Sunday, April 7, 2002

Going beyond polite silence

By Richelle Thompson,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        After 145 conversations about race involving more than 2,100 people from nearly every community in the Tristate, the question remains: Does talk work?<

        The answer: Yes. And no.

        A year of riots, marches and a boycott forced some Greater Cincinnatians to decide they can no longer keep quiet on the tough issue of race. Polite silence isn't an option anymore.

        The Cincinnati Enquirer, and other social service and education groups launched the Neighbor to Neighbor initiative last fall to promote frank talk about race relations.

        Some participants say talk can only go so far in addressing the region's race problems, and now is the time for action.

        Measured against other current events, such as the downtown boycott and last week's landmark settlement to improve police-community relations, others may perceive Neighbor to Neighbor as ''kind of wimpy,'' says volunteer facilitator Melissa Godoy of Mount Airy.

        Yet ''just the act of listening defuses ignorance, prejudice and rage,'' she says. ''Immediately you start to connect to another person and understand their point of view.''

        Talk about race is never easy.

        It must traverse gaps in culture and personal experience. If one person has suffered racial slights and another has not, the two may hear entirely different things when identical words are spoken.

        Different communication styles can complicate conversations already strained by decades of bad history. While whites strive for cool, measured speech to indicate reason and control, blacks may use emotion and passion to underscore a desire to engage. When the two styles meet, they're apt to clash -- to everyone's dismay.

        Sometimes well-meaning white people avoid the topic altogether -- especially in mixed-race company -- for fear of being labeled a racist. Others, of all colors, aren't interested in talking at all.

        At a Neighbor to Neighbor meeting in Northern Kentucky, the only black person was a volunteer facilitator. Conversation was stilted because the white people didn't want to say the wrong thing or anything that might hurt the African-American's feelings, says Paul Bernheimer of Paddock Hills, who also facilitated the meeting.

        ''I could tell that there was a lot of apprehension,'' he says. ''I could tell they wanted to say the right thing.''

        The important thing is that people were willing to talk, participants say.

        ''The most important thing we did was to talk about a difficult subject,'' says Amy Lovelace of Hyde Park, who volunteered to help lead several Neighbor to Neighbor discussions.

        ''Most of us don't know how to talk about race or even what words to use.''

        To encourage discussion, Neighbor to Neighbor relied on a conversation model developed by the National Issues Forums and based on research funded by the Kettering Foundation, a non-profit institute outside of Dayton, Ohio. Its mission is to encourage public dialogue and help citizens solve public problems.

        The conversation style harkens to the days of the New England Town Hall, where citizens helped decide what direction their communities should take.

        ''Often people feel like conversations are futile,'' says John Cavanaugh, program developer at the Kettering Foundation. ''Here's a sense where people can really roll up their sleeves and do some public work together.''

        And talk is powerful, both as a weapon to hurt and as a tool for healing.

        People often encounter racism through the spoken word. At the meetings, neighbors recalled racial slurs, cruel jokes and bigoted names that haunt them today.

        Talk changed some people. One white facilitator started volunteering at a primarily African-American, after-school program. Another participant planned to start a boys and girls club.

        ''I was amazed how much self-reflection I went through, and I can't imagine that some of the participants didn't go through the same thing,'' says volunteer Chris Grabarkiewicz of Madeira.

        For some Neighbor to Neighbor participants, the measure of talk's success hinges on whether it spurs concrete steps for change.

        Talk works ''as the beginning stage of something even bigger,'' says Leah Stewart, a volunteer host from Liberty Township in Butler County. ''You have to be able to talk, at a round table, a square table, an oval table, or whatever. But you have to put talk with action.''

        Action also can take the form of more conversations, some say.

        ''Any group or person is going to be more honest and open the fifth time they meet rather than the first. Familiarity and comfort is important to opening up,'' says host Sharon Heck of Wyoming.

        Miracles happen through the simple act of talk, another participant said.

        A group gathering at Elder High School was overwhelmingly white. Then two African-Americans wandered in, lost, looking for a different meeting on an unrelated topic.

        They decided to stay at Neighbor to Neighbor and share their experiences. Residents opened up and learned from each other, says facilitator G.H. Liebenow of Price Hill.

        ''Talking, they say, is cheap, but it's also very important,'' he says. ''I listen to learn, but first, I have to learn to listen.''

The Police
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:
Mount Healthy
Pleasant Ridge
What institutions are doing

Related Links
Neighbor to Neighbor home page
Matters of Race: Bridging the divide in Greater Cincinnati
On the Same Page Cincinnati
Live Without Hate
Common Ground
Cincinnati 2001: Year of unrest
Unrest in the city: Archive of riot coverage
Unrest photo timeline
Jim Borgman on race

One Year Later
What were they thinking?
Too early to assess impact
Micheal Basnight's resolve
Violence part of life in OTR
CAN co-chair has no doubt
ACLU adds its Y-E-S to deal

Restaurant owner
Taft senior
Social worker
Sarah Center director
Jordanian grocer
Gallery owner
Beauty shop supplier
Teacher's aide
Dock worker
Police officer
Soup kitchen manager
School social worker
Medical student
Treatment counselor

Violence up, arrests down
Changes since April 2001
Q&A with Streicher
Q&A with Keith Fangman

Meetings produce results
Beyond polite silence
What your neighbors said
What do you think?
In your community
Mount Healthy
Pleasant Ridge
What institutions are doing

Neighbor to Neighbor
Matters of Race
On the Same Page
Live Without Hate
Common Ground
Year of unrest
Riot news archive
Unrest photos
Jim Borgman on race