The Christian tradition of “pounding” began in the 19th century. When people moved into town or a wedding occurred, community residents gave the newcomers or newlyweds one pound of household items like flour or butter.
The practice rarely occurs anymore, but Selika Ducksworth Lawton is hoping two book groups can evoke similar feelings of community, with people offering a small part of themselves to benefit others.
Ducksworth Lawton, a UW-Eau Claire history professor, is facilitating the weekly book groups focusing on racial inclusivity that began last week for university faculty and staff. Two sections of 20 employees will meet weekly for one hour over three weeks. One cohort is reading and discussing “How To Be An Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi and the other is focusing on “Two-Faced Racism” by Leslie Houts Picca and Joe Feagin.
Kendi’s book focuses on defining facets of racism and how to actively work against them as individuals and at the policy level. Houts Picca and Feigin hone in on the differences between how white people discuss racial matters in public and private settings, using the journal entries of hundreds of college students as evidence. The topics are particularly relevant in light of two racist incidents that occurred at UW-Eau Claire last semester, with a message targeting a Native American student and a Snapchat conversation aimed at members of campus group Black Male Empowerment.
Ducksworth Lawton is also vice president of Uniting Bridges of Eau Claire, the organization that aims to expand into monthly book groups in the Chippewa Valley this year, beginning in February. Each month will include a book about marginalized people such as African Americans, Hmong people, Native Americans, military veterans and people with disabilities.
The overarching goals involve hosting informed discussions about racial issues and having authentic conversations to strengthen relationships.
“The best way to build a community is to begin to articulate shared values and a shared standard of behavior, a shared standard of civility that we expect,” Ducksworth Lawton said. “Everyone has some form of marginality that we can talk about and find common cause.”
Ducksworth Lawton wants to focus on outcomes-based solutions, which entails bringing people together across class, racial, gender and political divides to discuss practical ideas.
“This is what more democracy looks like, when people come together and put their shared humanity on the table to work for the good of the whole community,” Ducksworth Lawton said.
Ducksworth Lawton said challenges to reaching the wider community include funding to provide enough books and the willingness of people to read hundreds of pages of difficult literature.
She hopes the book groups will help bridge the “town-gown divide” between academics and their community.
“This community is undergoing dislocating change, and we need to find ways to create unity even as this change occurs,” Ducksworth Lawton said. “I see these books and discussion groups as not just strengthening our community, but being a model for how we go forward in a highly uncertain world.”
That work began this month on a small scale at the university, where the Center for Excellence Teaching & Learning is providing the books and discussion space for faculty and staff.
The CETL began hosting book groups in 2018 and has held sessions during January winterim, summer and spring and fall semesters. Previous titles include “The 57 Bus” and “The Hate U Give.”
CETL Director Angie Stombaugh said the book groups can ideally increase awareness, give people time to reflect on their biases and consider the experiences of people from different races.
Ducksworth Lawton aims to improve the campus culture and help students respond to racist incidents in a more informed, disciplined manner.
“Faculty and staff are the front lines, and we are the ones who need to distill this knowledge,” Ducksworth Lawton said. “We want to prepare our students for handling provocative speech, and by provocative I mean insults, name-calling … That’s a skill they will need the rest of their lives.”
To aid in that area, Stombaugh and CETL Associate Director Cindy Albert can assist faculty and staff to incorporate inclusive teaching methods. Albert said some teachers mistakenly think they need to make full-scale changes to lead more inclusive classrooms. In reality, a large portion involves professors acknowledging different perspectives and being aware of the narratives they choose to provide about a given topic.
“It’s being mindful about the things you implement and how you engage the students with the content,” Albert said.
Albert said it can be difficult to immediately measure the impact or know how much of the discussions people are incorporating into campus life, but they must keep working on things in order to create the possibility for improvement.
Stombaugh and Albert said they have learned a lot over the past couple years from talking with colleagues during the book groups. Stombaugh said one major takeaway is that all people have biases and must address where they fall short, something she didn’t often think about until recently.
“I can have biases and still be a good person,” Stombaugh said.
Albert and Stombaugh said the ongoing discussions have made them more confident to address people who do harmful actions and say hurtful words.
“The sessions have given me permission to push back on things that I was always like, ‘Oh, I should say something,’ but I never did,” Stombaugh said. “We didn’t know what to say or how to do it, and that has definitely changed my behaviors. There are still days where I’m like, ‘I should have said this,’ but there are more days where I’m pushing (back).”
Ducksworth Lawton hopes the book groups can lead to similar self-evaluation and progress.
“People are going to have to engage in topics that make them uncomfortable or that they may feel like they would prefer to avoid,” Ducksworth Lawton said. “We can’t avoid them anymore.”
Like “pounding” more than a century ago, Ducksworth Lawton aims to assist people in forming more personal connections with fellow community members.
“Let’s get people out of their geographic comfort zones and let’s challenge people’s assumptions about who their neighbors are and what their neighbors’ limitations are,” Ducksworth Lawton said. “We need to be connected to each other and we need to be together.”