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IWU, Project Oz, YWCA Seek To Foster Racial Healing

YWCA McLean County sign
WGLT file photo
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YWCA was one of three Healing Illinois grant recipients in McLean County.

The state of Illinois has awarded $4.5 million to fund racial healing efforts across the state and to help people of color who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.Three McLean County organizations are among the nearly 180 recipients.

Illinois Wesleyan University, Project Oz, the non-profit for at-risk youth, and YWCA McLean County received funding through the Illinois Department of Human Services.

IWU used its $32,000 grant to host a virtual anti-racism and racial justice workshop featuring the performing arts company BrownBody. The event was part of the university's Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Celebration.

Michelle Gibbs
Credit courtesy
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Michelle GIbbs

IWU assistant professor for theatre arts Michelle Gibbs said the university wants to create more spaces for inclusive expression.

“The grant is meant to speak to all communities in regards to how we acknowledge the reckoning happening across the world on how we deal with violence against the dark body,” Gibbs said. “Having BrownBody come in will really help our students see artistry and how trauma can be not just one of isolation, but one of transgression. We break the bonds that are meant to hold us down.”

IWU is a predominantly white institution. Gibbs said combining racial healing with professional development is essential. BrownBody hosted a joint workshop for students and staff, using storytelling through modern dance, figure skating and theater to help students see how trauma can be processed in a new light.

"The majority of people in that space will be white people, so the opportunity there is to be a part of something they may not traditionally be a part of, but have an opportunity for listening," she said. "It's an opportunity for people to think beyond what they think they know about how Black people respond and traverse racial traumas, so I think that's really good for them."

Project Oz received $40,000 through Healing Illinois. Youth Empowerment Program Director Jay Shannon said the organization will expand training in restorative practices designed to improve and repair relationships between people and communities.

Jay Shannon
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Jay Shannon

“So often when situations of civil unrest and inequality come up, we tend to take young people out of the conversation, which in reality they should be at the forefront with our guidance,” Shannon said. “We want to put them back in the forefront but we want to give them the structure so they can appropriately have the conversations instead of having them however they want.”

After the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police, Shannon witnessed a lot of hurt and frustration from students. Thinking of how past generations have processed racial trauma, Shannon said he was proud to see his students begin to take a stand.

“I saw the frustration and we shared some anger, but slowly and surely I heard them say, ‘Well what can we do next,’ whereas in years past we may not have evolved to the point where we felt we could play a part in changing things. They fell into more hopelessness and they just stayed there,” Shannon said.

He said using listening circles, students and staff are faced with a question, but they can't respond.

“It’s as if we’re passing a talking piece around and without the talking piece you can’t speak. That way, you're forced to digest information instead of just giving out input,” Shannon said. “We want to strengthen that infrastructure and create more environments where listening circles are going on.”

Project Oz launched the first listening circle at Bloomington High School. It started with a small group of teachers who volunteered to take part. Teachers were trained to facilitate circles with larger groups.

Shannon said seeing the ambition of the youth is encouraging, adding witnessing the evolution of turning anger into activism and noting the process of change begins with the youth.

“I've been encouraged to see how many young people have decided they want to play an active part in changing their high schools, junior high schools, looking at the changes at ISU and things being done by the community,” Shannon said. “It's been encouraging that they see the possibilities of change and how they can play a part.”

Project Oz also will host an MLK Healing Illinois poetry contest for junior high and high school students who want to express emotions through spoken word. Students can submit video poetry performances until Feb. 18.

YWCA McLean County will use its $30,000 grant to develop education lessons through an anti-bias curriculum. YWCA staff also will hold bimonthly virtual conversations on racial justice. 

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Tiffani Jackson is a reporting intern at WGLT and a student at Illinois State University's School of Communication. She started working at WGLT in summer 2019.