hosted by the Rochester Museum & Science Center January 19-April 28, 2013 and Pride & Passion: The African American Baseball Experience would be at the Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County May 1 – June 14, 2013. Both would create increased opportunity to look at race in the Rochester community. The committee worked for a year to create a format that allowed participants to explore their experiences around race in a safe and supportive environment. Thirteen conversations have been held, all focusing on different aspects of race, and the program series has now been picked up by three Rochester area colleges.


The response to Conversations on Race has been overwhelmingly positive. Originally planned for small venues where the expected attendance was 15-20 people, many of the later programs had to be moved to accommodate more people. Participants have pledged to speak out against racism wherever they see it. Since Conversations began, more people are speaking out against racial comments made on local websites, especially on the local newspaper website. The library’s profile has been lifted in the community, since many leaders are now publicly recognizing the role played by RPL in facilitating the conversations. Topics covered in the conversations have ranged from bi-racial marriages to slavery to incarceration, with whites and non-whites coming together to discuss these volatile issues. Meeting room use at our central library and in our branches is increasingly showing use by groups involved in the race discussion, further cementing the library’s role as facilitator of community discussions. Conversations on Race committee members trained docents for a local museum exhibit - Facing Race, Embracing Equality – held at the Rochester Museum & Science Center in 2013. Thousands of Rochester residents and visitors viewed this exhibit, which further contributed to the expanded conversations in the community and strengthening the relationship between the museum and the library.