On Saturday, January 19, 2013, over 100 people of all ages and races braved cold, icy conditions to come together in the Blacksburg Community Center with a very specific purpose: to talk about race, racism, and civil rights. While the resulting day’s events in no way achieved the larger civil rights goal of “justice rolling down like waters,” offered by Reverend Martin Luther King in his “I Have a Dream” speech and imprinted in the black granite wall of the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, AL, those who gathered did bring understanding and hope to our community through the simplest of means--conversation.
The first Dialogue on Race event, mentioned above, aimed at improving race relations. It was the result of years of hard work, “grassroots energy,” and long-term commitment of three groups: the Human Relations Council (HRC) of Montgomery County, the Community Group, and the Dialogue on Race steering committee.
The HRC, created in 1993 by the Board of Supervisors, and the Community Group, formed by the Reverend John Price and Penny Franklin in 2006, the first African-American to be elected to public office in Montgomery County, laid the foundation for this event. The HRC was created to address racial issues as they occurred. The Community Group’s goal is to help unify the African-American community and encourage other black residents to run for public office. But neither group’s focus was on bringing a diverse group of people together to talk. Thus the need for the third group: the Dialogue on Race steering Committee.
From 2010 until early 2012, a small steering committee—Penny Franklin, Andy Morikawa, Dave Britt, Ben Dixon, Jim Dubinsky, Ray Plaza, Wornie Reed, and Latanya Walker—worked to find a model that would accomplish the goal of bringing people together to talk about race and begin to address problems of inequality around education, pay, and employment opportunities. There were a number of false starts -- one involving the Department of Justice. This group examined best practices, to include talking with a representive from the city of Lynchburg, where they were holding community conversations on the issue of race.
Four African-American Community Conversations: Oct 11 to Apr 2012
Finally, the steering committee decided that action was needed, and they would have to find a solution without outside assistance. Between late 2011 and early 2012, with a plan in hand, the key first step in having a wider community dialogue occurred. Before any real work in the larger community could happen, the members of the African-American community in Montgomery County, VA had to talk to one another. In a series of four focus group type meetings between October 2011 and April 2012, a group of 22-25 African Americans met. In dialogues coordinated by the Steering Committee and facilitated by Dr. Wornie Reed, the participants developed a list of racial issues faced by blacks in Montgomery: (1) law enforcement, (2) education, (3) jobs and employment, (4) income gap, (5) white privilege and Jim Crow orientations, and (6) the limited presence of African Americans on boards and commissions. These issues formed the basis for the larger community's dialogue.
Dr. Reed synthesized the data and brought it back to the rest of the steering committee. Then, between November 2012 and January 2013, the steering committee, often working on Friday evenings, planned the day’s events and began circulating invitations to elected officials, law enforcement officials, and interested citizens.
First Summit: January 2013
The first community event, a Dialogue on Race community summit, was designed to provide an environment that would enable those attending to discuss deeply held concerns, point out issues and problems, and work toward developing solutions. Several of the over 100 people in attendance who have been longtime county residents said, in effect, if they hadn’t seen the turnout themselves, they wouldn’t have believed such an event was possible.
The countywide discussion, aimed at improving race relations, was the result of years of hard work, “grassroots energy,” and long-term commitment of three groups: the Human Relations Council (HRC) of Montgomery County, the Community Group, and the Dialogue on Race steering committee. Most important was the formation of the issue groups designed to translate the positive energy of the day into action-oriented results.
Second Meeting: June 2013 (Issue Group Progress Reports)
On Saturday, June 22, the Dialogue on Race Issue Groups reconvened to follow-up on the progress achieved since the ground breaking Dialogue on Race Summit held at the beginning of the year. The event, Dialogue on Race: Projects Development, was at the Blacksburg Community Center from 9:00 to 11:30 am.
Reports on Action Underway
On Saturday, June 22, the Dialogue on Race: Projects Development gathered to learn and hear about the progress being made by the issue groups in taking action to resolve problems in Education, Law Enforcement, Jim Crow, Limited Presence, Employment & Income Gap. Project teams presented progress reports and their plans going forward.
Special Participatory Performance
The Jim Crow group arranged for the cast of behind a stranger's face to perform select scenes from the 2012 play. The play was created from New River Valley citizens' stories of interracial (mis)understanding and dialogue. This participatory performance blended theatrical scenes with opportunities for story-sharing, interaction, and deliberation among audience members.
Second Summit: 25 January 2014
On Saturday, January 25, 2014, over 125 people gathered for the second annual summit. We began with presentations from individuals who traveled to Ferguson, MO to gain an understanding of the protest and its consequences. Each issue group presented its progress, and we had a special report from the Law Enforcement group, led by Chief Mark Sisson. One of the wonderful parts of the summit was the performance by Monica and Marcia McIntyre. Watch a video of them singing "It Soon Come." Download a program.
Summer Summit (with Sides):
August 29, 2014.
The White Privilege group sponsored a picnic and a story-circle event to focus on the difficult conversations around the concept of "white privilege." We were supported by Bob Leonard and Jon Catherwood-Ginn.