Confronting Challenging Conversations about Race

Teaching others to manage in-the-moment, face-to-face encounters involving race has been Howard Stevenson’s mission for decades. Now his expertise is sought after more than ever.

Helping young people of color—and their parents, teachers, counselors, and coaches—better handle those heated situations and split-second decisions is the foundation of his Racial Empowerment Collaborative (REC), an umbrella for several programs, including two new summer training workshops.

“The more that young people have strategies for coping with racism or racial rejections, the less likely they are to fall prey to those emotions in those moments,” he says.

Stevenson, who holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and teaches at the Graduate School of Education (GSE) and School of Arts & Sciences, is one of the nation’s foremost experts on issues involving racial stress management.

Based at Penn GSE, REC is the culmination of three decades of his research focused on student, family, and community interactions around race.

“We are trying to address very directly how racism impacts the wellbeing and health of young people and families and neighborhoods,” Stevenson says. “How do you enhance the effects of talking directly about racial matters, giving people tools to navigate difficult moments of racial conflict? We are targeting interaction.”

Stevenson helps leaders around the country manage racial challenges. He works with a wide range of establishments, from urban public schools and selective boarding institutions to law enforcement. Stevenson will share this research in a TEDMED talk in November.

“Schools are running into these problems in ways they can’t ignore. Leaders can’t say ‘we can wait this one out,’” he says, noting that social media has intensified the pressure.

Stevenson has been working for more than 25 years with the local community through places like the Jubilee School, Philadelphia’s Settlement Houses, and the Kingsessing Recreation Center. Through REC, Penn post-doctoral teaching fellows Jason Javier-Watson and Kelsey Jones work with teachers and students in Philadelphia schools as part of their research projects on race.

The terms Stevenson and his team use are “racial socialization,” how to teach others to navigate racial conflict, and “racial literacy,” a set of skills to competently manage those stressful moments.

“The more practice you have at understanding, at making better judgements, at interpreting more accurately the dynamics of racial conflict, the better you are at problem-solving those conflicts,” Stevenson says. “REC is designed to use racial storytelling, literacy, socialization, and mindfulness to reduce the health effects of racism and racial conflict.”

The REC team is receiving an increasing number of requests from schools for their expertise. To help meet demand, Javier-Watson proposed bringing leaders to campus this summer in a new “train the trainer” program.

“We want to reach more people, and we want Penn to be the location,” he says.

At three-day workshops in July and August, Stevenson and his team worked with participants to discover how to best respond in emotional interactions involving race. The goal is to have people take those strategies back to their schools.

One of the first sessions brought together a diverse group of 14 participants: White, Black, Hispanic men and women, ranging in age from their 20s to 60s, coming from Binghamton and Rochester, N.Y., Cherry Hill, N.J., as well as Philadelphia. Teachers, counselors, coaches, consultants, they shared personal racial encounters and challenged each other while playing out the real-life scenarios.

“How do you feel?” Stevenson, Jones, and Javier-Watson would ask them. On a scale of 1 to 10, how intense was the feeling? Where in the body were they feeling the emotion? What thoughts did they remember in the moment of the conflict? What could they say to positively handle the situation?

“Most people feel the most stressed and feel most helpless during those face-to-face racial encounters,” Stevenson says. “These can happen in one to two minutes and people can make very bad decisions that are often threat reactions rather than healthy decisions.”

Practicing these types of conversations, and ways to respond, are part of the training sessions. Rarely do individuals practice negotiating racial encounters.

“What we are hoping for is that they go from not being able to get the words out to saying to the other person, ‘I don’t understand’ or ‘I don’t feel good about what you are saying,’” says Jones, who earned her Ph.D. at GSE. “We tell them ‘What’s okay is feeling what you are feeling. What’s not okay is to ignore it.’”

The Collaborative launched as an umbrella organization in 2014 to encompass the many programs led by Stevenson and his team, including Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools, Preventing Long-Term Anger and Aggression in Youth (PLAAY), and Engaging, Managing, and Bonding through Race (EmbRACE).

They are also managing ongoing intervention programs in Philadelphia. Jones is collaborating with a science teacher in The Workshop School in West Philadelphia to incorporate racial literacy in the curriculum, while also gathering data for research. This fall, Javier-Watson will start a new program in three Mastery Charter schools in Philadelphia to teach the PLAAY model.

“I am motivated to help teachers build better relationships with all students, but particularly students of color,” Javier-Watson says.

Several other research projects at REC are also underway. In the Raising Our Offspring Together Every Day (ROOTED) project, post-doctoral fellow Shawn C.T. Jones is investigating how African American families navigate the racial socialization of their Black children. He is currently recruiting for the study, which will focus on families with varying backgrounds, including single-parent, intergenerational, interracial, and gay and lesbian couples. “We want to understand the successes and challenges parents endorse regarding this process, as well as the nature of the between-parent dynamics,” says Jones.

Grant-giving became a new dimension of REC this year, as the group was designated a national office of Forward Promise, launched with a $12 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Forward Promise will be awarding two-year grants of $150,000 to $450,000 to established agencies improving the health of boys and young men of color, and their families and communities. The effort also will focus on how racial groups are different, and need their own customized and targeted communications and advocacy.

“Racism is a key issue. Forward Promise allows us to move beyond more than one racial group and move toward intersectionality,” Stevenson says. “We will be addressing trauma and healing.”

Howard Stevenson is the Constance Clayton Professor of Urban Education in the Graduate School of Education and Professor of Africana Studies in the School of Arts & Sciences.

Related topic: Stevenson offers advice on talking with children after racial incidents.

Photo: Based at Penn’s Graduate School of Education, REC is the culmination of three decades of Howard Stevenson’s research focused on student, family, and community interactions around race. One of the intervention programs uses basketball to create stressful encounters as a way to practice how best to manage those situations.

Story Photo