PORTLAND — Talking about race can be an uncomfortable and loaded topic, although many people probably assume young children are not affected by it.

But that’s simply not the case.

“Our kids do see color (and) they have experiences and questions about race,” that should be freely discussed, said Grace Valenzuela, director of the Multilingual & Multicultural Center at the Portland Public Schools.

That’s one reason the School Department is hosting an upcoming public workshop called “Kids See Color: Talking to Kids about Race,” Saturday, Jan. 26, from 1-3 p.m. at the East End Community School on North Street.

The free Parent University event “is an opportunity for parents and guardians to learn how to talk about race with their young children in a helpful and positive way,” Valenzuela said.

“Racial diversity is a big part of who we are as a school district,” she said, with 44 percent of students “identify themselves as Hispanic, black, Asian, Native American or of two or more races.”

The Portland schools launched Parent University a year ago with the goal of informing, engaging and empowering parents “to promote the healthy development and academic achievement of every learner,” according to its website.

This week, Valenzuela said, “Parent University focuses on trending topics that are important to our families (and) this topic was chosen because race is a vitally important issue – in Portland, in Maine, throughout our nation and the world.”

She said the two presenters, Catherine Maryse Anderson and Erica King, were chosen based on their professional and personal experiences. Anderson is an expert facilitator and King is a policy associate at the Muskie School of Public Service.

Both women are also the parents of black and bi-racial children and they co-created the Cross Cultural Committee at Ocean Avenue Elementary School when their children attended the school. They are also both members of the Parent Advisory Council for the city schools.

Valenzuela noted that the “Kids See Color” workshop is specifically intended for parents of young children, those in pre-school through fifth grade. All Parent U classes and events provide light food and child care, along with interpretation services upon request.

Anderson said she and King first met nearly 10 years ago “over conversation about the challenges that our children face in school.” She said many children of color experience what she called “racial micro-aggressions” both in and out of the classroom.

The most important message that she and King want to share, Anderson said, is that “it’s OK to talk about race.” But they also want to make sure it’s done “in positive terms, rather than a pretend-not-to-notice or ‘hush-hush'” way.

“When kids hear their parents talk about color in ways that celebrate and wonder about difference, it permits them to do the same,” she said. “Our program includes a combination of background information and research on implicit bias and many approaches to opening up necessary conversations (about race) with their kids.”

King said these conversations are important because “our kids do see color and notice cultural differences from an early age (and while) some of us were socialized to be color blind, unfortunately, our systems in America are not.

“But all of us can create more opportunities for inclusion (and) make sure everyone has a seat at the table,” she said. That includes choosing what books to read to young children, choosing diverse social networks and providing more nuanced history lessons.

“As white parents, it is so important that we actively dispel the myth that difference is a topic we should avoid,” King said. “If we are able to become better at navigating these conversations with our children (we) can create a new inclusive Portland where all of our children can belong and thrive.”

Anderson said what she wants is for attendees to make “a deep commitment to leaning into their own barriers and discomfort about talking about race so that their children no longer think it is off limits or bad.”

She and King will also provide suggestions for ways parents can begin to build bridges toward supporting multi-racial friendships for their children.

“I want to be a thought partner with parents about how we can all do a better job at living our values with our children,” King said.

“We all (must) get better at interrupting the prevailing narrative that difference is bad or that homogeneity is good,” she added. “We all have to build better bridges to inclusion and belonging at every level of our community and lives.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 780-9097 or [email protected]. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.