Notes from Facing Race 2018


This month was my first Facing Race conference since leaving my post as President. I didn’t entirely know what to expect, feelings-wise, but I feel fine! I continue to be so proud of the Race Forward team for providing such a critical space for the movement to come together.

Even though I wasn’t on staff this year, it was still pretty busy! The conference closed out at 3500 people, nearly 50% bigger than 2016, and I saw many, many old friends. I especially loved meeting in real life people I only know through cyberspace, like author Tamara Winfrey-Harris, whom I interviewed for the Women’s Leadership Online Summit.

The events I was part of were wonderful.

First, I closed out the 5 speakers and 2 performers who shared their stories at the FRED talks (Facing Race, Elevating Democracy), which are part of Race Forward’s effort to bring together the constituencies fighting mass incarceration and mass deportation and detention. The speakers, Isa Noyola, Candi Brings Plenty, Keira Dixon and Roksana Mun shared intensely moving and urgent stories. They included Mama Rhonda Anderson mother of Siwatu-Salama Ra, whose case I wrote about back in March, and who is now serving an outrageous sentence that forced her to give birth in shackles. After relentless organizing, Siwatu was released just last week. She still needs your support. Check here, for things you can do.

My next gig was a the book talk I did with my long-time partner in crime Jeff Chang.

Jeff is the award-winning author of Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop and the essay collection We Gon Be All Right. He and I were trainees in the Movement Activist Apprenticeship Program way back in the late ‘80’s, and he served as Colorlines’ first Associate Editor exactly 20 years ago. He’s back as Race Forward’s new VP of Narrative, Arts and Culture programs. For the first time, Facing Race featured a series of book readings and author interviews. Jeff read a very personal essay about coming of age decades after the Civil Rights Movement and his position as an Asian American in the Affirmative Action discourse. I read from the Accidental American, my book with Fekkak Mamdouh about the founding of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York after 9/11. We asked each other some questions about our writing process, how we approach writing about cultures that aren’t our own, and other random things. It was tons of fun.

Finally, I was totally thrilled that my new friend Dawn-Lyen Gardner, who so evocatively plays Charley Bordelon on the hit show Queen Sugar, agreed to get on a stage for a public conversation! We made a plan, of course, but agreed to go wherever the moment took us. We wanted to get real and share the things that felt scariest to talk about, but we knew that you have to work up to those deep items and sometimes step away for relief from the depth. We also really wanted to know how the audience was feeling about the state of things. Sprinkled among the deep questions were palette cleansing light ones, the equivalent of a “walk around the block” when you need to take a break from the heavy.

So Dawn-Lyen talked about her racially mixed Black and Chinese family, the fascination that comes her way about that particular combination, and why, even as she feels 100 percent Chinese and 100 percent Black, she still walks in the world as a Black woman. I talked about the fact that I, 16 months after leaving the leadership of Race Forward, have no real idea of what role I am to take now. The election of 2016 really shook me, especially over the long term, and without the momentum of organizational life, I feel, well, rather lost. And guilty, because I can’t recall another time in my life that getting to work felt more urgent, yet I don’t know what that work is. It’s not that there isn’t work, it just doesn’t feel like the right work for me. It seems like I can’t rush it, and I trust that all will reveal itself, and in the meantime I’ll keep doing all I can to support our many leaders who are clear and effective.

These were our palette cleanser questions for the audience:

What time is it on the clock of the world?

Winner: 10 pm, still time to save it (not 11:59 and not 1 pm)

How do you feel about whatever time you think it is?

Winner: Dismay (not despair, nor delight)

And these were the questions for me and Dawn-Lyen:

What 3 things would you keep on an altar?


  • Journal
  • Family photo, currently of her brother and sister-in-law
  • Candle, because light is always good


  • Photo of a bear that crossed my path but didn’t eat me
  • Heart-shaped rocks
  • An old tiny Ganesh statue whose features have been rubbed down

What are your 5 favorite modes of procrastination?

Cleaning and watching TV were on both on the top of our lists

It turns out that other people feel versions of what Dawn-Lyen and I feel. If you ever need a reason to share your truth, let it be that in sharing, you will help others feel less alone, and that’s worth a lot.

As always, I’m mad proud of the Race Forward team for pulling off this space that is game changing for so many people.