"I don't go to North Portland. I have no reason to go there," said a bearded White man. "I hang out in Lake Oswego, where it's safe."
The comment caused a few jaws to drop in the audience. And while the comment contained undertones of racism, it was meant to shock – the man saying it was playing a character during a skit for The Illumination Project, a group that uses interactive theater to illustrate and help educate people about how to react to racist behavior in society.
The group's seminar was one of many designed to promote racial harmony at the second annual Metropolitan Diversity Institute, a two-day conference aimed at moving beyond the race debate and finding ways to implement racial tolerance into our everyday lives, held April 26 and 27 at Portland State University and Mt. Hood Community College.
This year's conference featured many speakers – known and unknown – including Mohammed Bilal, from MTV's "Real World III: San Francisco," and Daryl Smith, an educator and author of books that highlight the importance of diversity in higher education.
While The Illumination Project represented only a small portion of the conference's events, the themes the project covered represented the conference's overall goals. The project is in its sixth year at Portland Community College, a class coordinated by Jeannie LaFrance, and is based on the Theatre of the Oppressed, a Brazilian-born theatre group by Augusto Boal.
"It's different. It encourages people to think, feel and act about (racism)," LaFrance said. "It comes with a moral … You should do something about racism."
A diverse mix of students come together for LaFrance's productions, to learn how to deal with uncomfortable racial situations. In this case, the students were acting out a scenario depicting the role race played in a classroom theft.
Accusations flew when a White student accuses the only Black student in the class of taking an iPod. Neither the accuser's friend nor the Black teacher speaks out to help calm the situation. And who steps in to create a different situation? The audience. Members of the audience were asked to yell, "stop" when they saw how a situation could be handled differently.
"Down South, racism was in your face," said Valerie Thompson, an African American audience member who participated in the play. "You guys were really good at hiding it."
And not only are the plays written by each class, they are based on the personal experiences of class members. Dave Walters, the play's racist, said he took many of his character's traits from people in his hometown. For the record, Walters says he is not a racist.
Holli Nicknair, conference coordinator from Mt. Hood Community College, says attendees at this year's conference called it a "life changing experience." A diverse crowd of businessmen, educators, students and others attended the event, which Nicknair said helped "create an environment of cross cultural learning." One goal of the event was to create a bridge of contact for the attendees, which also included Portland city staff in the audience and in the presenter's chair.
"Having people from the city makes the bridge even stronger," she said.
The variety of topics covered this year included creating a diverse work environment, communications across cultural lines, unlearning racism and a topic that Nicknair said was different from last year – understanding the differences that exist within the same race and culture.
Next year's conference, Nicknair said, promises to be bigger and better, as well as more interactive.
"What I carried away from this personally … even the people you think you know you don't know," Nicknair said. "I'll be more respectful of everyone. I have more of a desire to look people in the eye."
And as the crowd for the Illumination Project began to leave, LaFrance left them with something to think about.
"It's all of our responsibilities to make a more inclusive environment," LaFrance said.