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Ripple effect: Race exhibit at Missouri History Museum is gone but leaves mark behind

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 2, 2010 - Inside theMissouri History Museum, more than 30 panels, videos and interactive exhibits tell a story about race -- how the very idea isn't based in science; how, at the genetic level, we're all extremely alike; and how the false idea that we are different has shaped generations of Americans, from education to housing to jobs and medical care.

After this weekend, RACE, Are We So Different? leaves St. Louis for its next stop.

Whether the ideas generated and discovered during the last three months leave, too, will be up to those who saw it.

In total, 12,339 people participated in programs connected to the exhibit since last July, with 5,327 tickets for the exhibit sold. Programs included workshops, talking circles, films and guest speakers, including Tim Wise and Sonia Sanchez.

"If you go by the numbers, the numbers are way above what our initial projects were," says Bob Archibald, president of the museum.

But he's more interested in what he saw and heard from people who visited.

"I guess what I saw is just a large number of people entering that space and going through it generally pretty quietly and I think pretty surprised by what they found, and I think pleasantly surprised."

And though it's large, with many ways to connect with and understand race, the underlying message of the exhibit is a simple one.

"Easily, I think the most important message that we want people to get is that race really is a set of ideas about human differences and not the differences themselves that we think we see," says Joseph Jones, project manager with Understanding Race and Human Variation with the American Anthropological Association, who created the exhibit.

To see what kind of an impact the exhibit has made so far in St. Louis, the Beacon spoke with several people involved with the exhibit. In addition to their thoughts about RACE, Are We So Different? we also asked about what needs to happen next in St. Louis.


In 2007, Denise DeCou learned the RACE exhibit was coming to St. Louis. The executive director of the National Conference for Community & Justice of Metropolitan St. Louis was asked to come up with ideas of ways to incorporate diversity training with the exhibit.

From that list, talking circles emerged. The idea -- give visitors to the exhibit the chance to talk about what just they saw, heard and learned.

"And to be able to do that in a space that was safe with a facilitator that would lead the dialogue," she says.

In those circles sat students, teachers, the staffs of companies, the old and the young.

"I don't think that everyone who went was part of the choir," DeCou says.

Yet despite the different places people came from, she continually heard one very simple and powerful observation that visitors made -- race is a social construct, not a scientific fact.

"I think that people were surprised to find that humans are 99.9 percent genetically the same," she says.

And those people weren't just white.

She saw participants take pause as they began processing everything they'd known before about race and social inequities.

"There were these incredible ah-ha moments."

People who normally hadn't thought about the whys behind the differences in access to education, housing and the general inequality of opportunities suddenly were thinking about those exact things with a new frame through which to view them.

Not everyone processed the information the same, though.

"What I observed was that generationally, some people had a much more difficult time with the information than younger people did," DeCou says. "I think they are living in the most global environment now, even if they live in homogeneous communities and go to a homogeneous schools, the bigger world is so much closer."

In total, NCCJ provided 13 facilitators. Since January, two talking circles have been held each week with about 15 people each, plus they've offered training off site, in addition to other program offerings.

Along with personal revelations, DeCou saw a closer relations develop between organizations and agencies in St. Louis that deal with social justice.

"There are great opportunities for organizations to meet and talk about what it is they do," she says, "to really be able to understand what some of the gaps might be."

Moving forward, she hopes to see more collaboration among those organizations.

For individuals, the biggest change could be in how we think about race.

"From a very basic level, there may be a different understanding of what the word means and what power it holds."

On every level, DeCou feels like St. Louis has a great opportunity to use the exhibit as a launch pad for further dialogue and progress with social justice.

"I do believe there's a cost to not doing anything further," she says.

The Teachers

Erica Moore attended the exhibit's preview night and returned to MICDS with an idea -- bring all the faculty back.

"I thought it would be a great learning opportunity," says Moore, director of diversity at the school.

In February, the entire faculty and some staff, a total of 180 people, visited the exhibit for a professional development day and went to a workshop after.

Moore saw the educators able to connect with the material because it came from history, science and anthropology, not emotion.

"If you can show the history and you can show the facts of it, it adds so much credibility to the discussion and it really makes them think differently about it."

For Moore, the day gave everyone the opportunity to challenge their feelings and what they thought they knew previously. The teachers had information they could take back to their classrooms and a perspective that could help them handle questions or situations with students differently, she says.

A parent group from the school also attended the exhibit with their children.

The biggest change now may be on the thought level, Moore (right) says. She'd like to see an anthropology class that deals with some of the issues from the exhibit.

"What I'd like to see next is the discussion continue," she says. That includes in the classroom and the curriculum, helping students think about seeing and acknowledging differences but also similarities.

"My favorite quote from the exhibit is that race isn't how I look, it's what you assign to how I look."


Between 30 and 40 students from McKendree University in Illinois visited the race exhibit, some with Brent Reeves, director of multicultural affairs at the school.

Regardless of their race or background, they had a common response.

"For many of my students, it didn't matter what race they were, they didn't have much of a concept of the fact that race is a social construct and not based in fact," he says.

Seeing the facts and the history, that we all came from the same gene pool, which started in Africa, was a topic the students discussed after the exhibit in talking circles.

After visiting the exhibit, the students went back to school and had to write about what they saw and how they felt about the information.

"How does this make you see the world now, how do you look at the term race now, and what does that mean for you?" Reeves says.

He hopes the result of visiting the exhibit will be a group of students who take a leadership role with what they learned and share it with other students.


Thirty-one leaders in the Diversity Council at Wells Fargo Advisors spent half a day at the exhibit. The ripple went out from there.

"That session was the basis for other sessions where leaders and their teams had the opportunity to take the learning's deeper in our firm," says Niki McCormick, with corporate communications, in an e-mail. "Danny Ludeman (president and CEO, at right) who chairs our Diversity Council attended this event and heard how the experience affected the other leaders from our Diversity Council, which motivated him to make it a firm wide initiative to get all team members involved."

During the training sessions held, employees explored concepts of wealth and education, among other things.

Wells Fargo was the presenting local sponsor the the exhibit and went a step further to pay for the training for nonprofit partners.

"All told, 120 employees from 32 non-profits went through the training," says Teresa Dougherty, vice president of corporate communications, in an e-mail. "So, for our firm, we took a sponsorship opportunity, turned it into an educational employee engagement practice and then took it a step further to our nonprofit communities because we feel so strongly that the issue should be part of a community discussion."


Throughout the exhibits time at the museum, Alex Detrick, assistant director of community education and events, saw community organizations come together as a group to identify key issues that need attention in St. Louis and where to go next.

She saw individuals and families able to talk about what they'd learned in a safe space.

And she saw the employees of companies who participated in trainings break down barriers and talk about things they didn't feel they could before.

Archibald says the museum will continue pushing the conversation forward with exhibits that deal with not just race but gender, as well.

In October, "Home Lands: How Women Made the West," will open at the museum.

Overall, Archibald isn't sure how many of the people who visited the exhibit were people who wanted to know or already knew the information presented, but he did witness a sense of hope and optimism, regardless.

"It gives people a sense that maybe the problems that we face with race and racism can be overcome."