ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Talking about race can be hard, and Susan Glisson urges people to go there anyway. She's starting candid discussions in communities with complicated racial legacies. All this month we're introducing you to inspiring people who break through barriers to change the world around them. We're calling them bound breakers. NPR's Debbie Elliott introduces us to our next bound breaker.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Susan Glisson stands on the campus of the University of Mississippi near a 1906 Confederate memorial that has long been at the center of racial strife here.
SUSAN GLISSON: There's a soldier on top. There's a - the stars and bars.
ELLIOTT: The statue was a rallying point for a white mob opposing integration in a deadly 1962 riot. Decades later when Glisson was a graduate student, she recalls being on this same circle during dueling protests over the practice of flying Confederate battle flags at Ole Miss football games.
GLISSON: And they were trying to tell me that, you know, black people just needed to get over slavery. And I said, well, how about you first? When are you going to get over the Civil War? Having that kind of interaction, I'm not going to change his mind. He was going to change my mind. It's arguing in this space where I started to figure out that what we ought do is to sit down and have a respectful conversation.
ELLIOTT: But Glisson says it's easier to fight over divisive symbols.
GLISSON: They're surrogates for the other conversation that we're afraid to have about race.
ELLIOTT: Now she tries to get people digging deeper as a way to chip away at mistrust and racial barriers that have been fortified over generations. One of the first places she went was to Philadelphia, Miss., where the Ku Klux Klan killed three civil rights workers and beat up local activists in 1964.
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JEWEL MCDONALD: It seemed like it was just yesterday. And I was 18 years old. And just seeing my mom and my brother being, bloody, you know? It was - it's just something that you just don't want to see.
DEBORAH POSEY: I did not think that there was people in this county that wanted justice.
ELLIOTT: Jewel McDonald, who is black, and Deborah Posey, who is white, share their memories in this 2004 gathering of the Philadelphia Coalition, a local group that called for justice after decades of silence in the community about the murders. Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen was convicted a year later.
Susan Glisson at the time was founding director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at Ole Miss, an effort launched as part of President Clinton's initiative on race. She was a student of the civil rights movement and says she modeled the work on principles used by SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
GLISSON: Whose work in Mississippi was very much about empowering local leaders.
ELLIOTT: Her conversation starter is SNCC's Story Circle where people gather round and respond to a prompt.
GLISSON: One we start with often is, tell a story about the first time you noticed race as the elephant in the room.
ELLIOTT: Recently retired from Ole Miss., she and her life partner Charles Tucker now consult with major corporations, police departments and public institutions to foster racial dialogues.
CHARLES TUCKER: Work ourselves out of a job - that's our ultimate goal.
ELLIOTT: Tucker is black and from the Mississippi Delta. Glisson is white and grew up in rural Georgia. So they bring different cultural experiences to bear.
TUCKER: You know, you tell somebody, we're going to talk about race, the first thing that's going to jump their mind is, we're going to have shouting match.
ELLIOTT: But there's no shouting at what they call the welcome table, a kind of deconstructed truth and reconciliation process. It's spread from Mississippi to New Orleans, Birmingham and Columbia, S.C.
GLISSON: Good morning.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good morning.
GLISSON: How's everybody doing?
ELLIOTT: On a recent Saturday morning at the University of South Carolina, Glisson convenes a welcome table on campus. Her ponytail is pulled through a baseball cap with the logo love heals.
GLISSON: So we're going to get into your pair facilitator group. The task is going to be to conduct a story circle.
ELLIOTT: She's here to train this team of faculty members who will take the welcome table model into communities throughout the state. David Snyder and Alicia Anderson-Brown are trying to come up with a new prompt.
DAVID SNYDER: Somebody close to you...
ALICIA ANDERSON-BROWN: What about just, when was the first time you noticed race as a issue in your family? It could be with a cousin. It could be with anybody, just anything.
ANDERSON-BROWN: That adds a spin to it at least.
SNYDER: Yeah, but maybe the last time you noticed...
SNYDER: ...Could be people to an honest place quickly.
ANDERSON-BROWN: I'm OK with that, too.
ELLIOTT: Members of the circle get two minutes to reflect on the last time race was an issue. There are stories of a slight at a dinner party, offensive posts on social media and a comment about lighter skin tone and sleek hair. Moryah Jackson says it was hard to pick just one story.
MORYAH JACKSON: Those conversations constantly come up. And so I mean I have a ton more now that I think about it - just ineractions with race in the past week.
ELLIOTT: University of South Carolina president Harris Pastides says he was drawn to the welcome table model.
HARRIS PASTIDES: Because it was not superficial, not a one-time let's all come together for one meeting, pat ourselves on the back, say we've got to change and then go home.
ELLIOTT: The University launched its collaborative on race and reconciliation in the wake of the mass shooting at a historic black church in Charleston last year. Chief Diversity Officer John Dozier says Glisson is a good fit here. He points to the similar racial histories of Mississippi and South Carolina.
JOHN DOZIER: The slave past of the Southeast very specifically - and so that commonality in finding ways that we can then bring people together in a space so that we can really then start having these conversations...
ELLIOTT: Charleston native Bud Ferillo is helping coordinate the project. He says it took the shock of a racially motivated killing to open the dialogue here.
BUD FERILLO: Black folks in South Carolina have been waiting for this conversation for 350 years, and white folks in South Carolina in my - on my mother's side date back to the founders of Charleston who brought slavery to South Carolina don't want to talk about it at all.
ELLIOTT: Susan Glisson says there are typically people who question the wisdom of opening up old wounds and others who call for a more confrontational approach.
GLISSON: I wish I had a dollar for every time a community leader told me talk is cheap. We've had too much talk. Only cheap talk is cheap. We don't speak purposefully, intentionally, thoughtfully, lovingly. We don't stop to listen and understand what other people are going through. And when we do that, that's when transformation happens.
ELLIOTT: Why do you do this?
GLISSON: The simple answer is that my mother taught me to leave places better than I find them.
ELLIOTT: Glisson says we can't have a national conversation on race until we learn to talk to and trust each other on a more intimate level. Debbie Elliott, NPR News.
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