A Strategy to Defuse Racial Tension

"I don't know where World War III will start, but it may be because of race," said the Rev. Pedro Villarroya, an official of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese in Los Angeles.Villarroya was speaking as a participant in Los Angeles's Day of Dialogue, a series of nearly 100 interracial gatherings in all parts of that city last fall aimed at easing tensions rubbed raw after the O.J. Simpson murder trial."The shock of the verdict caused a veneer to slip," said Carolyn Webb de Macias, chief of staff to Los Angeles Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who first proposed the Day of Dialogue. The way Americans talk about race has regressed, she said. "And it frightens me personally. Children will be put in the position of choosing up sides."What to do? The councilman and other Los Angeles officials decided to start with something deceptively simple -- getting people together to talk about the problems.For help, they turned to a little-known Connecticut organization called the Study Circles Resources Center, which was already quietly working with some 70 communities throughout the country. Study circles are small groups of people of different races or backgrounds talking about barriers to -- and avenues for -- addressing problems of common concern.Critics, including some who have been through the dialogues, question what mere talk can accomplish."But how else can we come up with solutions?" responds Martha McCoy, executive director of the study circles organization. "Talking may not be the solution, but it's the critical first step."McCoy has watched the study-circle idea take off since Lima, Ohio -- a city of 50,000, a quarter of whom are black -- began experimenting with it after the Los Angeles riots in 1992. Lima citizens, including the mayor, wanted to head off trouble in their own environs."This hasn't been a flash in the pan, but a real, sustained effort over three years," said Lima Mayor David Berger. By now thousands of townspeople are involved, he said.One is the Rev. Lamont Monford, pastor of the Philippian Baptist Church."My mother was murdered 14 years ago," said Monford. "The only thing we know is that she was murdered by a white man. At the time I was angry because it seemed like the police weren't doing enough. The study circles allowed me to open up and share my feelings. They connected me with white people who care."Now his black Baptist church has developed a "covenant" with a white Catholic church to work together on several community projects.Friendships are growing and other black-white networks are forming "action groups," said Berger. One group-comprising a synagogue, a Catholic church, a black Baptist church, and a Methodist church-decided to provide support for a community center, helping with tutoring and recreation for young people."There's a better feeling in this community," said Ron Hagaman, an aide to the mayor. You see "people from different churches shopping together," he said. "When you take a look at it all, you've got to have the feeling that, yes, things are different. Can you measure that with facts and figures? I don't think you can."In Los Angeles, that process is just beginning, but it seems to be moving rapidly.On four days' notice last October, the study-circles center trained more than 100 people to lead the discussions for the first Day of Dialogue. Sponsoring groups were diverse. Churches and unions were involved, and workplaces as well -- including the Biltmore Hotel, where managers, housekeepers and bellhops all got together to talk, said Avis Ridley-Thomas, administrator in the city attorney's Office of Dispute Resolution and married to the councilman.The just-trained moderators used some of their new skills to keep the talks moving, to prevent a few people from monopolizing the discussions, and to avoid violent confrontations.Since then, the idea has been spreading.Planning is underway for a second Day of Dialogue in at least double the sites, said administrator Ridley-Thomas, whose office has just trained 200 facilitators to lead the next round. An ad hoc group in the fire department, plagued by racial strife, has sought training to facilitate study circles, she said."It's amazing how little we really know about each other," said Villarroya of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, looking back at the talks.As expected, views on race differed dramatically -- and were often argued heatedly. Some whites felt unfairly curbed by affirmative-action programs. Some blacks saw subtle -- and often not-so-subtle-discrimination preventing them from achieving equality. And some Latinos felt caught in the middle of the black-white confrontations.Some were a bit disappointed by the meetings. Villarroya, for example, argued that more preparation should have been undertaken before the talks were launched. He fears that discussion sessions alone, without a specific effort to include those who can make decisions and influence legislation, could lead to disillusionment on the part of people who expected the discussions to lead to immediate changes.But Los Angeles city officials were encouraged enough by the turnout and the candor at the first study-circle talks that they are now planning a resource center to keep the dialogues going.Villarroya said that the Catholic Archdiocese is launching its own series of dialogues among its own minority groups, independent of the city. He feels more progress can be made in smaller groups with specific goals.No one expects that a handful of two-hour discussions -- in Lima or in Los Angeles or in any other city -- will end deep-seated and long-standing racial divisions. Further, no one is absolutely certain how to determine if they're working.But some people are beginning to try. Marvin Rosenberg, a professor at Case Western Reserve University, is working on the design and evaluation of study circles. "I see measuring outcomes on an individual level, then going to changes in behavior, and then to political action and legislation," he said.Those in Lima say they have already seen changes. "There are no dramatic conversion stories that I know of," said participant Tom Redding, "but a lot of people have been reinforced in wanting to do something about racism."And, although it's too early in the process to measure outcomes in Los Angeles, many observers of the first round of talks are guardedly optimistic."I've seen two riots in my life and that's two too many," said administrator Ridley-Thomas. "This is riot prevention work. It has more potential than anything I've seen."

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