Project’s Goal: Non-Threatening Community Dialogue on Race

Photo courtesy California African American Museum
A New York Film Academy instructor and the Burbank Human Relations Council in November will hold Race Relay, an event intended to share the experiences that local community members have had with racism. An earlier iteration of the event, pictured here, was held about two years ago by USC and the California African American Museum.

When Andrew Williams’ mother moved to Burbank, he said, the first thing her neighbors told her was that they “didn’t want any trouble.” They said Black people such as herself hadn’t been allowed to live there until some time ago, he added.
Still, Williams said in a recent interview, his mother’s choice to live in what Burbank officials recognized last year as a former “sundown town” — communities that had policies excluding non-white ethnic groups — was one of survival. She was tired of living in cities where violence was more common, Williams explained, and wanted a better environment for her children.
But as his mother’s experience showed, Williams noted, Burbank life held its own difficulties. He lived in the city for 24 years, attending John Burroughs High School, and remarked that he often felt he had to mask his identity as a person of color to make other community members feel more comfortable. As a budding documentary filmmaker, Williams has thought much about the importance of stories — including his own. Last year, he wrote an 11-page document detailing his experiences and that of other people of color he interviewed, many of them from Burbank.
Later this year, stories such as Williams’ will be shared with the broader Burbank community. The Burbank Human Relations Council is partnering with an instructor from the local New York Film Academy to hold Race Relay from Nov. 19-21. The project, which invites community members to submit their experiences with racism by Aug. 20, will culminate in a production in which actors will draw from the stories to write and perform monologues before an audience of a few dozen people.
“The biggest thing is … just connecting with people, taking to people, because it really becomes much more real when it’s not something that you’re seeing on the TV … when you feel like it’s being force-fed to you,” Williams said. “It becomes a very human right when it’s someone personal and it’s someone that you know.”
The Race Relay performance, which will be held at the YMCA’s Social Impact Center, will precede a discussion with community members who will then be invited to share their reactions to the stories and their own experiences with racism. NYFA instructor Denise Hamilton said she hopes the event will spark recurring community dialogues on the issue.
Hamilton, who teaches documentary filmmaking at the academy, explained that she came up with the idea for Race Relay about 16 years ago, when she and two other creative professionals decided to invite friends of various ethnicities to talk about how race affected their lives. The stories they shared, Hamilton said, later developed into the first Race Relay at an art gallery in Hollywood.
“What we found is very interesting: People really did want to talk about race — if they are in an environment that is non-threatening,” added Hamilton, who is Black. “If we tell them that no one is going to point fingers, that we’re all in this together, then everyone wanted to talk.”
Race Relays, Hamilton explained, allow audience members — whom she hopes included un-uniformed police officers and Chamber of Commerce members — to understand that they have common experiences and discuss ways to address racism. She wants to show attendees, she added, that racism affects everyone.
Community members interested in sharing a one-page story for consideration should email, according to Suzanne Weerts of BHRC. Those who do so won’t be identified in the Race Relay event unless they permit the producers to do so, she said. The event itself won’t be recorded, either by its facilitators or by attendees.
Weerts explained that she’s reaching out to a variety of groups, including local churches and temples, Burbank for Armenia, the Burbank Public Library, the Burbank Anti-Racism Collective and diversity committees with the school district and city. Those groups, she added, will reach out to their members about sharing their stories with Race Relay.
“We don’t know what’s going on with individuals and with various people in our community until somebody tells us,” Weerts said. “Stories are at the core of who people are, they are the vehicle through which we’ve passed down lessons from one generation to the next, and they help us build communities.”
Williams hopes that the stories he’s compiled will allow audience members to understand others’ experiences. He shared the letter he wrote last year featuring his own story with the Burbank Anti-Racism Collective, and he was eventually connected with Hamilton. He’s also working on a documentary series that will include stories of people of color from Burbank, where his parents still live.
“I think that it’s hard, coming from an outside … perspective, to really believe some of the things that people say,” Williams said. “And I hope that standing in front of an audience and really projecting exactly what happened or what we feel happened, I hope that registers inside the emotions [of listeners].”