Wednesday, March 22, 2017
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Franklin Jennings“This experience has been truly one of a kind,” says Franklin Jennings who works with youth development. “What I find most impactful is that although tons of people in the world want to see good change happen, not many are equipping themselves to do anything about it.” Franklin is one of 26 community leaders from Richmond, VA, and six other states who have just completed the third of five residential weekend modules in the Community Trustbuilding Fellowship. He says, “This program is helping me to be able to not only ask the tough questions, but to ask those questions to the right people while establishing real respect that will help us to come up with an answer together.” 

Kelly Merrill“What makes this fellowship distinctive to me is the opportunity and expectation for application,” says Kelly Merrill, a professor of human communication studies, with interests in leadership, social justice, and dialogue. “The quality of the instruction is challenging and enriching, with expert facilitation and instruction.” She highlights guest faculty member, Dr. Hugh O’Doherty, who teaches leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.  He has worked with groups in Bosnia, Croatia and Cyprus as well as with Israelis and Palestinians, Armenians and Turks, and Kashmiris. In a weekend devoted to the skills of dialogue facilitation O’Doherty stressed that facilitation is not a technique but a life discipline. Merrill recalls his insight that "you are what you meditate." The goal as a facilitator is to hold fast to your purpose (a word derived from the Greek word for fire). The key is “how to develop a tolerance for being in the fire. The limit of the dialogue will be the limit of what you can tolerate.” You need to observe and interpret what is going on in the room and be “a mirror to reflect back to the group what it can’t see.”

Other program modules explore the connection between personal and social change and the power of history and its legacy. Guest faculty Hannibal Johnson, an author and historian from Tulsa, OK, described the 1921 “race riot” when over 1,200 homes as well as business, schools and churches in the black community were destroyed by white mobs in what been called the worst act of domestic terrorism in US history. Johnson is part of an interracial coalition working to uncover the story which had been largely “buried” until 1971. The Tulsa riot was part of a national pattern of assault on black communities when lynching was a regular occurrence. “White people brought their little dressed-up children as if to a carnival to watch people being hanged, burned and castrated.” But he added that today white people are often angry that they don’t know their own history; they feel they have been cheated, short-changed. “Whites may not know it but we are all victims [of racism] today and the sooner we act on making amends, the better off we will be.”

Melody PorterThe module on history provoked deep emotions, vigorous debate and some conflict, including within racial groups. One participant remarked, “White liberals in America are not having conversations with those who feel differently.” Melody Porter reflects: “Debriefing our walk of the Trail of Enslaved People I was face to face with my privilege and responsibility, the stories I know about my family, and what it means for me as a white person to work for racial healing and justice today.” Porter, who directs the Office of Community Engagement at the College of William and Mary, continues: “At one point during the weekend, a side comment came up that made me think hard about one question in particular: Am I proud to be a white woman? My response at that time is still true a couple of weeks later: ‘Well, that’s a longer conversation.’ It is. And as I prepare for our next modules together, and my daily work of justice in these areas, it is a conversation I will continue to have in my own heart and with others whom I trust to hold it, with challenge and grace.” 

Osita IroegbuOsita Iroegbu is a first-generation Nigerian-American. She is a community advocate and communications specialist focused on the intersection of media, race, health and social justice.  “We are all challenged to dig deeper and think more critically as we work to construct a narrative of truth, inclusivity and healing. The possibility that this process involves considering not only the narratives of the oppressed, but also that of the oppressor can be an uncomfortable act, because who really wants to evaluate and attempt to understand evil and oppression?  But there is an unveiling that occurs when we peel back both historical and contemporary layers that can lead us to more nuanced discussions about how to identify the root causes of racism and bigotry, dismantle systems of oppression and reconstruct structures and spaces of justice, where the stories, experiences, truths and lives of the historically marginalized and oppressed are not only included, but are centered and elevated.” 

Demetrius Summerville is a licensed mental health counselor who serves as the director of community relations at a community center in a distressed neighborhood in Orlando, FL. He also works with a local foundation committed to the reconciliation. He says, “What makes CTF distinctive is its emphasis on the importance of listening to the sacred stories of the ‘other.’ In the listening, empathy can grow within each individual to help build the bridge across whatever barrier that divides. The faculty laid the groundwork for community trustbuilding when Rob Corcoran stated, ‘Failure to root your social justice efforts on the bedrock of a strong inner life and lived out values can endanger the most idealistic efforts.’

Demetrius Summerville“What has been rewarding for me so far has been, in a sense, the most painful. It is ironic that I am a mental health counselor trained to listen with empathy not judgement. However, as it relates to divisive social issues I have neglected this principal and sought to listen to prove I am right, resulting in a loss of relationship with the ‘other.’ I am grateful for the gift of being reminded to listen with empathy, not judgement.” 

In an exercise to understand ways to acknowledge and heal history, working groups discussed five case studies: Prince Edward County, VA, where public schools were closed for five years to avoid integration; American Indian residential schools; Japanese Internment during World War II; the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in New York when the gay community took part in violent demonstrations against police raids; and the lynching of Italians in New Orleans in 1891 – the largest single lynching in US history. Each group worked on scenarios to fully acknowledge the event, as well suggestions on which people or institutions might be included and what questions might lead to constructive dialogue. 

Alesia ClementAlesia Clement, a retired social worker from Tulsa and docent coordinator at the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation, says, “The experience has brought enlightenment to my life and the work of reconciliation. The program is one of great importance to all who have a desire to contribute to our healing history.  The materials and workshops are great lessons on how we can move America to a better place.”  Kelly Merrill adds, “My peers elevate the experience with their diversity and authenticity. I expected to find a community of new colleagues, but I am certain that I have found life-long friends.”

Read further insights from these Fellows

Photos: Rob Corcoran