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Elon's Race Card Project seeks to spark conversations about race

The project includes an installation in the Isabella Cannon Room in the Center for the Arts that will be on display through mid-February. 

An installation in the Isabella Cannon Room in Elon's Center for the Arts seeks to use just a few words to spark conversations about experiences and thoughts about race in this country. 

Students read through submissions for Elon's Race Card Project installation that is now on display in the Isabella Cannon Room in the Center for the Arts. 

Through Elon's Race Card Project, the walls of the room are now covered in cards inscribed with just six words each — a distillation of each author's thoughts, experiences and observations about race into a handful of words. Elon undertook the project in collaboration with the Race Card Project, an initiative launched by former NPR correspondent Michelle Norris to help generate discussions and reflections about the impact of race on society.

Elon undertook its own version of the Race Card Project as an "On Location" partner in conjunction with Norris's planned visit to campus. Norris had been scheduled to deliver a lecture about the project and her first book, "The Grace of Silence," at Elon on Jan. 10 but was unable to make the trip after receiving a special invitation to attend President Barack Obama's farewell address in Chicago the same night. 

Terry Tomasek, associate professor of education and director of the Elon Academy, and Cristina Vega, community director for the Colonnades Neighborhood, took the lead on Elon's own Race Card Project to dovetail with the planned visit by Norris. Specially printed cards offering Elon students, faculty and staff were distributed throughout campus, and members of the Elon community were also invited to offer their six words through the main Race Card Project website

The project asks participants to submit thoughts, experiences or observations about race in six words written on a card, with the cards now on display. 

"We started last summer looking at pre-visit activities that could start us thinking about the work that Norris has been doing with the Race Card Project," said Tomasek, who is also faculty director for the Colonnades Neighborhood. "Cristina and I were  thinking about a more hands-on component to complement what as being collected online."

A specific focus was on reaching out to each of Elon's residential neighborhoods to encourage involvement, with the cards collected throughout the fall semester. The Race Card Project displays the virtual cards on its website, and the goal was to find a way to recreate that on campus, Tomasek said. The Isabella Cannon Room in the Center of the Arts, where Norris was scheduled to speak, was a natural fit. "We wanted to put them up on campus for anyone to see," she said. 

Despite the disappointment that Norris would not be able to visit Elon, the decision was made to proceed with displaying the results of Elon's project, and encouraging continued participation. Visitors to the room, which will be open on Mondays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., are offered the opportunity to write their own six words that will then be displayed as part of the installation.

The installation will be open for public display on Mondays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., with visitors invited to submit their own cards for inclusion in the project. 

​"I think our main goal is to continue the conversation about race that is happening across campus in different formats," Vega said. "These conversations are happening all the time — we just don't see them."

Tomasek and Vega have read through each of the dozens of cards that have been submitted so far, both on campus and through the website. Tomasek said she knows "less than I thought I knew before I started" about the overarching conversation about race, but feels that that's part of the point of having these thoughts and experiences on display. 

"I think one of the difficulties is we often generalize," Tomasek said. "That's the way our brains work. That's the way we try to figure complex things out. But in that generalizing, we lose the nuances and the complexity of who we are as a people."

The project will open to the public Thursday, Jan. 12, following a private reception to mark its launch on Tuesday night. Elon professors can schedule class visits to view the installation outside of the hours it will be open to the public by contacting Patti Gibbons

Owen Covington,
1/11/2017 8:35 AM