Battle Creek

Battle Creek’s Truth Racial Healing and Transformation circles do the work of confronting racism

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

If young people are the future, Khyrinn Herring wants to know why they aren’t treated that way.

The 19-year-old Herring who has lived in Battle Creek her entire life, says, more often than not, young people aren’t asked for their opinions on issues such as racism that impact them every bit as much as their older counterparts. Instead, they are faced with condescension and familiar platitudes.

“Parental figures or family members have told us that we’re all too young to understand. That children are to be seen and not heard, which is used to silence us whether we’re deemed old enough or not,” says Herring, a Racial Healing Facilitator and newly named Catalyst coordinator for the Truth Racial Healing and Transformation coalition in Battle Creek. In that coordinator role, she comes up with ideas, sees them through, and works on public relations for the organization. 

Khyrinn HerringUnder the umbrella of Battle Creek’s TRHT coalition, Herring has been giving area youth a safe place to share their thoughts, concerns, and struggles with racism for the past two years. This year’s Youth Summit begins this Saturday and continues for the next four consecutive Saturdays through a virtual platform.

“This will be a safe place for dialog for young people,” she says. “I’m young. I’m 19 and I have a lot to say. We are entering the workforce and we see the same things that everyone else sees and we need a platform to express it in a way that’s beneficial to all of us.”

Among the topics discussed in prior sessions are racism in the schools, how it feels to be a student who looks like them, how they are perceived as part of different sports teams, what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes, the discrimination they have faced, and whatever may be in the news. Herring says there is a lot of flexibility built into the youth sessions.

“We do have some general themes that we came up with, however, we wanted it to be more flexible based on what comes up during the discussions,” Herring says. “It’s in the best interest of the participants to have more free-flowing discussions. Each week we tailor the questions to what the participants want to talk about.”

The sessions are limited to 20 participants each who range between 15 and 20 years of age, all from Battle Creek. Herring says this year’s group, as in the past, is racially balanced, representing diversity, different school districts, gender, and race.

“All being young and Persons Of Color, we’re being faced with twice as many problems, but we’re really not listened to. There’s a lot of fear and tension with things in the news and the protests that happened this summer and fall,” Herring says. “We’re seeing that COVID affects communities of color at a disproportionate rate. But, to speak on that nobody goes to youth to ask our opinion on the matter. There are a lot of things that go on for us and a lot of people wanting to silence us for different reasons. For me personally, it makes me feel that if you’re going to ignore or overlook me, I’m going to make it so there’s no way for you to do that.”

The difficult conversations, the people who lead them

Herring’s passion for her work with TRHT spilled over to her mother, Boonikka Herring, a Battle Creek City Commissioner who became a Racial Healing Facilitator two years ago.

She participated in a rigorous training that went on for months and worked with other facilitators so that she would know what she was talking about and could appropriately handle the conversations that come up. She is one of between 10 and 12 facilitators that are part of the Battle Creek TRHT coalition.

Boonikka HerringDuring the pandemic, they have facilitated Racial Healing Circles via Zoom every other Wednesday. Boonikka Herring says that at any given time there are between 10 and 20 participants.

“They definitely are difficult conversations,” she says. “Topics include trauma and lived experiences and hard stories about the way we were taught or grew up as a child. There are things they see as a parent, student, or employee and how different experiences affect you as a person.

“A lot of the difficult ones involve actual trauma. We always make sure the ones that are extreme cases are referred to licensed therapists or doctors.”

Some of these are people who have been assaulted or attacked or are people involved in riots or violence.

In the Racial Healing Circles, participants agree to disagree; they say that it’s OK to do so and to acknowledge that they may be offended by something another person says.

Boonikka Herring says this agreement is more like a guideline. 

“People have been taught to hate and at some point they realize they’ve been taught to hate,” Boonikka Herring says.

“We try not to tear each other down. It’s a completely safe space so everyone can share,” she says. “Sometimes there are tears and pain but that’s part of the process. You want people to come in and be able to be in a safe space and have difficult conversations.”

For example, her role as a facilitator is especially critical when those conversations involve someone who’s had a bad experience with a police officer and brings this up in front of police officers attending a Racial Healing Circle. She says this creates tension. “Especially when your experience involves a certain person from a certain job description or race type or culture and you have someone in that circle with that job type or from that race or culture. You have to work on listening and move through stuff like that. You have to be vulnerable to talk about this and move past it and heal.”

Work that's peer-led

Rosemary Linares, owner of Cross Movement Social Justice Consulting and co-coordinator for Battle Creek’s TRHT with Kimberly Holley, says when an individual tells them something they’ve never told anyone before or demonstrates authentic emotion about something they hadn’t thought of before facilitators have to be in the moment whether that be in-person or virtual.

“The beauty of what we’re offering through work is that it’s peer-led. We’re not therapists or counselors or trained in psychology,” Linares says. “We can grow individually when we hear stories from others that may appear different to us. We recognize common humanity and really connect in unexpected ways and deepen our relationships with one another.”

Racial healing sign on Christy Road in Battle Creek’s Lakeview School District.Boonikka Herring says when she attended as a participant she built relationships outside of the Healing Circles with people who didn’t look like her and were not from the same background. She says success is difficult to measure, but, “As long as you can change the mind of one person or they can find value or see something different in themselves, it’s working.”

As a facilitator or practitioner, Linares says there has to be a recognition that, “I have my own history with trauma and trauma responses. It starts with understanding my own pain and that’s challenging to do in front of and with others. It’s about recognizing my own trauma responses and how they show up in the moment. Doing this work has been enormously helpful for my own personal development and I’m always going to be learning. This is hard work to heal from trauma.”

 The work has never been more necessary

“I think right now we’re in a racial reckoning in this country,” Linares says. “When we reflect on the insurrection in the Capitol and the role that implicit bias plays, because of that reckoning we are honoring the uprising of racial justice over the summer that catalyzed the momentum of what’s happened over the last 10 years. We are addressing issues like police violence and voter suppression. Now we’re starting to see how events are catalyzing moments and bearing fruit.”

Borrowing from author Ibram X. Kendi, Linares says, “White supremacy in this country is a cancer that has metastasized but it’s not too late to treat it. We are recognizing that the process is going to be long and painful. What we’re seeing is nothing new really, based on the history of this country.”

She says the work TRHT is doing is critical to developing an understanding of how the country gets beyond racial traumas, but she says at an unconscious level there are people who believe that they’re losing a war and would rather see things burn than share power.

“Outwardly, they deny being White supremacists or racists, but cognitive dissonance says otherwise.”

A training Linares recently did with a church group involved all-White participants. Linares says people are yearning for spaces to collectively understand racism and its impact.

“White people just have less racial stamina than People Of Color because they haven’t had to endure generational racial trauma. They want to know what they can do,” she says. “This is about working together. As Fanny Lou Hamer says, ‘No one is free until we’re all free.’”

The demand for her expertise, with her consulting business and TRHT, is at an all-time high. She says this comes as no surprise after living through a year like 2020.

Leadership with both the City of Battle Creek and Calhoun County will be engaging in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion audits this year. This is among the services that Linares offers through her consulting firm. Recommendations will be made based on the results of those audits.

These are newer forms of assessments that take a holistic and comprehensive look at a municipality to determine strengths and opportunities, Linares says.

“Ideally, a client turns that learning into the development of an action plan to advance the work for DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion). Especially since the events of this summer where we saw racial uprising in response to brutal murders, companies, universities, nonprofits, and small businesses are seeing an imperative, morally and economically, to emphasize how White supremacy is rooted in the norms, policies, and practices of organizations,” she says. “We need to have clear roadmaps, otherwise mysterious ideas don’t translate into action.”

Boonikka Herring says, there are many “actors” driving division in the United States. She says some people think if issues surrounding racism aren’t impacting them, they don’t need to care or work to make it right.

“We don’t want division where we’re raising kids or people judging people just because of where they come from or what they look like. We want one community that cares about all people,” she says.

Khyrinn Herring says young people want the same thing and she wants to make sure they are part of the conversation. She says if adults want them to be leaders, they must engage with them and mentor them so they are better prepared when they are asked to step up.

“What I’m using my voice for is to advocate and shine a light on issues that need to be addressed. Five years ago I would have been more easily shutdown or easily dismissed,” she says. “Now, I’m at a place where I’m comfortable speaking up. I want to use that strong personality to help people find their voices. I want to push in the right direction.

“I want people to know if they weren’t seeing enough of youth before, they definitely will now and will be seeing young people as activists.”

Linares says she is very supportive of Khyrinn Herring’s work to bring more young people into the conversation. She says she thinks this is an example of a broader acknowledgment of an intolerance for racial injustice.

“I think more are people getting on board and are recognizing that they have to take action to disrupt White supremacy. Until this country openly recognizes on a large scale what we did and works towards repairing the harm, racism will continue to manifest itself in the ways we’re seeing it,” Linares says.

“I think this work was a long time coming and I want to support it in any way that I can while recognizing the need for multiple approaches and skills. TRHT is building a movement for racial equity and principles that are embedded in the day to day lives of people who live and work in Battle Creek. It’s powerful and necessary work with others.”

About the Healing Heart Photos: As part of National Day of Racial Healing activities in Battle Creek on Tuesday, volunteers held and put up red hearts throughout the city.  The hearts symbolize the commitment to work to end racism.

Photos by John Grap. See more of his work here.

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.