Smith's work goes beyond
reduction of prejudice

The legalistic model of ensuring fair and equitable treatment of racial minorities and other groups has been around for decades. This model has focused largely on using the law to punish people whose prejudices have prompted them to harm others.

Thee Smith, associate professor of religion, believes there is an additional method for reducing prejudice-based acts and speech: reduce the prejudice that prompted it in the first place.

A coalition builder
As director of the Atlanta chapter of the National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI), Smith helps train people interested in prejudice reduction to become facilitators of diversity workshops for various types of organizations, including colleges and universities, churches and corporations.

Smith and his NCBI colleagues function as independent consultants who facilitate workshops, but also collaborate to continue ongoing training of NCBI trainers and support each other's work.

NCBI offers two types of workshops: "Welcoming Diversity and Prejudice Reduction" and "Conflict Resolution." Each workshop lasts an entire day, but half-day sessions can be contracted to clients who need them. NCBI trainers are trained in five-day workshops offered three times a year in Washington, D.C. A three-day version of that session will be offered in Atlanta in late March.

"We are really a leadership development and education organization," Smith explained. "The specific way in which we do leadership development and education is through prejudice reduction and conflict resolution. We train people to lead workshops, not simply because we want to reduce prejudice, but also because standing up in front of a group and helping someone process their prejudices is excellent training for taking on leadership in social change at all levels. So we're not talking about just any and every kind of leadership."

Leading workshops on a continual basis, Smith said, lays the groundwork for a trainer to be able to challenge institutional policies that are based on prejudicial assumptions, for example.

"What is really distinctive about us is that we don't use guilt, blame and shame," Smith said. "We don't do confrontational meetings. We describe prejudice as social conditioning that people get involuntarily when they are at the youngest age and the most impressionable. They are not to be attacked for it. They could not have survived their childhood without getting it and they need help with deprogramming themselves."

To facilitate the deprogramming process, NCBI trainers use interactive exercises that help people come to realize how they became conditioned to feel or think a certain way about a certain group of people. Recordings are made of participants discussing their feelings about the group in question, then the recordings are played back in an effort to help the participants realize how they were conditioned to feel prejudice toward a particular group.

Smith said the workshops' goal of prejudice reduction applies not only to racial prejudice, but also prejudice based on gender, religion, sexual orientation, disability status and other categories.

Once that step is complete, the trainer offers participants strategies for recovering from their conditioning, ways of "reversing it, counteracting it, diffusing it," Smith said. "Then the next step is that the participant could actually become an ally who could intervene whenever they see prejudice being acted out against this particular group."

Because no one who grows up in any society is free of prejudice, Smith said, everyone needs some form of prejudice reduction. "This is a process of building a community who help each other recover from their prejudices so that we can go out and model that and coach others," Smith said.

Walking the walk
The first exposure Smith had to a prejudice reduction-type program came when he was a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, where one of the faculty members had developed a program called "Unlearning Racism." The program was based on the principle that racism was the result of social conditioning and that it could be unlearned using various kinds of exercises.

When Smith came to Emory in 1987, he felt that the University would be a good place for developing a program similar to "Unlearning Racism." In 1991, he learned of the work that NCBI was doing in Boston-including the expansion of "Unlearning Racism" principles to other groups-and that NCBI was looking to start a chapter in Atlanta. After training with NCBI in Boston, Smith sponsored a three-day training session in Atlanta. A chapter was formed from the original group who attended that session, and Smith has served as chapter director ever since.

Conducting NCBI workshops also has affected the way Smith teaches. "I'm much more theory/practice-oriented than I used to be," he said. "I'm also much more aware of the ways in which conventional teaching and education is oppressive to students, the way it stereotypes students as passive objects who have information and data poured into them, as opposed to being participants who actually create learning in any given class. In many ways, the pedagogy of the workshops is becoming the pedagogy of my classes."

Several of Smith's religion colleagues, including Bobbi Patterson, have also become believers in the NCBI model of prejudice reduction. Patterson credited Smith with being "particularly gifted in modeling the hard and exciting work of welcoming diversity. It is often by watching him work and engage others that I have learned the most. He lives
the principle of welcoming diversity every day, and that's unique."

-Dan Treadaway

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