J.C. Faulk had been a diversity consultant for more than 20 years, mostly on the corporate level, when one day he decided to use his talents in a different way. Faulk said, “I would walk into corporate environments, knowing that it was likely that they were checking a box to have me there. It did not sit well with me, because I wanted to something to change.”
In 2015, he decided to facilitate open discussions about race and racism in Baltimore. He invited a few people over to his home for a conversation about the impact of racism. This dialogue took place in his living room. He called the discussion, “Circles of Voices.”
“Twelve people attended the first one. Sixteen came to the second event. Twenty came for the third, and it was getting too big for my living room,” Faulk said, since then, he has hosted Circles of Voices in art galleries and other meeting spaces throughout the city, hosting 40 to 120 people per session. Nearly 2000 participants have attended Circles of Voices events over the past twenty-one months.
The topics of discussion include race, trans-phobia, patriarchy, sexism, class issues and other difficult topics that harm our city.
“The idea is to have people engage things that they would ordinarily be afraid to talk about in front of other people,” Faulk said, “We never know who is going to show up, so it’s about creating a space that is safe for everyone.” Feeling safe is an important part of Faulk’s fellowship, An End to Ignorance/Circle of Voices, because he deliberately nudges participants to step outside of their comfort zones.
“I have people look around the room, and I tell them to find someone who is somewhat unlike them, that they don’t know. Then, I ask them to sit with that person. I might ask a question like, “What happens when we ignore the pain of another?” I give them three minutes to talk and three minutes to listen.” Faulk says, “I watch as they build relationships through this simple exercise that I have named CoV6.” Such relationship building is important everywhere, especially in a city such as Baltimore where we have seen so much pain over the last year.
“America has race problems, but Baltimore has a special kind of problem,” Faulk says. “Poor black people live on one side of the tracks and more affluent, primarily white people live on the other side. There is deeply embedded racism here. It will not end until people get to know each other!”
The reaction to his Circles of Voices has been overwhelmingly positive. One woman who recently participated in a discussion about patriarchy came up to him afterward and said, “I feel like this has changed me.”
“A lot of times, when you’re doing work around diversity, progress is not something you can measure quantitatively, but you can evaluate it by the feedback from participants,” Faulk says.
Circles of Voices has grown steadily, especially since the death of Freddie Gray, Faulk says. He will use his OSI-Baltimore fellowship to increase the presence of Circles of Voices in and outside of Baltimore.
“This is important work. The world looks crazy right now, yet as bad as it appears, there are good people, sitting on the sidelines, afraid or not knowing what to do to change the narrative. It is the ongoing mission of Circles of Voices to diminish the impact of isms, while creating safe spaces for participants to tackle centuries old issues that stand in the way of Baltimore and America being what we can be. We have a long way to go.
Listen to Faulk talk about Circle of Voices on WYPR’s On the Record.