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'It's Visceral': Program Makes Diversity And Inclusion Training More Immersive

Workshop participants (pre-pandemic) read from scripts while standing on the outline of a tree.
Courtesy of the Black American Tree Project
Workshop participants (pre-pandemic) read from scripts while standing on the outline of a tree.

The Black American Tree Project (BATP) is the brainchild of Danyetta Najoli and Freda Epum, and now it's getting a cash infusion allowing the program to reach more people across Ohio.

The project was recently awarded a $20,000 grant through the Ohio Humanities' Major Grants program to further build out the program and create a website with resources. The website is now live at TheBlackAmericanTreeProject.org.

Epum describes BATP as a "unique participatory experience where we're able to foster understanding - both respect, truth and reconciliation - around the experiences of Black Americans from pre-colonial Africa until the present day."

It's a 90-minute performance experience - followed by 30 minutes of reflection and conversation - where workshop participants assume roles such as slave, police brutality victim, or villager, and read aloud from scripts, assisted by narration from the workshop's administrators. It's about helping people understand the legacies of slavery and how they continue to affect all aspects of peoples' lives from housing and education to medical care and experiences with the justice system.

"We're interested in creating this intergenerational, diverse mix of people who can discuss and have uncomfortable conversations about race so that the wall is broken down and we're able to bring these groups of communities together to be able to tell untold American histories and have a feeling of empathy and inspiration around authentic spaces that wasn't there before," Epum explains.

The imagery of a tree is used as a "stage" for the script readings. Najolie and Epum say the tree represents many things, but is central to the exercise "because it represents a place of wholeness, naturalness, and where families thrive in a lush, collective environment."

The workshop is designed for groups of 10-30 people, and its creators describe it as an alternative to the more traditional types of diversity, equity and inclusion trainings favored by businesses and corporations.

"Sometimes, unfortunately, people may check that box to say we've gone through the diversity training, we've got the inclusion experience, but without the connection that this project could provide for people, there's still that disconnect," Najoli says. "What makes this project so unique is that it's a visceral, immersive experience where you're reading a script - you are essentially becoming that person for that period - and it's very different than if you were to read a book about an experience or watch a movie (where) you're still kind of detached from the situation."

Najoli adds that the experience helps Black Americans feel they're being heard and their experiences affirmed. For others, it's a valuable tool for educating people, not just about history, but what modern life is like for Black Americans.

Editor's Note: This story was first published Nov. 30, 2020.

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Tana Weingartner earned a bachelor's degree in communication from the University of Cincinnati and a master's degree in mass communication from Miami University. Most recently, she served as news and public affairs producer with WMUB-FM. Ms. Weingartner has earned numerous awards for her reporting, including several Best Reporter awards from the Associated Press and the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists, and a regional Murrow Award. She served on the Ohio Associated Press Broadcasters Board of Directors from 2007 - 2009.