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Amid sustained protests against police violence and calls for societal change in the nearly two months since the police killing of George Floyd, there has been a growing hunger from individuals and institutions about how to begin tackling something as vast, insidious and emotionally loaded as racism.

This is the kind of work Donna Minter has been doing for more than a decade.

A licensed psychologist with a background in social work, she established the Minnesota Peacebuilding Leadership Institute to train people and organizations how to understand racial trauma and dismantle some of their old ideas.

“People need the language,” Minter said. “There are so many well-intentioned white people who want to do this work and say, ‘I don’t know how to start talking about it.’ What we give is language to help see how racial trauma fits into a historical, structural and cultural context.”

More than 4,700 people have been trained in “cultural competence” and other skills over the past decade through a range of programs that last from a few hours to an intensive five-day session. Workshops focus on trauma awareness, restorative justice and resilience and self-care.

Through the years, Minter and her assistant executive director and training partner, Crixell Shell, have worked with social workers, nurses, teachers and lawyers.

They have trained those who work in battered women’s shelters, AmeriCorps Vista volunteers and environmental-advocacy groups.

They have taught those involved in the prison system working on anti-recidivism efforts, and in the past year trained staff at the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.

The city of Minneapolis hired the Peacebuilding Leadership Institute to do 15 trainings between now and fall, funded by the city’s Health Department and the Office of Violence Prevention.

While the institute has been working toward its mission of racial restorative justice for years, Minter and Shell believe the time is right for their work to broaden and take hold.

“Right now, we’re the epicenter of what’s happening in terms of a social justice movement,” said Shell, who met Minter at the first training session in 2010 and immediately wanted to be part of the effort. “In response to what’s been happening, people have had a lot of pain.”

Requests for training have skyrocketed since May 25, when Floyd’s death in Minneapolis sparked protests in Minnesota and around the world. For many, Floyd’s death touched off soul-searching about institutional racism, the legacy of slavery and its ties to persistent racial disparities in housing, employment, education and wealth.

Since moving the training online in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, Minter and Shell have conducted 46 trainings on trauma awareness, restorative justice, resilience and self-care. Nearly 1,000 people have participated.

STAR training

The institute, at mnpeace.org, employs a training method known as STAR (Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience). It was developed at the Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding in Harrisonburg, Va., with a $2 million grant after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

“Throughout human history, we’ve confused the idea of retribution with the idea of reconciliation,” said Antony Stately, a psychologist who runs the Native American Community Clinic in south Minneapolis.

“STAR helps people understand what reconciliation looks like and asks us to think and imagine what social justice looks like,” he said. “What do I need as a human being, as community, to be restored? That’s what healing is.”

Stately, an enrolled member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, got involved with the Peacebuilding Leadership Institute several years ago when he saw the relevance in his clinical work in tribal communities.

“You are teaching people to tend to their own traumatic experiences so they can rebound or resist traumatic events. There’s lots of science behind that,” Stately said. “I’m not suggesting the training is a silver bullet, but it’s a piece that’s been missing for a long time in conversations.”

Lisa Morris-Helmstetler turned to Minter and Shell for help in rooting out implicit bias and structural racism across Olmsted County, which employs about 1,400 around the Rochester area.

The impetus grew out of a 2017 initiative known as One Olmsted, which calls for health, social and racial equity.

As deputy clerk to the County Board, she sought training to begin tackling sweeping ideas, such as implementing restorative justice.

But county leaders also wanted to help create a more open workplace culture that would allow for those sometimes uncomfortable conversations between two colleagues about race and ethnic difference.

“We want to look at equity in all of our public services,” Morris-Helmstetler said. “Where people are marginalized, where there are disparities. We want to hear how our services are or aren’t helping, how experiences might be different from one group to the next.”

Since the training in April, Morris-Helmstetler, who is white, has worked with colleagues who are Latino and Black to conduct more than half a dozen “healing circles” with employees across the county.

“A lot of people showed up, and they were willing to be vulnerable,” she said. “At first it was about coping with how to move forward after George Floyd’s death. People want to learn more; we’re all sort of growing together.”

As part of her work with the Peacebuilding Leadership Institute, Shell convenes several monthly meetings tied to a national effort called Coming to the Table.

The groups bring together descendants of those who were enslaved and descendants of slave owners to heal historical wounds of slavery.

Shell said interest in the meetings, which are free and open to the public, also has grown in recent months.

“It is a space where we can discuss issues that aren’t discussed every day,” Shell said. “Or if they are discussed, they create shame within us and blame between us.”

New urgency

John Parker-Der Boghossian, the equity and inclusion officer at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, said he has seen the power of the healing circles play out, in conjunction with the STAR Training. He brought Minter and Shell to the college shortly after Floyd’s death.

“Something is different now,” Parker-Der Boghossian said. “There’s a sense that we’re going to do something systemic this time. And that this isn’t optional.”

The Peacebuilding Leadership Institute has an annual budget of about $200,000. About 30% of revenue comes from contracts with organizations, another 30% from training fees and about 20% from grants.

Its largest fundraising effort comes from Lunafest, a women’s film festival normally held at the Riverview Theater in south Minneapolis. This year’s virtual event will be held Aug. 26.

Even as interest rises in fighting systemic racism, Minter knows the enormity of the task.

“You can’t heal institutional racism with trainings alone. Certainly not a two-hour training,” she said. “It takes time and deliberate effort” to undo generations of trauma.

But she remains hopeful.

“Most people want to build peace in their lives,” Minter said. “What we are doing is teaching people the tools and language and strategies to be able to know how do that.”