Since wrapping up the final Better Together community engagement sessions in November, the planning committee has been kicking around a variety of ideas on how to keep discussions around tolerance and equity moving forward in Owatonna.
“We had so many great ideas that came from the community members, but when COVID hit, our planning sort of went to the back burner a little bit as priorities in life shifted,” said Rebecca Moore with the Better Together planning committee. “When George Floyd’s death happened and the national dialogue that really brought race and race relations to the forefront emerged, we reconnected and agreed that we need to get something going right now.”
Moore said that the death of Floyd, a Black man who died in Minneapolis while in police custody, hit close to home in Owatonna, both with the proximity to the incident and the multiple protests that took place locally in the aftermath. Because Better Together aims to tackle difficult conversations and help the Owatonna community “be better” and move forward, Moore said it was clear that it was time now to get something in the works again.
“Better Together wants to be a positive impact on the community and bring people together to discuss these issues,” Moore said of the group that launched following a 2019 racial incident at Owatonna High School with the goal of inclusivity and helping residents understand the region’s diverse cultures. “We had the idea of starting a community book club, but wanted to make this as far reaching into our community as possible.”
The Better Together Planning Committee is launching the Community Reading Circles, a community-wide initiative where small groups of five to 10 people read one of the selected books based on the topics of race, white privilege, anti-racism and related topics. The reading circles are open to anybody interested in participating, though Moore said there is a specific emphasis on allies during this first session.
“This first time is really designed to be geared more toward people who need more education on these issues and who maybe aren’t living with these problems in the forefront of their lives,” Moore said. “We wanted to put a focus on that piece, but everyone and anyone is welcome to participate.”
The books selected for the first round of reading circles include “How to be an Anti-Racist” by Ibram X. Kendi, “So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo, “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Beverly Daniel Tatum, and “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander. Moore said that these books were selected as they reflect the current national dialogue.
In the week since announcing the reading circle, Moore said they have already had 25 groups of five or more people sign up. People are welcome to sign up as a group or as an individual to join a group that the Better Together committee selects for them.
“I think it’s really brave to be willing to have these uncomfortable conversations with people you may not know,” Moore said. “All of this requires courage, because these are some courageous conversations.”
Those interested in leading or participating in a reading circle can register by emailing BetterTogetherOwatonna@gmail.com by Wednesday, July 8, with the book they are interested in reading and discussing. The reading groups will begin on Monday, July 13, with a completion goal by Labor Day weekend . Moore said that circles are able to set their own schedule and how they would like to meet to discuss the books, whether it be in person or virtually. Depending on social distance guidelines at the time, the Better Together committee plans to host a summit for all reading circle participants to come together and discuss the different books and resulting conversations sometime in mid-September.
“Our hope is that the reading circles are successful this summer so that we can continue doing them,” Moore said. “Perhaps one every quarter or season of the year, but we want to hit on different issues and topics and keep the conversation going. We’re just getting started her, we want to continue and expand our knowledge and get everyone comfortable talking about these things.”