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Opinion

Where racial healing happens

Richmond, Va., shows how real dialogue is more than just talk.

By Rob Corcoran / May 15, 2008



Richmond, Va.

Shortly after Senator Obama's speech on race this March, a friend likened the racial issue to an old coffee pot that keeps percolating. Every few years something happens to bring the vexed problem bubbling to the surface.

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Unplugging the percolator requires courageous conversation and frank acknowledgment of the underlying sources of distrust.

My friend, Mike McQuillan, is an educator, a veteran community organizer, and former Senate adviser. He played a key role in establishing the Crown Heights Coalition in New York after confrontations between Hasidic Jews and blacks in 1991.

"Change emanates from the bottom," he says, pointing to important progress over the past two decades. And he's right: Ordinary people are coming together to do extraordinary things. Healing conversation is already under way.

In hundreds of local efforts across the US, diverse groups of citizens are bridging the traditional boundaries of race, class, and culture. Thousands have engaged in dialogue, symbolic acts of reconciliation, and collaborative problem solving. Organizations such as Everyday Democracy and Hope in the Cities (a project of Initiatives of Change) are facilitating this.

Two critical components create space for real dialogue: Not pointing the finger of blame, but extending a hand of friendship. And insisting on bringing everyone to the table, even those with whom we most disagree.

By treating people as potential allies, rather than branding them enemies, we can focus on solving problems instead of continuing to glare at each other from self-righteous and isolated positions.

Dialogue is more than "just talk." Consider Richmond, Va., a city deeply divided by its history as the former capital of the Confederacy and site of a prominent slave market. Dialogue laid the groundwork for a Civil War center that tells the story from the perspective of Unionists, Confederates, as well as African-Americans – a first in the nation. Last year more than 5,000 people celebrated the unveiling of a reconciliation statue as a step in healing the memory of the transatlantic slave trade.

Trust, built through honest conversation, was the foundation for change. The Richmond newspaper, notorious for once supporting massive resistance to integration, now hosts regular "public square" meetings for citizens to voice their views. A corporate leader who has taken part in dialogues says he is committed to making Richmond "a place where the economic wealth is shared proportionally by the diversity of the community." Conservatives and liberals are learning to work together to build a just and inclusive community.

Conversations with changemakers confirm that this opportune moment extends across the country. A commentary in which John Graham of the Giraffe Heroes Project admitted with shame his fleeting question about the competency of a black airline pilot prompted an outpouring of e-mails and similarly honest sharing.

The key to healing is in provoking and then sustaining this honest conversation among ordinary citizens. Productive conversation demands readiness by all stakeholders to hold themselves, their communities, and institutions accountable, and to be willing to change where change is needed.

A starting place might be an acknowledgment by white Americans that history provides little reason for black communities to trust the motives of white leaders. They might say, "It is true that in many communities we resisted integration and then abandoned the system and placed our children in suburban or private schools. We constructed highways that tore the heart out of established African-American neighborhoods. We contributed to the concentration of poverty by concentrating public housing in specific inner city neighborhoods and refused them in the suburbs. We participated in the disinvestment of the city."

How might the members of the African-American community begin the conversation? They might say, "For too long we have nursed historical grievances, played the racial guilt card, and been reluctant to acknowledge progress made. We have often blamed others while neglecting to care for our own communities and abandoning our young people to drugs and violence. We have allowed some of our leaders to put political power and patronage above the health of the community."

Both black and white could say, "We have remained silent when we should have spoken out. We have been resistant to change."

America's story is complex and interwoven. It defies easy stereotyping. By honoring each other's stories and accepting shared responsibility for change, we can heal the wounds of this country and forge something of incalculable value for a world torn by conflicts rooted in historical grievance and competing identities.

Rob Corcoran is the national director of Initiatives of Change. His forthcoming book on reconciliation in Richmond is "Trustbuilders."

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