SPRINGFIELD - Sometimes, Linda Renehan lost sleep after having difficult conversations about race relations during a recent series of virtual racial healing circles for business owners in downtown Springfield, Ill.
On one hand, Renehan, a 63-year-old white woman raised on a farm, wanted to discuss the racial tensions plaguing the country. On the other hand, she feared saying the wrong thing or being labeled a racist.
"This was something that was mentally hard for me, emotionally hard," said Renehan, owner of Springfield Vintage, a shop specializing in vintage clothing and home decor. "But at the end of it, I know my purpose in it. So that's my good news."
Renehan is one of 15 small business owners that participated in three virtual racial healing circles organized by Downtown Springfield, Inc., (DSI) in conjunction with Innovate Springfield and Springfield Black Chamber of Commerce. The groups used a $5,000 Healing Illinois grant from the United Way of Central Illinois to host the healing circles in February and March 2021. The grant was funded by the Illinois Department of Human Services to promote racial healing throughout Illinois.
"I just thought this was really a great way for people to go deeper into issues," said Lisa Clemmons Stott, a former healing circle participant and executive director of Downtown Springfield, Inc., a nationally accredited Main Street organization and business association committed to revitalizing downtown Springfield, lll. "I feel like small businesses are really the front door of our community … And what better way to start purposely thinking about issues of diversity, equality and inclusion than through a really intense healing circle experience."
The circle participants were of diverse ages and races and from diverse industries. After attending the healing circles, Renehan said she's now educating others in her community about historical acts of racial injustice, such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiment and the destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Okla.
"It made me better at the end of this because all I've done since this was over is ask all my friends: 'Do you know about Black Wall Street… Can you believe that we were never taught this?'. So, I've been out there trying to educate and talk about it, and that's what I can do."
Glenn Jackson, owner of SafetyNet, a consulting firm specializing in the erroneous release of criminal offenders, said that the healing circles, facilitated by "healing ambassadors" from the Illinois Public Health Association, created a unique environment for open dialogue.
"They invited people to speak their mind and not be scared of the circumstances," said Jackson, a 58-year-old Black man. We were advised that this was not a forum where we attack each other but come up with solutions."
Jackson said the healing circle discussions focused on such topics as redlining, criminal justice reform and wage and health disparities. One of his takeaways was realizing that sometimes what might appear to be racist might just be a different viewpoint.
"Sometimes we have to be better at what we claim as racism… embrace it as a learning experience and not be offended that they [Whites] may not see it from the same perspective as we do. However, at the same time, we cannot be afraid to confront people or a culture that demonstrates racist behavior."
The participants of the circles were compensated $75 to attend all three healing circles. Later, circle members decided that they wanted to meet in person and stay in touch. So, a fourth healing circle occurred in person on April 26.
"What we've heard from the participants is that the work has challenged them. It has been difficult, but they feel empowered to keep going through the process," Stott said.
"How hard are you willing to work to become the person you want to be?" asked Renehan, while thinking about the impact of the circle. "It affected me enough that I want to keep thinking and talking about it."