Credit: Timothy Teague Photography

As protests following the murder of George Floyd in May demonstrated, pandemic conditions haven’t hampered dialogue about race and police brutality in America — if anything, says James Joyce III, months of house-bound isolation “have everybody’s attention focused on this thing that’s happening outside of their doors, whether it’s across the country or otherwise.” Joyce has kept those conversations going through his platform Coffee with a Black Guy (CWABG) — which, rather than faltering amid the pandemic, has reached out to influence dialogues on race across the nation.

Joyce, who was district director for recently retired state senator Hannah-Beth Jackson and has said he is “unofficially” thinking about running for mayor of Santa Barbara in November 2021, conceived the project from a simple idea: to provide spaces for Santa Barbarans to break the ice over coffee and talk about race. Since its first gathering of seven people in 2016, CWABG has grown to attract up to 35 people per event, with attendance ranging widely across ethnicities, ages, and professional backgrounds. 

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When tension arises in the conversation, Joyce welcomes it with what Warren Ritter, president of the Santa Barbara Young Black Professionals, describes as a teacher-esque patience. Ritter remembers two instances — one in which a white woman explained she didn’t teach her children to see color, and another in which a white man defended his feelings of uneasiness when passing Black men wearing hoodies. Joyce responded, Ritter said, “in a way that wasn’t nasty — it wasn’t harsh.” In the second case, he added, Joyce emphasized a growth mentality, telling the man there was no shame in changing his mindset based on new information.

That’s not to say Joyce makes racial issues easy. Santa Barbara City Councilmember Kristen Sneddon recalled a white woman at one event suggesting a public screening of The Central Park Five — Ken Burns’s documentary about five Black and Latino teens wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in New York City’s Central Park in 1989 — with a support group afterward to process emotions. Joyce declined, explaining it wasn’t the community’s job to make the film easier for her. He urged her to work through it on her own and meditate on why it felt difficult. 

“She was asking for support, and he turned it around in saying, ‘That’s not how this works,’” Sneddon said. “It was a learning moment.”

Joyce says he’s practiced exchanges like this his entire life — often by necessity as a Black man in the U.S., but also because of his own enthusiasm for reaching across the aisle. In college, Joyce organized conversations on race between Greek-affiliated students, even if few people showed up. In a bolder instance, when the KKK held a rally two blocks from Joyce’s high school graduation party, his family had to convince him not to go talk to them. 

“I mean, let me learn about why you feel the way you do,” Joyce said about those attending the KKK rally. “Explain to me why you think that. I genuinely want to understand.”

Education and experience in journalism, in addition to positions with local politicians, have helped Joyce develop those instincts for conversation into a skill set for communicating with people of all types. That’s proved valuable in Santa Barbara, which Joyce said prides itself excessively as being a safe, progressive bubble without addressing racial issues at a deeper level. People “have been hearing this message over and over and over, but it hasn’t been explained in a way that they ‘get it,’” he said. 

CWABG aims to remedy that, and seems to succeed — especially when conversations turn to lived experiences of black attendees growing up beyond Santa Barbara. 

“I’m from South Carolina… Slavery and indentured servitude has been a way of life for some folks down there,” Ritter said. “When they hear these real-life examples, afterward everybody’s kind of somber… People will stay for a good 15, 20, 30 minutes talking about how it touched them and what they can do.”

At the City Council level, Sneddon feels challenged to push harder for affordable housing because of CWABG and said attending events primed her to address the demands of Black Lives Matter protesters in June

“Having that sort of conversation ahead of time made it so that it wasn’t surprising when that conversation came to City Council,” she said. “It was more like, ‘Okay, these are people I have seen speak; this is an experience I’ve been hearing about. It’s not a reactionary moment to one event nationally; this has been going on and needs to be addressed.’”

COVID-19 has proved challenging to a project rooted in in-person interactions — as Joyce said, “It’s very difficult to hate somebody face-to-face.” Shifting to group video conversations, however, has “been an opportunity for other outreach.” 

“In one day, I can do a gig on the East Coast, in Michigan, and in California, where otherwise I just have to chat right here,” he said.

Private companies can now book their own virtual CWABG conversations, which Joyce said allows him a broader audience. 

“The people who are most conservative, the most All-Lives-Matter-ish — those are the people who I’d like to be able to get more of,” he said. Company events offer more in this regard than Santa Barbara crowds — which in comparison, Joyce worries, often “end up being an echo chamber”— and provide him the challenge of ensuring those who disagree with his points still feel comfortable speaking up.

Even the more self-selecting Santa Barbara attendees, Joyce said, pass lessons on to others who wouldn’t choose to attend, perhaps inspiring some to do so. To Sneddon, that means progress. “If people have not attended one of these events, I think it is essential,” she said. “For children, for families, for grandparents — this is one place to start.”

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