Rob Corcoran talks with two members of the Community Trustbuilding Fellowship class who have traveled from Georgia to particpate in the program.
After 22 years as a Georgia state representative, Carl Epps was called to the ministry. For the past 10 years he has pastored a church in the West Georgia area. He resides in LaGrange, a city of 30,000 residents 67 miles southwest of Atlanta, which serves as the county seat of Troup County. Born and bred in LaGrange, Carl, who is African American, co-chairs a county-wide effort for honest conversation and trustbuilding.
Last year, Carl and his colleagues called on Hope in the Cities to lead a series of training sessions for a wide cross-section of Troup County community leaders. In the course of the training he met Ben Wheeler. Ben and his wife came to LaGrange in 2009 with Mission Year, a Christian mission program focused on community service and justice. “For that year we shared a house with two other couples, so we had to deal with all the personal dynamics and learn to deal with conflict!” Ben now works with DASH (Dependable Affordable Sustainable Housing), a nonprofit that was formed in 2002 to provide a holistic array of housing services ranging from home ownership opportunities to credit repair and community building programs. He also runs a farmers market.
Carl says the Troup County initiative is important because “race always has a way of seeping into the conversation.” He says, “Three mayors and other elected officials have sincerely taken on the dialogue. There is recognition that we are a diverse community.” Troup County is 31.4% African American, 62.5% European American, 9.2% Hispanic and 3.7% Asian. (LaGrange itself is 48% black.) Carl’s co-chair for the initiative is Ricky Wolfe, a former Troup County Commission chair, who is white. He founded DASH because of his concern at the lack of affordable housing in LaGrange. Carl says Wolfe’s commitment to the interracial dialogue is significant. “Anything that Ricky puts his mind to, you give it validity. If it came from a different direction it might not have. Race is a touchy issue.”
Ben agrees about the race factor. “We’ve worked on literacy, we’ve worked on many things, but we’ve not addressed the heart of what’s going on because no-one wanted to address it.”
Ben grew up in Perry, Florida. “I’ve started meeting in LaGrange with an African American guy who grew up in the same town as me in Florida. I’ve heard stories about systemic racism. My town was involved in what is known as the Rosewood massacre (a notorious racially motivated killing of blacks and destruction of a small black town in 1923) but I had never heard the African American side of the story.”
As well as the Troup County dialogues, Ben and Carl are both participating in the Community Trustbuilding Fellowship led by Hope in the Cities in Richmond, Va. They have traveled to Richmond four times for the residential training program which concludes with a final weekend session in April.
Ben says that he is looking forward to taking the next step in Troup County to facilitate discussion, “not just on the past but also on the vestiges of history that are still evident.” He believes it is important for the whole community. “It’s a quality of life issue. We all swim in the same river but we don’t realize the river is polluted. We all need to take responsibility. The way whites treated blacks in LaGrange is pitiful and it’s not recognized. Just drive down the road and you can cee the disparities.”
What is different about the process that Hope in the Cities is facilitating? Ben says, “The difference is the container, the space to encourage the conversation to take place. There needs to be a strong container because without it there would be no sustainability. It takes longevity.”
Carl sums up his experience with the Hope in the Cities project: “The most valuable thing that I am learning and observing is the broad diversities of experiences and emotions that each of us has and brings to the table of discussion. I am saddened from our efforts in LaGrange by some who are in denial and some who are filled with disdain for their fellow man. But in these same efforts to build trust in LaGrange, I am very much encouraged by so many who are committed to making this community a better place to live.”
For more information on the Troup County trustbuilding training process