Sunday, April 7, 2002
First, we talk
Community meetings produce results
By Richelle Thompson, email@example.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer
It sounds so simple: Treat others as you like to be treated. Strike back at racist remarks and jokes. Meet a neighbor who's different from yourself. Teach your kids to respect others.
As Cincinnati marks one year since the riots, more than 2,100 people from nearly every Tristate neighborhood have broken a polite silence to engage in difficult talk on race.
Katy Schindler talks during a Neighbor to Neighbor meeting at St. Clement’s Church in St. Bernard March 7, 2002. Photo by Steven M. Herppich
They've met in church basements, crowded living rooms and school libraries. They've shed tears over personal stories of belittling racial slights. They've stumbled through their differences to reflect on what they share.
''Neighbor to Neighbor,'' a five-month series of neighborhood meetings, sought to get people talking about why Greater Cincinnati is divided by race -- and how to bridge the gap.
Personal responsibility topped many neighborhood lists. But as they discovered common ground, neighbors forged other ideas for improving race relations:
- School leaders should insist on diversity in the curriculum and teach respect for racial differences.
- Politicians and public servants should spend more time and money to rebuild neighborhoods and less to create riverfront showpieces.
- Community leaders should work to mend police-community relations and create more workplace equality.
- Churches and other community groups should play a greater leadership role.
''We have a lot of opinions, but the solution comes down to, 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,' '' says Janet Metzelaar, a Loveland small business owner who helped lead 13 Neighbor to Neighbor meetings across the region.
''If you follow that, it's not just on the street, it's on the job. It's in your homes and in your church. You're always considering how your actions make the person feel -- and how what you fail to do makes them feel.''
While lawyers worked throughout the winter on a high-profile agreement to improve police-community relations, every-day Cincinnatians quietly discussed race relations closer to home.
All told, 145 Neighbor to Neighbor meetings were held in 109 Greater Cincinnati communities since November. More than 1,800 people attended. Another 300 people volunteered more than 4,000 hours to host or lead meetings. Nearly half of the groups said they'd like to meet again.
Organized by The Cincinnati Enquirer, Cincinnati.com and various education and community service groups, the effort was endorsed by 111 community groups, churches and corporations.
''There's no place in the country that is doing anything as extensive as Neighbor to Neighbor,'' says John Doble, whose New Jersey-based company, Doble Research, has reported on public discussions about racial and ethnic tensions in 41 states.
The effort has inspired grass-roots volunteerism and renewed community action. In some communities, participants are working more closely with police officers and elected officials. They're planning school events, sports contests and joint church services to draw people closer.
Yet Neighbor to Neighbor wasn't without flaws.
Participants wondered whether their bigger suggestions would carry enough weight to sway public policy. Some neighborhood meetings ended before solutions were even discussed.
Organizers were disappointed, too, at the lack of diversity in many neighborhood meetings. White, middle-class women led the charge, and response was tepid from some parts of the African-American community. Few young people attended at all.
Participants were perhaps most vexed to realize they may have been ''preaching to the choir,'' a phrase heard over and over.
''My fear is that the people who need to talk aren't going to,'' says Paul Bernheimer, a Paddock Hills resident who helped lead a few neighborhood meetings. ''Some people are happy to be isolated. They don't want to upset their world.''
The goal was to provide everyday citizens a chance to be heard, and, if they were inspired, to take specific actions, says Rosemary Goudreau, managing editor of the Enquirer and a leader of the project.
''This was a chance to broaden the conversation and engage the whole region,'' she says.
In conversations, neighbors agreed that fighting racism is a daily, personal job.
''It means I care, and I'm willing to engage in trying to make our community better,'' Ms. Metzelaar says. ''I'm willing to see other people as neighbors, not as strangers.''
Neighbors in Highland Heights, Ky., decided to stand up against racist remarks and stereotypes. Mason residents pledged to smile more often at people of different races. Participants in Milford and Pleasant Ridge have met at least four times.
''It's got to start with each individual in some way,'' says Sandra McIntosh, a volunteer from Mount Auburn. ''You cannot legislate people's minds and hearts. Everyone has to take a responsibility and build on that.''
Start with kids
Educating children about racial diversity and equality emerged as another important way to improve relations.
Schools should incorporate more diverse lessons in their curricula and celebrate the heritages of minorities, participants said. Every child should have access to quality education.
The best chance to break the cycle of racism is to teach children respect and personal responsibility at an age when opinions are still being shaped, participants said.
''We have to realize that kids are forming opinions right now on misconceptions,'' says Susan Mellot Scheper, a volunteer from Newport.
The meetings also forced neighbors to confront the chasm between how whites and blacks view race. Some whites were shocked to hear stories of blatant racism that their black neighbors confront today. Some blacks were tired of rehashing the problems and ready for more concrete plans of action.
Yet personal stories brought some of the greatest power to Neighbor to Neighbor meetings.
At one forum, an African-American man who was a Tuskegee Airman told of a white man holding a gun to his temple and threatening to kill him.
''I watched the expressions on people's faces. I saw tears coming out of white people's eyes,'' says Thelma Massey, of Springdale, who helped lead several discussions. ''It was the first time they had ever talked with someone who actually had experienced racism.''
Maxine Otis, another volunteer, tells a story about the racist teachers she had in school.
''One of my teachers washed her hands whenever she touched a black student,'' says Ms. Otis of Kennedy Heights. Another teacher became enraged when a black student reported that she was a descendant of Gen. George B. McClellan, a white Civil War general.
At one meeting, Ms. Otis helped lead, three elderly African-Americans told stories of their past.
''The white people had no clue,'' Ms. Otis says. ''Just simple, everyday things -- but that's what we need to learn -- that everyone has a different experience.''
So where do we go from here?
Two churches in Forest Park -- the predominantly white Forest Chapel United Methodist and Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal -- have joined together for special services. And in Mount Healthy and Evanston, the Neighbor to Neighbor project merged with community councils.
Participants also have suggested moving the conversations into the classrooms, giving the next generation a chance to discuss race relations in a solutions-oriented forum.
Some proposed pairing different neighborhoods to bring together more diverse voices and connect people from around the region. Another possibility is a ''Citizens' Congress'' -- a region-wide gathering of neighbors that would set the public agenda on the issue of race.
The Enquirer and other organizations are considering a number of ways to continue the program, Ms. Goudreau says.
''We do hope other groups will want to take the power of this network we've created,'' she says. ''We'd love to hand this over to folks who can provide that leadership.''
Says Northside volunteer Deborah Zimmerman: ''A lot of us have learned that if you don't continue to work, if you get comfortable, things go back to the way they were.''
Violence up, arrests down
Changes made since April 2001
Q&A with Police Chief Streicher
Q&A with former F.O.P. president Keith Fangman
Neighbor to Neighbor
Community meetings produce results
Going beyond polite silence
What your neighbors said
What do you think?
What's happening in 145 communities
A sampling of communities:
What institutions are doing
Neighbor to Neighbor home page
Matters of Race: Bridging the divide in Greater Cincinnati
On the Same Page Cincinnati
Live Without Hate
Cincinnati 2001: Year of unrest
Unrest in the city: Archive of riot coverage
Unrest photo timeline
Jim Borgman on race