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Bruce Poinsette of The Skanner News
Published: 14 May 2012

Journalist Michele Norris, at left, signs a copy of her memoir, 'The Grace of Silence,' for Portlander Donna Maxey, at the YWCA Aspire Luncheon last week.

When National Public Radio host Michele Norris came to Portland last Wednesday to address the YWCA Inspire Luncheon, she focused on the pressing issues of racism and domestic violence.

In her keynote speech before the multiracial crowd of YWCA supporters, Norris talked about an online initiative she started called The Race Card Project, in which people literally write their experiences with racism on a digital 'card' – no matter what their racial background is.

In the face of such somber subject matter, the charismatic Norris was moved to break the ice with a seemly random one-liner about cannibalism – one which also served as a telling comment about racial divisions in American society.

"Underneath, we all taste like chicken," Norris said.

The crowd roared.

Intimate, funny, but above all utterly on point about the dangerous realities faced by communities of color and women trapped in violence, Norris' Portland appearance was the perfect highlight for the YWCA's biggest annual event.

Attendees packed the Grand Ballroom of the Downtown Portland Hilton Hotel to raise money for the YWCA and learn more about their work in the community to eliminate racism and empower women; it appeared that virtually every attendee left a financial contribution to the organization at the end of the meal, spurred on to do so by Oregon State Treasurer Ted Wheeler.

YWCA's Work

Before the event, Norris, and Trisha Martin, the head of the YWCA's Domestic Violence Program, sat down with The Skanner News to discuss the group's work with domestic violence survivors.

"We have an emergency shelter which serves over 175 women and children a year," says Martin.

The shelter is named Yolanda's House, after Yolanda Panek, a former YWCA worker who was murdered by her abuser in front of her two-year-old son.

According to Martin, women generally stay in the shelter for 60 days. Workers try to help the women and their families transition into stable housing.

They also accompany women to court and help them apply for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANIF) and domestic violence grants through the state.

Lastly, they provide counseling referrals for children.

"Domestic violence impacts children in many ways," says Martin. "It can be acting out or becoming reclusive. Children don't always have the words to say why they're ill or why they're sick but it's because of what they witnessed."

Martin says the shelter receives funding from the state and county but it's not nearly enough. They depend on the generosity of the community, foundations, corporations and individual donors, she says.

According to Martin, more affordable housing in the community is the priority.

"We are constantly full," she says. "Domestic violence impacts everyone. Every race. Every income level. It crosses all barriers."

The Race Card Project

Norris moved the crowd with her reflections on The Race Card Project, which challenges people to post their thoughts on race in six word "digestible chunks."

The effort was inspired by Norris's 2010 book tour for her memoir, "The Grace of Silence."

She had planned to give audience members postcards to express their thoughts on race in a safe setting, but Norris says she underestimated Americans' willingness to discuss race and found that the cards were unnecessary.

"I wanted to create a way to move the conversation forward," she says. "Now it's become a forum where people can have the candid conversations they don't feel they can have in their own social circle. It's an archive of racial attitudes at a really interesting point in American history."

The project proved so popular that the traffic crashed her website; now she's created a separate website just for The Race Card Project.

Participants can post as many cards as they want. Norris says watching the evolution of people's thoughts fascinates her. For example, if someone posts about what ethnicity he checks off for his child in a survey, she wants to see how that impacts him over the course of his child's school years.

Norris admits that some of the responses can be ugly but says they are necessary to get the full picture.

"If people pull their punches or if people are not allowed to have their say then we're not being fundamentally honest," she says. "If we aren't honest then how do we move forward as a society?"

She picked out one card during her keynote that read, "Race is throwing rocks at kids." Norris says it came from a man who threw rocks at Black children who tried to integrate a school. The man talked of walking around and looking at every Black person's forehead to check for scars because he knew he made contact. At the event where he revealed this story, Norris says two older Black women sat with and consoled him for the rest of the evening.

The Race Card Project receives posts from all nationalities and from countries all over the world. Norris hopes the conversation will migrate to NPR and other mainstream outlets.

Ultimately, she says her efforts come from a strong commitment to understanding history.

"There are a lot of Occupy movements out there," she says. "Occupy your history."

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