Uncomfortable Conversations: Staff and board at UMA take on race and social justice through internal dialogue

Guillrmo Hamlin, UMA Government Access Coordinator (left) with Terlonzo Amos, UMA Director of Operations during a staff social justice conversation.

By Saliha Bayrak

As the nation rose to voice their indignation and call for an end to racial injustice following the murder of George Floyd, Urban Media Arts (UMA), joined thousands of organizations across the country and made a statement of solidarity to champion the Black Lives Matter movement.

The staff at UMA (formerly MATV) did not want this statement to be a momentary and hollow expression of support without any actions to succeed it. In the months that followed, staff members began to have periodic meetings and discussions to address issues of race, injustice, and inclusivity, guided by the belief that every course of action begins with a conversation.

Terlonzo Amos, the Director of Operations at UMA, believes there is an urgency to have these conversations now due to the recent blatantly unjust events that occurred throughout the nation.

“These problems have always been in the Black and brown community…since 1619,” said Amos. “For those that may not have believed that these things were happening…a light was shown on it.”

Ron Cox, UMA Executive Director (left) with Terlonzo Amos, UMA Director of Operations.

Amos often leads these conversations among the other staff members, drawing from his own experiences as a Black man in America. He made it clear to them in the very beginning that these would not be easy conversations to have.

“These conversations are going to get uncomfortable, and they’re going to have to be uncomfortable,” said Amos.

He also made it clear that he openly welcomed questions that were directed at him by staff and the feelings of embarrassment that often accompanied them.

“If someone’s going to ask a question, and they don’t know how to ask it cause they’re embarrassed. That’s a good thing…hopefully you can learn something from my answer,” said Amos.

Although each staff member had a unique experience in participating in these conversations, there was unanimous agreement on the significance of having them.

Anne D’Urso-Rose, the Associate Director at UMA, believes the organizations mission in having these conversations is to create “cross-cultural, interracial dialogue…dialogue across differences of all types” and better understand “what systemic racism and how we all play a role in it.”

“Only through dialogue can people find common ground or shared experiences,” said D’Urso-Rose.

The staff of UMA during a conversation on race and social justice.

Ose Schwab, Director of Membership and Marketing, noted the importance of using conversation to get to the sources of racial injustice and one’s own racial biases.

“There are two parallel stories about racial injustices; one is the white experience and the white story, one is the Black story,” said Schwab. “As we unravel the Black story, we have to unravel the white story.”

Masio Dotson, the Volunteer and Intern Coordinator at UMA, had some moments of concern and frustration when these conversations first began to take place.

“My one worry was I didn’t want this to be a fad…for the moment,” said Dotson.

As a Black man, Dotson observed many people’s difficulty in comprehending the issues that Black people face within the country. However, he came to understand the importance of bringing his perspective to the table.

“A lot of people are just unintentionally ignorant…it’s easier for people to check in and check out of situations because they don’t necessarily affect them,” said Dotson. “But I’m beginning to realize that everybody has different things that are at the forefront.”

Masio Dotson, UMA Outreach and Volunteer Coordinator (left) with Terlonzo Amos, UMA Director of Operations.

The conversations were originally intended for staff members, but were recently extended to include board members, who meet separately with Amos as the facilitator. UMA hopes to further extend them to the community of Malden.

Ari Taylor, the Board President, believes these conversations are great first steps to creating an antiracist culture at UMA and Malden as a whole.

“I’m ecstatic that the board has really taken to these conversations and wants to grow and learn together to create this culture, and I really hope we can bring this to the community,” said Taylor.

In the future, Taylor hopes that these discussions dismantle the idea that racism is purely a conscious decision, something that is manifested only in physical and violent ways, and therefore the majority of the population is not complicit.

“We all have a lot of work to do as far as ensuring that we recognize our own biases,” said Taylor. “Unfortunately, our society has made us racist…and a lot of times it isn’t consciously.”

Staff and Board members alike agree that becoming conscious of racism through conversation is a great first step, but not sufficient alone.

“We’re not going to solve anything with just having a few conversations about this…it’s all about what you do with this information, how you act going forward,” said Amos.

One issue on the mind of many staff members is inclusivity. As a media organization, UMA tries to represent and amplify the voices of marginalized groups, and facilitate dialogue among different parts of the community.

Malden has a diverse population, with 52.9% of the population being non-White (non-Hispanic) and a large populations of those with Asian, Black, and Hispanic heritage. “It’s a cool bragging right that Malden houses all these communities,” said Dotson. However, “you would never know that unless you are in Malden, it’s still very, very segregated in a lot of different ways.”

Schwab notes the reasons that these problems, such as diversity and unity, may exist within the organization and community. “It is strategic, thoughtful planning that is missing, not a lack of desire, which is what we’re trying to change” said Schwab.

UMA is a collaborative partner for Malden Reads, whose 2021 program will feature a community anti-racism workshop held in collaboration with MaldenCORE. Click on the image for details and to apply.

Some of the steps that UMA is taking is to help initiate and support the collaboration between Malden Reads and Malden Community Organizing for Racial Equity (MaldenCORE) on an anti-racism workshop series tied in with the themes of this year’s Malden Reads book selection, “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah. Held in collaboration with the City of Malden, this workshop asks participants to personally reflect on their own contributions to systemic racism, conscious or unconscious, using the book “Me and White Supremacy” by Layla F. Saad as a guide.

Beginning on Feb. 22, UMA is also participating in the Innovation and Learning Network, offered through the Massachusetts Cultural Council, to receive training on Universal Design and accessibility practices in programming, marketing and technology, with a project being implemented upon completion of the training.

As issues of inclusivity and injustice are continuing to be addressed, staff and board at UMA believe that the actions being taken in the present moment create a path towards improvement. “Once we break the barriers of having uncomfortable dialogue and uncomfortable conversations…a lot of people will be able to grow” said Dotson.

Former UMA staff member Hailey Hao sharing a story during a staff social justice conversation.

Amos hopes that it can create permanent changes to the way that people think and act.

“All because it doesn’t happen in your community, all because you do not see it, that does not mean that it doesn’t exist,” he said.

Below, a padlet created by the UMA staff that collects links to articles, videos, podcasts and other media to serve as shared “food for thought” and help inform the staff’s social justice conversations

Made with Padlet

Saliha Bayrak is a journalism major at UMass Amherst currently interning at UMA- Urban Media Arts.

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