How Workshop Dialogue Empowers Understanding

5 min read

| By Andrea Blackman, Special Collections Division Manager, Nashville Public Library
& Tasneem G. Tewogbola, Program Coordinator, Nashville Public Library |
| 2017 Gale/LJ Library of the Year |


We never know how dialogue will flow during a Civil Rights & Civil Society (CRCS) workshop. Before each session, we spend hours planning and visualizing. Then, we surrender to fate.

During workshops, many participants come to the conclusion that there are people and neighbors living in separate, unequal Americas.

Take, for example, the older white man from a recent workshop who introduces himself and says, “The Alabama I grew up in was wonderful. We didn’t have any problems. Everyone got along.”

Then take the older black woman who, sitting beside him, begins to fidget. Her shoulders bounce as her eyes dart around the room.

“Really?” she says, turning to her table partner. “I’m from Alabama, too. And the Alabama I grew up in was full of problems.”

No one speaks. After a beat, the man chuckles and says, “Well, tell me about your Alabama, and I’ll tell you about mine.”

The room of about 30 participants releases an uneasy exhale. We inhale and give the facilitator an “all-is-well” smile as another two-hour-long CRCS session begins with an invitation to absorb the impact of discomfort and deliberate conversation. CRCS is about discomfort. It’s about dialogue. It’s about inhaling, exhaling, and stepping in.


Three years ago, our team at Nashville Public Library’s Special Collections department created CRCS to initiate discussions about race and civic responsibility—topics that few people volunteer to talk about.

Rooted in stories of Nashville’s prominent role in the Civil Rights Movement, we use CRCS to spark critical dialogue on the links between historic and contemporary issues of injustice.

Metro Nashville Police Department Recruits

What began as a seminar for local Metro Nashville Police recruits to help them grasp the history of the city they protect and serve, is today an award-winning, nationally recognized experience for anyone willing to examine racism and bias from a historical and contemporary lens.

To date, more than 6,000 patrons have experienced the two-hour long engagements. Sound intriguing and meaningful? It is, but this is not “kumbaya” work.

When facilitated with grace, humility, awareness, and curiosity, race discussions can improve communication, create kinship, and elevate harmony. But, when pocked with misinformation, anguish, and insensitivity, race talks can increase antagonism and cultural disconnect. This work must be pursued with sensitivity, research, and rigor before the first ice-breaker activity or group exercise is even considered.

We ask our participants to unveil beliefs and biases that few people are accustomed to sharing out loud. We also ask them to look beyond our deeply rooted regional identity to one that reflects economic, social, and international development.


No longer just “Music City” or the “Athens of the South,” today’s Nashville is just as much a city of barbecue and hot chicken as it is of falafel and churros. Dialogue reinforces the inevitability of change and the value of viewing identity transitions as meaningful transformation. And so we invite our guests to gaze beyond surface history lessons.

Citizens Academy & Father Ryan High School Faculty

Using photographs from our Civil Rights collection, we ask questions to drive discussion. One image shows a man being yanked from a lunch counter during a 1960 sit-in demonstration. Another shows a woman, her mouth open wide in anguish as a police officer’s baton presses into her temple. And another shows a mother, her face stone and steel as she walks two 6-year-olds past jeering crowds on the first day of school desegregation in Nashville. Our questions might include:

  • What looks familiar?
  • If you could go back in time, who would you have been in that photo?
  • Whose responsibility is it to carry the burden of protesting social injustice?

After three years of facilitation, we’ve learned to allow silence. Between silences come personal stories—spoken and written.

  • “My white teachers wouldn’t teach me,” says one elderly woman, describing the negative aftermath of integration.
  • A fifth-grader asks, “Why didn’t the parents just stop all the racism?”
  • A guest from Ireland compares American civil rights to Catholic-Protestant turmoil.
  • Another visitor from South Africa wonders aloud if the word “apartheid” is used to talk about segregation.


In every session, listening becomes the passport to the type of cultural exploration that confronts stereotypes and incites introspection. We carry passports, too.

Our work cuts a path to teamwork as facilitators. We remind one another of the various dimensions of facilitated discussions. We insert our personal stories when appropriate and test the limits of our shared vulnerabilities.

Often, when a session ends, we are wired and eager to share insight. We review moments of connection and discuss what worked well and what did not. We discuss new films to share, different questions to ask, fresh ways to spark conversation, nuanced paths around disabling anger and sadness.

We become what we hope to inspire: a team dedicated to conversations that build our communities, enhance our library, and empower ourselves.

For more information contact: [email protected] and/or [email protected]

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