GRDC News - July 2003

Community Wide Dialogue
Racism, Race Relations and Racial Healing

Program Overview
An African American retired factory worker and a white police officer described their encounter to the 500 people assembled for Community Wide Dialogue's Facing Racism Together action breakfast. The African American man watched as a white police officer arrested an African American teenage boy. Distrustful of the police, the man walked over to ensure that the boy was being treated properly. As he approached, the man and the officer recognized each other from the dialogue circle in which they both participated. Instead of a tense confrontation, the trust and respect that they developed in the circle allowed them to defuse the tension through calm discussion. The two men told the audience that they saw each other as friends rather than adversaries. Their mutual respect also helped to calm the younger man who was under arrest.

Developing trusting relationships with people from different backgrounds is difficult. Most Central New Yorkers live, work, go to school and pray with people who look like them. For example, in the 1995-96 school year, student enrollment in the North Syracuse School District was over 90% white, while student enrollment at the Dr. King Elementary School in Syracuse was less than 10% white. Even in areas that are interracial, trust is hard to build, as illustrated by the voluntary segregation at lunchtime visible in any Syracuse high school.

Central New Yorkers are not alone in this separation. In 1998, the President's Initiative on Race released its report on the state of race relations in the United States. It stated that "Americans - whites, minorities, and people of color - hold differing views of race, seeing racial progress so differently that an outsider could easily believe that whites and most minorities and people of color see the world through different lenses". The report goes on to say that "one of the best tools for finding common ground and developing new understanding among people of different races is refute stereotypes and provide opportunities for people to share their individual experiences and views, which may be different from others because of their race". The report further recommends "more opportunities for these types of sustained dialogues are necessary to build a foundation for racial reconciliation".

Community Wide Dialogue on Racism, Race Relations and Racial Healing [CWD] provides Central New York with precisely the dialogue opportunities that the President's Initiative prescribes. Since the program kick off in late 1997, more than 1,000 people have joined dialogue circles.

CWD helps the Central New York community build trust and increase understanding necessary for finding common ground, developing relationships across racial divides, and working together towards action. The program provides a safe and effective process for participants to talk about and work on issues of racism and race relations with people from different racial, ethnic, religious, socioeconomic, and ideological backgrounds.

Program Description
The InterReligious Council of Central New York (IRC) developed CWD with the help of the Rosamond Gifford Charitable Corporation, the Study Circles Resource Center of Pomfret, CT, and a collaboration of leaders from local business, religious, social service, academic and grass roots organizations. Much time and energy have gone into building trust among the community partners that were assembled as an advisory board for this program. It has been a slow process. The growth in trust and commitment among these community and business leaders parallels the understanding that the CWD process facilitates across racial and socioeconomic lines.

At the heart of the CWD process is the dialogue circle. A dialogue circle consists of 12 to 15 people of different genders, races, religions, ages, and socio-economic backgrounds. The circle meets for six consecutive weeks for two-hour sessions. Two racially diverse facilitators and a discussion guide provide the structure for dialogue. The process builds trust through exercises that emphasize common ground, then leads to honest discussions of issues that affect this community. Participants learn how to be allies and how to work together to address racism. Many circles continue to meet past their minimum time commitment. Some have taken on action steps; others move to each other's home to continue strengthening the new relationships.

CWD staff works hard to make each dialogue circle 50% people of color and 50% European Americans/white. Participation in the 81 dialogue circles has been approximately 36% African American/black, 44% European American/white, 8% Latino/Hispanic, 2% Asian American, 3% Native American, and a small percentage of other ethnicities. Also, participants were 60% female and represented over 30 zip codes from across Central New York. Youth circles have also been held with the use of a separate youth discussion guide. Other outcomes have included:

  • The Syracuse Mayor has committed to having the police department work with CWD to bring more police officers into the dialogue. The Deputy Chief has joined the advisory committee.
  • Having completed a dialogue circle together, a group of Syracuse University students have started a new multicultural organization to combat racism and racial segregation on campus.
  • Attempts to work together to improve the neighborhood between the North Area Neighborhood Association (primarily European American) and the Southeast Asian community broke down repeatedly due to distrust and prejudice. Representatives from both groups were persuaded to participate in dialogue circle together. A strong tie has formed between the two groups, and they have since collaborated on several successful projects.
  • Working with the Chamber of Commerce, a committee has formed to improve the numbers of people of color on non-profit and corporate boards of directors.
  • As the community begins to see results of the program, funding has become more diversified. Grants have recently been received from the United Way of CNY, The CNY Community Foundation, The Gifford Foundation, and Niagara Mohawk Foundation.




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