2002-02-13 Grand Rapids Press "Summit on Racism plays to smaller audience"

Summit on Racism plays to smaller audience; business layoffs blamed
Grand Rapids Press

Attendance was strong in the education, churches, and community action team groups, but some said companies are tightening training time.

There's a wave of social change in America, people of color are settling in traditionally white areas such as West Michigan, Urban neighborhoods that had high minority populations 30 years ago still do, but often the ethnic make-up is
dramatically different.

That's a lot of change.

"It's probably safe to say that everybody won't link hands and sing 'It's a Small World After All"," said Ray Suarez, whose 25 years in journalism includes hosting National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation," and senior correspondent status for PBS's evening news," The NewsHour."

On Tuesday, Suarez addressed 550 people at the Second Annual Ottawa Area Summit on Racism at Hope College.

Warm and engaging, the journalist said he relishes being asked to speak at small Christian colleges because he considers himself to be a small Christian.

Suarez also considers himself an observer of social trends, not an advocate for particular outcomes. He chuckled and
said he hoped the large stained-glass window behind the podium in Dimnent Memorial Chapel would lend credibility
to his words.

During his speech, he wove post-World War II snapshots of separation and discrimination experienced by different minority group in various regions of the country. Vignettes showed how the stage is still changing.

He pronounced it all "fascinating." Civil-rights legislation has helped weed out institutionalized racism, yet America remains a place where race matters, Suarez said.

Whites living in homogeneous communities do not see it, and often, do not believe it. In contrast, there are nonwhites
who want to see racism as the root of every misfortune.

"Sometimes, the clerk behind the counter is an equal-opportunity jerk who would treat every customer badly," Suarez
said. "Sometimes, the apartment really was rented just minutes before."

Between the two extreme views is a Iot of territory to elevate the discussion of race to a new plane, Suarez said.

He praised the approach of organizations collaborating on the Ottawa Area Summit on Racism for trying to systematically promote racial harmony, without a blowout incident of racism to rally people.

Since there is no way to "settle the score" from past discrimination, the summit can build a vision and a plan to achieve a brighter, more inclusive America, Suarez said.

The process may gradually transform what is valued in America. Suarez suspects the abiliity to communicate in more than one language will become more important. Perhaps, political agendas one day will be fashioned around philosophies, not ethnicities, he said.

Gail Harrison, executive director of Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, the summit's chief organizer, was happy with
the daylong program - but disappointed that attendance lagged 100 participants behind last year's summit.

Based on favorable evaluations last year and strong participation in "action teams" that have continued meeting to promote unity on different fronts, Harrison suspects the sluggish economy depressed the turnout.

Attendance remained strong among participants involved in the education, churches and community action teams. But it
sagged in the business sector. Several participants said their companies are permitting less release time for training, and recent layoffs have left more duties for those who remain.

Lynn Kotecki of Huntington Bank said the business action team she serves on decided networking with other business leaders in family-friendly settings might be an effective way to spread the message among busy executives.

Several participants noted a north-south split in the county regarding diversity awareness. Residents of the greater Holland area are more likely to understand the issue because they are living in a diverse climate. In the Tri-Cities,
diversity awareness-building events still have to be imported they said.

''I've find we need to draw people in," said Roger White, a Spring Lake resident who teaches at Grand Haven's Griffin School.

"I'd like to have my fifth-graders do a cultural-exchange program with Muskegon Heights."

White's wife, Jan, a music teacher at Grand Haven's Central School, said her group also is starting by assessing how many multicultural teaching materials they have.

Work produced and shared Tuesday by action teams that began a year ago included directories of "best practices" that
groups can use to recruit, retain and advance people of color, if they desire.

The summit, is a five-year Process.

Other organizations collaborating with LEDA to organize the summit included the Alliance For Cultural and Ethnic Harmony, Latin Americans United for Progress and the COBB (Church of the Burning Bush) Center.