Conversation Starters

Verta Maloney (left) and Heather Ouida (right) photographed at Heather’s home; photo by Ali Smith

Venturing into any candid conversation about race is certainly not for the faint of heart. This is especially true when the conversation takes place in a public and interracial setting. Yet, this is precisely what two dynamic New York City mothers decided to do.

“I think that moms and women change the world every day,” declares mom-of-two Verta Maloney in her confident, soft-spoken manner.

Her statement aptly describes the journey she and fellow city mom Heather Ouida have embraced in exploring issues of race among their peers and with their own sons.

At first glance, Verta and Heather could be any pair of urban friends. Equally intelligent and charming, these women finish each other’s sentences, and share similar tastes in cocktails, literature, and humor. They even share a professional background in education—Heather (who is also the co-founder of the parenting resource website Mommybites) was a special needs teacher for many years and Verta, a former principal, now works for an education non-profit (and is also an accomplished writer and photographer; learn more about her at vertaayanna.com).

However, for all of their similarities, the bond between these two women is built on their roles as mothers of two young teenage boys. The women met when Heather’s son, Christopher, 14, started attending the same school in grade 4. It was then that he met Verta’s son, Nolan, also now 14 (both women also each have a 10-year-old). The boys became fast friends and a friendship between Heather and Verta soon followed.

That was in 2011, when their sons were younger and several years before a myriad of current race-related issues and events came to dominate national and local headlines. You know some of the flashpoints: Ferguson. Baltimore. New York City. Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. The #BlackLivesMatter movement. The critical and popular success of Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ scathing reflection on growing up black in America, written in the form of a letter to his teenage son. In their own thoughtful and purposeful way, Verta and Heather responded to these flashpoints by taking their own private conversations on issues of race and figuring out how to deepen discussions about these issues with friends, family, and their own children.

Her own life experiences as a black woman and mother, in concert with these conversations, inspired Verta to start a group at her son’s school, Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School, for parents to openly discuss race related issues, called Courageous Conversations About Race.

[Editor’s note: To better understand how their conversations have shaped their perspectives—and inspired in part by Coates’ memoir—we asked both moms write their own letters to their sons. See below.]

For Verta, the increased prevalence of cases such as Martin’s and Brown’s in the media—both reported in the news and discussed and shared on social media—meant that she had to start talking about the violent realities of race in America with her children earlier than she expected. “As black people, we have always been painfully aware of racially motivated violence. It’s part of the fabric and history of this country and our lives. Cell phone cameras and Twitter and CNN are just confirming what we’ve always known and bringing it into the larger consciousness,” she explains. “Each morning, I would get [my son] and let him know that there might be things people were going to talk about at school today.” She wanted her son to be aware not only of what was happening in the world, but also to be prepared for the role that race would play in these cases.

For Heather, who is white, entering into these conversations was equally as personal and deeply reflective of the relationship between her and Verta. She explains the situation with a rhetorical question: “If Nolan is a part of my family’s life and Christopher is a part of Verta’s family’s life…[then] what do I need to be aware of in a different way?”

It was also painfully personal when Heather realized how race impacted Verta’s parenting. Over cocktails one night, Heather was recounting her challenges in raising a pre-teen son—one being that Chris refused to wear a jacket to school anymore (even in the winter) over his hooded sweatshirt. She told Verta about a morning ritual: “The last thing I do [each morning] is put up his hood, because I feel like at least his head will be warm.” Heather was brought to tears upon realizing the opposite was true for Verta. As the parent of a young black son who also hates wearing his coat and opts for his hooded sweatshirt instead, Verta took her son’s hood down every morning without him ever knowing why, “to keep him safe from stuff a lot bigger than cold.”

“So here we are: Two moms, similar ages, boys at similar schools, similar parenting philosophies, similar humor and interests, and yet her experience and my experience, every morning, are so drastically different,” Heather adds. As a friend, and as a mother who considered Nolan like her own son, Heather wanted to do more. And Verta, cognizant of the challenges these young men could face as their independence grew, agreed.
“I think that [issues] of race might have come up before, in passing, but this was really about our boys and what’s going to happen if they’re in a situation,” Verta explains. “Is everyone going to be aware of what could happen?”

Their conversations started small—with Heather and Verta emailing each other links to relevant articles and openly talking about race and how it affected their lives. It would later further motivate Verta to start the monthly conversations at their boys’ school.

As part of her work in the education field, Verta came across Glenn E. Singleton and Curtis Linton’s 2006 book Courageous Conversations about Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools, which served as the inspiration for having “Courageous Conversations About Race.” The conversations referenced by Singleton and Linton are really “a strategy for breaking down racial tensions and raising racism as a topic of discussion” that allows for a fair exchange of information.

Verta Maloney (left) and Heather Ouida (right) photographed at Heather’s home; photo by Ali Smith

Verta decided to start Courageous Conversations About Race at her son’s school after the school held a successful screening of the film “I Am Not A Racist, Am I?” in 2015. The film was initially screened for students and some staff, but the school held an additional evening screening for faculty/staff, students, and parents after interest in the topic grew. A small group of parents kept the discussion about race and racism going over margaritas that evening after seeing the film. It was the group’s desire to continue the conversation that ultimately spawned monthly group discussions, supported by the school’s parents’ association and administration.

“I decided to be a part of it because I believe that all of us have the ability to make change in the world if we decide to make change in our own sphere of influence,” Verta says. “There is a level of courage that it’s going to take for us, as individuals, to openly say that we are having a conversation that is about race. People want to say ‘diversity.’ People want to use all these other terms, but at the end of the day, it takes a lot of courage to say: ‘We are talking about race.’”

As noted scholar Dr. Cornel West has stated, race is an explosive issue in American life because it forces us to confront difficult topics such as poverty, inequality, despair, and distrust. Because these topics can be so emotionally charged, facing them openly in a safe space is key to navigating these conversations successfully.
To that end, Singleton and Hayes offer the “Four Agreements of Courageous Conversations” in their book: Stay engaged, expect to experience discomfort, speak your truth, and expect and accept a lack of closure. These Four Agreements anchor Verta’s approach.

The group meets on a regular basis in the school cafeteria and is open to anyone in the community as a whole. “We want everyone to come and join the conversation,” Verta says. “The courage comes from people taking a risk to say something that might actually be offensive and for somebody to have the courage to say to that person: ‘What do you mean by that?’”

It is an atmosphere where parents can put themselves out there as they seek clarity and work through issues of race together. After reading about and discussing race with Verta, in particular a piece about a panel discussion where black mothers and grandmothers shared the race conversation they were forced to have with their children and grandchildren, Heather asked Verta: “What can I do to support you with this race discussion you have to have with your kids?” The two women then talked about how Heather could lead and help bring about change by talking to her own children and those of her own race about these issues.
Since the group started meeting over a year ago, Verta has facilitated similar conversations for the faculty and staff at the request of the school’s administration, where she “replicates [parts of] what they do in the smaller group.” Everyone reads an article or watches a video and Verta prepares questions to facilitate the conversation.

However, both Heather and Verta agree that these types of conversations do not necessarily need to happen in a formal setting. They can take place anywhere. In fact, one of the important features of the structured conversations comes at the end. Parents are told to take what they have learned, use it, and report back to the group.

It is a directive that’s beautifully simple for other communities to replicate.

“It is not necessarily to go and facilitate anything,” Verta explains. “It can be formal, or it can be more like finding videos and articles on the topic and sending them to other parents you know. Then, next time you meet up at the playground or wherever, while the kids are playing, you can ask: ‘What did you think about that?’”

Between Mothers And Sons: Verta Maloney & Heather Ouida Share Hopes For Their Sons’ Future

From Heather to Christopher

Dear Christopher,

It is one of my greatest hopes that, years from now, when you pull out this dusty letter and reread what I had written to you years ago, the world will be a more tolerant and racially just place. Until that time, I want to share with you some things I have learned about race in this country, because if I have learned one thing, it’s that honest and, at times, uncomfortable conversations are a critical step in igniting change.

Let me start by saying that one of the many things I love and admire about you is that you truly don’t get what all the fuss is about regarding the color of one’s skin. To you, Nolan is not black, white, green, or purple. He’s just Nolan. Your super-cool, funny, fun, smart friend who laughs at all your jokes and enjoys lounging almost as much as you do (and sometimes more)! And I wish that could be the end of the story. But it’s not. And that is the purpose of this article and this letter.

One of the first things I learned was to talk to you and your brother openly and honestly about race and to tell you that, unfortunately, at this moment in time, race in this country matters. It very much matters, especially if you’re not white, and teaching you “not to see color” will not help initiate a much needed climate of change or lead to a racially just America.

I invite you to imagine what it must feel like for Nolan to be one of the few African-American boys in your group of friends. I know I certainly have tried to envision what it must be like for Verta. For example, here’s what one mom said in a letter to white moms about her African-American son that helped me gain a new perspective:

“We talk to our son about safety issues. We talk to him about being respectful of police (and anyone in authority), about keeping his hands where they are visible, about not wearing his hood up over his face or sneaking through the neighbor’s backyard during hide-and-seek or when taking a shortcut home from school. We are doing what we can to find this bizarre balance of helping him be proud of who he is and helping him understand that not everybody is going to see him the way we see him. Some people are going to see him as a ‘thug’ before they ever know his name, his story, his gifts and talents.

If you tell your kids racism happened a long time ago and now it’s over and use my family as an example of how whites and blacks and browns can all get along together, you are not doing me any favors. So white parents, please talk to your kids about racism. If they see my son being bullied or called racist names, they need to stand with him. They need to understand how threatening that is and not just something to be laughed off.”

Because here’s the thing, Chris: One day you will see an injustice happening (if you haven’t already) and you will need to decide how you are going to handle it. I certainly do not have all the answers. But you know I love quotes, so here’s one by Gandhi that seems relevant: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” So be fair, be tolerant, be honest, be truthful, be a person who courageously stands up for what is right.

When you read this letter sometime in the future you will know that, during the summer of 2016 (when I wrote this letter), black men were killed by white police officers and a few day later white police officers were killed by a black man and that these tragedies sparked a long-overdue and much-needed conversation in this country.

Although I’ve spoken to you and your brother about being respectful of authority, I will never know what it feels like for Verta and millions of other African-American parents to have “the talk” with their children about how to act when confronted by the police. I will never have to answer my child’s innocent question, as CNN reported that one mom did: “Mommy, because I’m brown, could this happen to me?” I will also never know what it’s like to be a police officer—a profession that requires putting one’s life on the line every day to protect others. Just ask your grandfather. He will tell you of seeing police officers and firefighters running past him up the smoke filled stairs of the World Trade Center on 9/11, many of whom lost their lives that day.

So now that I’ve told you what I don’t know, here is what I do know. I know it’s possible to be outraged by the acts of a few individuals without condemning a whole group of people. I know that only way to overcome hate is through acts of humanity.

Chris, you are one of the kindest people I know. You and Nolan have a friendship that is effortless and real and loyal and joyful. I hope that when you and Nolan do read this again years from now, you both will live in a world where race does not make anyone feel or be treated as less than human.

Love, Mom

From Verta to Nolan

Dear Nolan,

I am writing this letter to tell you, my beautiful son, things you already know, things I have already said, and things I can’t seem to say enough. You have brought me unimaginable joy and taught me so much in the 14 years you have been in this world.

You are a gentle soul sent to soften my edges. You have an ease about you. You always assume best intent. You look beyond what is apparent to see what is really going on—the understory.

As a toddler, if a child took your blocks, you harbored no ill will. You would simply move on to something else and give that child more. It was as if you knew he needed something the rest of us did not have. When you were 9 years old, your father and I separated. I will never forget how you told me, so wise beyond your years: “Sometimes adults have to make adult decisions.” I cried. Such a young boy acknowledging the necessary and not-so-beautiful bits of life that leave us torn in places once whole. You still possess all these insights and this wisdom today as a teenager.

From the first moment I saw you, I knew how fortunate I was to be your mother. You, my brilliant son, have always mattered. I never once believed I had to tell you this because it has simply always been so. It was your birthright and I honor it everyday that I get to love you. Nonetheless the fact remains that not everyone feels as I do. We live in a time where we need to make declarations that black lives matter, that we have value, that we are precious. You may not believe me because, thankfully, you are surrounded daily by so many people who see your brilliance, who see your beauty, who simply see you. I imagine if I said “Hey Nolan! You matter!” you would give me a patiently quizzical look and respond gently: “I know Mom! So do you.”

And still, the fact remains that you sit in your classroom everyday as one of few black children, black boys, specifically, at your New York City private school. People talk about tuition, but this may be a higher price we end up paying. You have found a group of friends who get you, and I am so thankful for that. As I watch you with them, I love the laughter and banter and camaraderie—and simultaneously, I am filled with fear that one day some ordinary teenage antics could land you in a heap of trouble solely because you stand out among your crowd. The fact that you are the only black boy amongst your white friends at school has led me to write this letter. Having to have too many conversations with you about the deaths of other black boys like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown at the hands of a racist system has led me to write this letter. Our conversations prompting me to start talking more openly about race with the people in our lives has led me to write this letter. Facilitating conversations with parents and faculty at your school about race over the past year has led me to write this letter. I believe that if more people, specifically more white people who know us, can be brave and talk openly about race with each other, then they will build up the courage to discuss race with their friends and their families and most importantly, their children.

I believe that every single one of us can have a great deal of impact on the future of our world—and every little bit matters! If we all pay more attention to the understory, like you do, and challenge ourselves to act wherever, whenever, and however we can on behalf of love and truth and justice, we can start to move things in the right direction. If we all use our gifts and our voices, even when we don’t think we have them, maybe one day, when you have children, it won’t be necessary to declare that black lives matter.

I write this letter today in the hopes that someone will remember your mother’s voice when the time comes that they must. I speak out because, sadly, in these United States of America the time will come when you will be boldly confronted with the fact that many people don’t believe that your life matters because you are black and they will treat you differently because of the color of your skin. When this day comes, if it has not already, please know that whether you choose to wear a hoodie or not, your life matters. If you love school or you don’t, your life matters. If you make good decisions or really bad ones, your life matters.

As your mother, I have had to find ways to use my voice and my being to instill in you a fearlessness about your existence tempered with appropriate doses of caution because I know the world in ways you do not. And then I remember who you are. I remember that you are this brilliant being who is always observing and paying close attention to the stories that are below the surface. You are already so fearless and bold and kind in ways I only dream of one day being. On your best days and on your worst, please remember that you are all things good and magical, Nolan. Made from pure love. It is my honor and privilege to love you and be loved by you.

Always, Mom