“We’re real people with real experiences,” Nina Mitchell says. The experiences she’s talking about are Black experiences.
“A white co-worker asked me if she could touch my hair and I told her no, I felt uncomfortable. She touched it anyway,” Regine Azemard recalls. “What kind of person does that? If that person knew why it wasn’t OK, they might have understood.”
If you’re not a person of color, you probably don’t “get it.” But if you’re serious about learning and understanding issues related to race, the Cookout Book Club may be just the place.
The Cookout is an Employee Network Group, or ENG. It was organized by Melissa Reid, Carm Benson, and Regine Azemard as a place for CHG Healthcare employees of color to network. In the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, the women discovered many of their white co-workers were turning to the Cookout for a place to dialogue. Melissa and Regine decided a book club would be more appropriate for those kinds of conversations.
Kimberly Hansen Enniss, a provider rep, says, “In one way, I know what it feels like to be a minority because I’m a lesbian. I know what it feels like to have the deck stacked against you or laws that exclude you.”
Although Kimberly has experienced discrimination first-hand, she’ll be the first to admit she has no idea what it’s like to feel the sting of discrimination because of her skin color. “Being part of the book club allows me to rub shoulders with people and hear their perspectives,” she explains. “Some things that have been very easy for me in my life have not been easy at all for people of color.”
Steve McMahan, CompHealth group president, said when he first heard about the Cookout Book Club he assumed it was a group for shared interests. When he realized anyone could attend, he did. “I’ve certainly done a lot more listening than talking in these meetings,” he says. “I think it’s naïve to think there aren’t challenges here being Black.” Book club has reminded him of that.
Kimberly says, “Socially and otherwise, not all of us have opportunities to interact with people of color. I feel like book club gives me an opportunity to mingle.” For Kimberly, the book club invites understanding.
“I’m half Black,” Nina says. “I’ve grown up with this skin tone, this hair. But I’m not well read on a number of issues. For me, book club was a way to learn more and connect with people and their experiences.”
Olivier Seide agrees, “It’s a space that, as a Black person, you can reflect on yourself but also you can interact with people who want to know more and bring their perspectives. I was pleasantly surprised to see other people join and not be afraid to be uncomfortable.”
Olivier says the book club invites understanding by bringing up a variety of topics. “It allows people to open up a bit more and honestly say, ‘I didn’t know’ or ‘I didn’t see this.’ Black or white, I enjoy different people’s perspectives,” he explains.
Book club invites understanding by expanding knowledge
Regine is responsible for picking the books the group will read and documentaries they watch. “I pick topics based on conversations I felt could have been different,” she says.
She tries to mix it up in terms of content and the kind of media. If the group is watching a documentary, they’ll meet monthly. If they’re reading a book, it’s every other month in order to give people time to read. But don’t expect to be spoon-fed.
Nina says, “Black people are not responsible for distilling the message into an easy-to-drink cup. Do some reading. Do some reflection.” Regine is happy to lead discussions, but she makes it clear it’s not her job to be the race ambassador. The book club invites understanding. “I just want people to be open to what it’s like to be Black,” she says.
Olivier says his book club experiences have been eye-opening. “I’ve been exposed to racism but when I hear other people’s experiences, these are the kinds of things I’ve only seen in movies,” he shares. “It’s a lot harder when it’s your peer that’s sitting right there in a Zoom meeting.”
“I like to hear people say, ‘I had no idea,’” Nina says. “It brings to the forefront the need for continuous education. Book club is here for anyone who is open and really wants to learn.”
Regine says her goal is to make book club a safe space where people of different opinions and backgrounds can have difficult conversations.
“Don’t feel sorry for asking a question,” Olivier advises. Just be open to feedback. “As long as we can exchange and understand each other, that’s great. I’m not perfect either.”
“No one should come in with a chip on their shoulder or to prove a point,” Nina says. “People who are really sincere and wanting to learn should definitely join. It’s a great way to form real relationships and hopefully take it even outside of the book club.”