Sunday, December 30, 2001

What comes next?: Good examples few

Community efforts look for progress, but there are few models of real success to follow. Other cities have tried, though...

By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It's been nearly a decade since rioters burned parts of Los Angeles to the ground, after a jury acquitted four white police officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney King.

        Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to help businesses recoup losses and rebuild whole blocks that were destroyed. City leaders and citizen groups created everything from jobs to neighborhood watch programs in an effort to recover from the more than $920 million in damage the riots caused. New partnerships between the public and private sector were forged to ease racial tension. And faith-based organizations sprung into action to fight racism and poverty.

        Still, no one is saying that even all those programs, money and effort have turned the nation's second-largest city into any model of American racial harmony.

        A perfect model doesn't exist.

        As Cincinnati contemplates its own plans to address deep divisions that led to the worst racial unrest here in 30 years, recovery may be more difficult than the riots.

        "Cincinnati is not alone," says Richard Newman, a research officer at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research at Harvard University. "It's only emblematic of what the situation is in every American city.

        "What is to be done? That is the question no one can really answer."

        In Greater Cincinnati, city and civic leaders, public and private officials and citizens are engaged in numerous programs that they hope will help make things better.

        Mayor Charlie Luken's race commission, Cincinnati Community Action Now, has been working since early May to improve housing, neighborhood development and health care, among other things.

        A conflict resolution firm, Aria Group, has solicited ideas from 3,500 area citizens on ways to improve police-community relations. It's part of an unprecedented process to resolve a federal racial profiling lawsuit against the city.

        The Cincinnati Human Relations Commission has coordinated 18 "Study Circle" discussion groups, in which more than 250 people have talked about ways to improve race relations.

        And The Cincinnati Enquirer has engaged hundreds more citizens in seeking solutions in "Neighbor to Neighbor," a series of meetings envisioned for nearly every neighborhood, village, township and city in the region.

        Across the country, other cities are trying new ways to help people get along, too. Approaches range from ambitious to close and personal:

Coeur d'Alene, Idaho (pop. 34,000)

        In 1998, this city took steps to distance itself from the Aryan Nation, a white supremacist group with a strong following there.

        When the hate group made plans for a march through town, the city and other organizations came up with "Lemons Into Lemonade," an idea they copied from Pennsylvania.

        Citizens were asked to pledge money for each minute the Aryan Nation marched. The longer the Aryans marched, the more money the citizens raised. The shorter they marched, the sooner it was over.

        The march lasted about 22 minutes, and the town raised $35,000. Much of it was directed to teachers in northern Idaho for classroom instruction on diversity.

        "It was a wonderful way to send a message," says Tony Stewart, a member of the local civil rights group that organized the campaign.

Anchorage, Alaska (pop. 260,000)

        Citizens in this city worked with a former Anchorage mayor to create a program called "Bridge Builders" in 1996.

        It began with members gathering a few times a year for potlucks during which individuals or families were randomly paired with others from different cultures. The get-togethers are seen as a good way for small groups of people to get to know each other and their cultures.

        More than 600 people now take part in the program.

Boston (pop. 589,000)

        The National Ten-Point Leadership Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Boston since 1992, has gained national recognition for reducing crime and easing tensions between blacks and police.

        Black clergy and black politicians were trained and then paired with police and kids to work together on dealing with crime. Boston's plan included using missionaries to serve as advocates for black and Latino juveniles in the courts., establishing links between suburban and downtown churches, and initiating and supporting neighborhood crime-watch programs.

        The approach was credited with helping reduce violence in the city by 75 percent.

St. Petersburg, Fla. (pop. 248,000)

        A civil disturbance in 1996 prompted city leaders to launch "Challenge 2001," which pinpointed a 5-square-mile area in which poverty, dropout rates, unemployment, property values and crime rates were the worst in the city.

        The goal was to reach certain numerical targets within four years. In the first three years of the program, for instance, 29 businesses were added or expanded in the target area; property values in the inner-city neighborhoods increased by at least 10 percent and violent crime dropped 18 percent.

        "Whether it helped or not (having numerical targets), I don't know," project manager Tyna Middleton says. At the least, ""It gave the community something to focus on."

        This year, the project name changed to "Midtown Development: Continuing the Progress." Its main focus is now economic development.

Akron, Ohio (pop. 217,000)

        The Coming Together Project was started in September 1993 as an outgrowth of a year-long series on race relations published by the Akron Beacon Journal.

        The newspaper documented disparities between blacks and whites in housing, economics, crime and educational opportunities. As part of its work, the newspaper asked organizations in the community to work on improving race relations.

        Within two years, 200 community organizations were working to improve race relations in various areas. In December 1995, the project was chartered as a tax-exempt, nonprofit corporation.

Phoenix (pop. 1.3 million)

        The city's Human Relations Commission and community leaders established a cultural diversity program in 1997 called "We're All on the Same Team.'' It strives to improve race relations by addressing hate-crime incidents and media portrayals of people of color. A local hot line staffed by the Phoenix Equal Opportunity Workshop provides residents with information about diversity programs, coming events and training workshops.

        A newsletter keeps communication open among citizens, schools, local businesses and the human relations commission.

        "It has to be a multifaceted approach," says Carole Coles Henry, acting director of equal opportunity in Phoenix. "And I can't emphasize enough that is has to be a participatory process."

Cincinnati 2001: Year of Unrest
Prologue to turmoil: "A very tense time"
The trigger: Shooting 'ignites furious response'
The riots explode: A city's dark week
Summer of blood - guns rule the streets
Tests of justice: Officers acquitted
Binding wounds: What can be done?
- What comes next?: Good examples few
WARD BUSHEE: A chance to talk honestly ... and to act
2001: A timeline
Unrest photo timeline
Jim Borgman on race

Local Voices
Angela Leisure
Angela Leisure, mother of Timothy Thomas

    The room falls silent as Angela Leisure rises to speak.

    The place is filled with kids, mostly teen-agers. Black and white, Asian and Hispanic.

    Ms. Leisure, 34, is the mother of Timothy Thomas, whose shooting death sparked April's riots. She came to this Urban League meeting because she is convinced children are the key to better race relations.

    Unlike the adults who so easily label her dead son a martyr or a criminal, these kids listen to what she has to say.

    She begins by telling them about her son.

    Timothy was 19. He had a girlfriend, a baby and a new job. He had plenty of worries, his mother says, but race was not among them.

    "You have to look past race," she says. "It's the only way you can live together."

    Ms. Leisure tells the children on one side of the room to close their eyes, and tells the others to whisper a few words to them.

    She asks the kids with closed eyes if they know the race of the person who just spoke to them.

    No, they say.

    She asks if seeing the color of the person's skin would have changed the meaning of their words, if their race would somehow make them better or worse.

    Again, the kids say no.

    "I don't care what color they are," one girl says. "It doesn't matter."

    Ms. Leisure nods her approval. In a year filled with anger and sadness and pain, she finds a reason for hope.