2001-02-14 Holland Sentinel Bridging the racial divide

Bridging the racial divide
Holland Sentinel

Doug Sherman of Coopersville believes that catching and stopping racism while a community is small will keep it from running out of control as the area expands.

Lee Sandoval of Grand Haven says another way to halt racism is to teach students about the local neighborhood cultures that match the languages they learn in school, instead of tying languages only to cultures oversees.

The two men, who work in government, shared their ideas at Tuesday’s day-long Ottawa Area Summit on Racism at Hope College. The catalyst for a five-year plan, the summit’s goal was to produce ideas for how to rid the area of racism.

Preceding the summit were two town meetings last fall – one in Holland and one in Grand Haven – that invited residents to tell how racism affected their lives her and what they would need to feel comfortable in society. Summit planets took those stories to a December leadership meeting and created a vision for Tuesday’s event.

In all, 643 people registered for the summit, including planning committee members. Volunteer registration coordinator Mhairi Blacklock estimated 600 registered community members showed up, and a few extra people were allowed to join small-group breakout sessions in place of those who did not come.

Gail Harrison, executive director of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, which sponsored the meeting, said that she had hoped for 500 people at most. Harrison closed registration earlier than scheduled last week because there was no space for more breakout groups on Hope’s campus.

Harrison saw Tuesday’s speeches and discussions as long-awaited forum for people who wanted to tackle racism but had no concrete plans.

“My sense is there (were) a lot of people here that are uncomfortable with racism but didn’t know what they do to fight racism, and this became the vehicle for good intentions,” she said after the summit.

Harrison said the breakout groups were a way to link people new to the anti-racism camp with those who have concentrated on it for years. Many participants were members of the African-American Support Group, the Alliance for Cultural and Ethnic Harmony and Latin Americans United for Progress, which collaborated with LEDA in sponsoring the summit.

The groups were divided into seven sectors – media, health care, government, business, community, education and faith – and met after keynote address from Gregory Williams, dean of the law school at Ohio State University.

Williams grew up as a white boy in Alexandria, Va., but discovered he was black at age 10 when his alcoholic father moved him and a brother to Muncie, Ind., after a family split. Williams spoke about the legal discrimination and segregation he experienced in mid-century Indiana housing projects but told the audience that unlegislated mistreatment continues today.

“Minority groups view discrimination as continuing, and why shouldn’t they?” he asked.

He quoted statistics of racial disparity in the areas of poverty, residential segregation, home ownership, Internet access, CEO demographics and school populations.

He challenged summit participants to make opportunities for jobs, role models and access to necessary services equal across skin-color lines.

Two breakout sessions followed Williams’ speech. People in each group first, identified barriers to racial inclusion in their society sectors, then brainstormed for ways to break them down. The solutions were shared in a full-group session just before Juan Andrade gave the closing keynote address.

Andrade, head of the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute, spoke about biblical analogy that says all Christians are part of one body, the church. He extended the analogy to say that all races are part of one body, the community, and all are interdependent for full-functioning and health.

“What if your feet didn’t take you where you needed to go? Or worse, what if your feet declared their independence and went their separate ways? Where would that leave you?” he asked an audience, which laughed while apparently understanding his points.

“You see, we all have to work together as a body,” he said. “Where one goes, they all go. We must treat one another with care.”

Ruther Hill agreed with Andrade’s exhortation to care and said she would like to see health care, in particular, more available to people who may not have access or be able to afford its full cost.

“I wish that they could accept all groups within our community,” said Hill, of Holland.

Jim Bonner from Grand Haven, who attended an education breakout session, said a way to increase acceptance is to start training school staff on diversity issues.

“If the community of parents hears that staff are undergoing training… they’re going to want to know what it’s about, how does this affect my child in the classroom,” Bonner said. That would spread the message of multicultural inclusion, he said.

Another school-related tactic is Sandoval’s suggestion of referencing local cultural when teaching foreign languages. Sandoval is Hispanic and said the many Spanish-speaking families in this area could give students learning Spanish a readily available perspective about their culture.

Lack of understanding an ignorance were barriers citied in many groups, and a commonly suggested solution was to built relationships with people of other backgrounds.

Lorna Hernandez Jarvis, a Hope psychology professor who attended the community session, said her group noticed a lack of support networks in the Holland area.

“For people who move into our community, we’re a very closed community. We don’t welcome them very well. Finding ways to create those networks so those people feel welcome is something we talked about for a long time,” Jarvis said.

Finding ways and planning action are the next items on the agenda for summit participants, as summed up by Monika Giddy, bilingual education coordinator for Holland Public Schools.

“It needs to be more than a one-time event,” she said. “We need to put our money where our mouth was today.”