Tierna Unruh-Enos is publisher at The Paper.


Statues around the country have been painted, spit upon, peed on and pulled down by protesters and blown over by Mother Nature as demonstrators took to the streets to protest white supremacy and police brutality across the United States after the death of George Floyd. The country has been at odds as to how to deal with the death of Floyd, a Black man who was killed when a police officer held a knee to his neck for eight minutes. Any statue that symbolized what the protests were about was fair game. In an executive order supporting a 2003 law, President Donald Trump advocated long-term jail sentences for “these vandals and these hoodlums and these anarchists and agitators and call it whatever you want. They’re bad people.” The city of Albuquerque decided to take a different path from the current administration in the White House; one much less traveled recently.

In Albuquerque at a demonstration to remove a statue of New Mexico’s first state colonial governor Juan de Oñate from the grounds of the Albuquerque Museum, a man seen defending the statue allegedly shot a protester. The confrontation exposed the fault lines over how Native American and Hispanic history are communicated and remembered. To some Oñate was seen as the first European to colonize the arid deserts and wilderness of New Mexico and the beginning of the Hispanic culture in the state. To others Oňate was seen as a despot who cut off the feet of Native Americans who would not bend to his will and inflicted untold misery on the Pueblo people that had been living in New Mexico for centuries. In the interest of public safety, the Oñate statue was temporarily removed from view in June.

To find a solution to community concerns about the Oňate statue and La Jornada public art installation in which it stood on the grounds of the Albuquerque Museum, the City of Albuquerque launched the Race, History & Healing Project to solicit public input on what the city should do about the Oňate statue. Dr. Shelle VanEtten de Sanchez, Director of the Cultural Services Department, who is spearheading the project for the city of Albuquerque, said in a recent interview with The Paper., “I’m proud of our administration. It’s much easier just to make a quick decision and move on. It’s much harder to do the work of really engaging community and taking the time to give people the opportunity to provide input. I’m proud to work in this administration, and I’m proud of the fact that they are willing to invest the time that it takes to really support our community in leading and informing us through this project.”

The project has developed several ways for the community to participate and provide input; the primary way is through online community group conversation sessions. Sessions are being led by experienced trained professional facilitators, but the dialogue is among community members. “A lot of times in a townhall format where the government is getting input from the community, individual community members come in and talk to government staff and decision makers. Our participants in the community dialogue sessions are community members that have chosen to participate through engaging with each other. I think that’s really critical to the outcomes.”

The dialogue and community input are led by a team of ten professional, experienced facilitators from the community. The Project includes a team of city staff (from the Department of Cultural Services and the Office of Equity & Inclusion) who support community sessions, community input and community communications. The project also includes eight community advisors who are recognized community leaders with backgrounds in community engagement, racial equity, New Mexico history and public policy. These advisors provide city staff and the community facilitators with input, guidance and recommendations throughout the stages of the process.

Participants must commit to at least three 60-to-90-minute Zoom sessions that build on each other. “It’s a really significant commitment of energy, because people are really talking to each other. The number of participants is kept to 10 to 15 people so that everyone has an opportunity to speak, to be heard and to share. By the end of the session, they are generating collective recommendations and solutions,” VanEtten de Sanchez explained.

Participants come from all over the state with a broad range of age. “We have groups of elders from different communities and a couple of groups that have been convened by high school and college students that are participating all the way through.” Community members are asked to listen to each other and try to understand the different perspectives, meaning and investment that people have in this statue.

VanEtten de Sanchez said there are lots of reasons that people don’t want to participate in the community dialog, so the project has developed other ways for people to share their input. “We have a survey the community can complete that’s going to be open for at least a couple more weeks and we’ve close to 1,300 people that have completed it.” The survey can be accessed for a few more weeks on the city’s website. The project also has a list of about 300 people who are interested in doing a 20-to-30-minute interview. “We ask people questions, take that information and make it part of forming the final set of recommendations,” Sanchez said

The project has reached out to various community leaders and organizational heads from different racial backgrounds, ages and different perspectives on the issue who invited their circles of people to be part of the dialogue. “The people that we can reach through our channels as the city government is not nearly as powerful as the diversity of circles you can reach when our community helps us invite people to the discussions,” Sanchez said.

VanEllen de Sanchez said the different voices on all sides have the potential of a lot of solutions. “Community-centered dialogue is really the heart of the work of democracy. Sometimes we think that voting is the heart of democracy, but really the heart of democracy is when we come together in small groups and talk to each other and disagree and still come out with a really good solution and a way to move forward. It’s not easy and it takes a long time.”

COVID-19 made it impossible for project conversations to happen in physical space. “It’s been powerful to do it with Zoom, because I think there’s a lot of people that are participating that probably could not have given up their evenings, or had childcare, or all the things that make it work to participate in the community discussions. By the end of this project a lot of voices will be heard.”

The community-generated recommendations will be presented to the city and eventually to the city council for consideration at the end of October, or the first week of November. Sanchez said she feels there’s a lot of opportunities to use the community-centered dialogue model to generate recommendations and solutions for other kinds of issues in the community. “If this works and it feels like it’s working to us, our intention and our hope is that, moving forward, this becomes a model for these kinds of conversations within the city and the community.”