Sunday, June 16, 2013

This column by Rob Corcoran appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, June 16, 2013. It is reproduced with permission.

Twenty years ago on a sweltering June afternoon, Richmonders of all backgrounds from city and suburbs, led by Mayor Walter T. Kenney and Chesterfield County Supervisor Jack McHale, came together in a dramatic act that broke the silence surrounding much of the city’s racial history. Through a two-mile walk to mark sites previously too painful or shameful to remember, Richmond became the first US community to give its racial past such public and formal acknowledgement.

This first walk on June 18, 1993, set in motion a sustained movement of honest conversation across the region that continues to gain momentum today. The historic Slave Trail is one of several public history sites that are attaining widespread recognition. The commitment to honor our many different stories, no matter how conflicted, is at the heart of Richmond’s healing process.

While the original walk was largely the result of grass-roots action, today the full telling of our history is promoted by the city’s Slave Trail Commission and our universities, museums and faith communities. Donald Shriver writes in “Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Admit its Faults”: “Like few other cities in the United States, Richmond can now host a civic conversation that involves virtually the whole of the American story.”

Richmond Unity walk 1993 (Photo: Rob Lancaster)

Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson and biographer of Mahatma Gandhi, was among those walkers from 25 countries in 1993 who accompanied Richmonders in their bold initiative. He writes: “June 1993 was the start of a remarkable revelation. Resolving (with some difficulty) to face a painful past, Richmond discovered that concealed inside that pain was the seed of a great promise — a promise that an America that seeks healing will be sought after by a hurting world. Thanks to many in Richmond, that promise is seeing fulfillment.”

Stephen Hendricks, now a professor at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, also took part with his wife, Brenda. “The Richmond walk was very significant for Brenda and myself,” he says, “because in South Africa we were undergoing a transition toward democracy for the first time. … The walk prepared us as black South Africans to forgive the oppressors for what they did to us as a people and together forge ahead as we experienced the release of Mandela.”

Over the years, visitors from as far away as Northern Ireland, Lebanon and Guatemala have come to study this city’s approach to healing wounded memories and building partnerships across traditional divides. Despite the odds, Richmond continues to build networks of trust that stand the test of time and are helping to transform the community.

Stated briefly, the core principles of this approach are: Begin the change process with yourself. Include everyone. Acknowledge history. And build a team.

This summer, Richmond is the primary inspiration behind an international forum: “Healing History: Overcoming Racism, Seeking Equity, Building Community,” which will be held at the Initiatives of Change (IofC) conference center in Caux, Switzerland.

IofC USA is best known in Richmond for its Hope in the Cities program. Edward Ayers, president of the University of Richmond; Christy Coleman, president of the American Civil War Center; and Ben Campbell, pastoral director of Richmond Hill retreat center, are among the local community leaders who will share Richmond’s story. More than 70 Americans from 12 states will take part.

Historians, business and faith leaders, grass-roots activists and youth, as well as representatives of NGOs from around the world, will explore the history and legacy of racism and how communities can work together to create cultures of inclusion and economies that work for all.

The forum reflects collaboration with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which five years ago launched a racial equity project as an important approach in its mission of supporting vulnerable children. Richmond can expect to gain fresh perspectives at this forum that will give added energy to our efforts to build a healthy and inclusive metropolitan community. Hopefully it will encourage conversation — and action — on some of the tough issues facing the region.

Honest conversation means asking ourselves, “Is there something that I or my group is doing that is perpetuating the problem?” and asking those from whom we feel divided, “What is it that you need to hear from me in order to begin to build trust?”

Asking these questions will be uncomfortable. But we should take heart from the fact that Richmond has already accomplished things that once seemed impossible to contemplate. We can say to America and the world that it is possible for trust to be built in the most unlikely places.

Rob Corcoran is the national director of Initiatives of Change and author of Trustbuilding: An Honest Conversation on Race, Reconciliation, and Responsibility.