The UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures’ mission statement reads, “We give voice to the experiences from people across the globe who call Texas home, providing insight into our past, present and future.”
When a wave of anti-Semitic vandalism targeted a predominantly Jewish neighborhood on San Antonio’s North Side, elected officials for City Council District 8 and State Senate District 26 created a “Cultural Conversations” program inviting communities together to discuss the difficult issues: race, religion, cultural differences, challenges, myths and misconceptions.
The Institute has hosted two of these gatherings, each drawing more than 300 attendees to join in the conversation circles. The first in September 2016, included topics that ranged from culture and media to financial literacy and discussion about City Council decisions. The more recent event, hosted March 27, 2017, focused on San Antonio’s refugee community, with discussions that centered on vanquishing misconceptions, understanding the value refugee entrepreneurs have brought to the local economy and learning about the crises that transform everyday people into refugees.
“The Institute has been called ‘a forum for the understanding and appreciation of Texas and Texans,’” said Angelica Docog, executive director at the museum. "Cultural Conversations is the perfect example of that statement in action. This event perfectly fits ITC's mission and it has been a pleasure hosting and participating in the sessions here.”
City-wide, there have been four Cultural Conversations events, with the first session at the San Antonio Zoo serving as a sort of a cultural exchange with various communities, such as Sikh, Muslim and Jewish, attending. The second was in September 2016 at the Institute. It high-lights ITC's Texas Star Heritage Award recipients, who led some of the conversation circles in their areas of expertise. Another session followed shortly after the 2016 election, then the Institute hosted the fourth session in March 2017 as an extension of the Catholic Charities “Foreign by Land, Native by Heart” exhibit which was showing at the time.
Cultural Conversations is designed to support dialogue, with conversation leaders offering short introductions and keeping participants on-topic. Guests can move from subject to subject based on their interest; per the event’s ground rules, they are responsible for their own experiences. “What’s so amazing is the report-out process,” said Ann Helmke, co-founder of the San Antonio peaceCENTER, who coordinated and advised on the programs.
“When the groups reconvene as a single audience at the end of the event, we hear from international students, refugees, minorities and everyday people, deeply impacted by the stories shared and discussions within the groups. We set out to make a change in the community and it’s happening.”
Event organizers hope that having experienced Cultural Conversations, guests will host similar events in their own communities: schools, neighbor-hood associations, college dorms, places of work, churches, civic organizations, scout groups and other gatherings. To that end, each guest receives a copy of the Conversation Circle Golden Rules, a simple handout which sets the basic ground rules for conversations on difficult subjects.
“A few years ago, the Institute hosted an exhibit on race as a social construct,” said Docog. “One of the concepts that came from that is that if you can’t talk about something, you can’t change it. It’s our obligation as responsible citizens and as a public forum to facilitate programs like Cultural Conversations. It’s the purest form of ‘giving voice to experiences’ that I’ve ever seen.”
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