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Topics: Community

Bridging the Divides of Race & Ethnicity

Dialogue and Problem-Solving Bridge the Divides of Race and Ethnicity. The process of overcoming bias must begin in communities, where people interact and daily face the consequences of racial, ethnic and class antagonisms. This article profiles several successful programs that combine opportunities for face-to-face dialogue among individuals from diverse backgrounds with broad-based support and involvement of local organizations and governing institutions. Case study plus.

Case Study Plus: Bridging the Divides of Race & Ethnicity

by Martha L. McCoy and Robert F. Sherman

Reprinted with permission from the National Civic Review, Spring-Summer 1994, pp. 111-119. Copyright ©1994 by the National Civic Review

The process of overcoming bias must begin in communities, where people interact and daily face the consequences of racial, ethnic and class antagonisms. Successful programs combine opportunities for face-to-face dialogue among individuals from diverse backgrounds with broad-based support and involvement of local organizations and governing institutions.

What we ordinarily see as the fundamental elements of our identities—race, class, gender, religion, civic group membership, place of residence, language—too often constitute the very sources of our separateness and group antagonisms. Valuing our diversity while discovering our commonalities is essential to the cohesion and effectiveness of our communities and a realistic vision of civic renewal.

Democracy is most dynamic when community members work together and feel deeply that by doing so they can make a difference in their personal and collective lives. Physical separation based on race and class—the norm in most communities—is a powerful barrier to democratic practice. [1] It also compounds misperceptions, fear, mistrust, and the belief that community concerns are "their issues" rather than "our issues."

These divisions and the attitudes they engender affect where we choose to live (and even whether we can choose), where we walk, the jobs we hold, how we are educated, the community projects we promote, and our beliefs about effectiveness.

As the dire consequences of these divisions become apparent, there are more frequent calls for people of different races to explore what they have in common. [2] This article describes specific examples of communities that have established institutions for genuine, effective interracial interaction. These examples demonstrate that communities can make a significant difference in the ways people view each other and work together.

What Divides Our Communities? What Can Bring Us Together?

Recent evidence has demonstrated the persistence and even growth of corrosive and negative stereotypes held about others by almost every group in America. A recent wide-ranging public opinion survey conducted by the National Conference (formerly the National Conference of Christians and Jews) uncovered "two polar views of equality: white and non-white." Differing perceptions about the level of inequality in society lead people of different races not only to conflicting ideas about public policy but also to negative personal judgments about the members of other races. [3] Strengthening those perceptions is what Howard Gadlin has called a "structurally based antagonism between the races," the fact that "lack of agreement is structured into the very ways people of different races experience themselves." [4]

Our current institutions most often reflect rather than confront structurally based antagonisms. On the individual level, segregated neighborhoods and work places, as persistently divided as ever, do not offer a chance to challenge misperceptions. On the institutional level, creating opportunities for cross-group progress has not had the same priority as either maintaining the status quo or fighting for a single group.

How can our society—our communities—begin to counter this great rift? Honest, open dialogue is an essential first step. [5] Leaders and everyday community residents need the chance to confront their stereotypes, recognize and reduce prejudice, learn how to resolve conflict, and work together to develop interpersonal relationships.

In remarks to the 98th National Conference on Governance in 1992, Henry Cisneros argued that communities must create the structures for this human interaction: "In an age of diversity we will have to govern differently, we'll have to build communities differently. . . . Among our most important innovations must be those associated with creating 'mediating institutions' to resolve conflict—new hybrids of institutions where people can come to resolve differences, to hear each other, to listen, to share ideas." And he went further, saying, "It's not good enough to leave this to chance. It's not good enough to hope that somehow in the random meetings of elites—the business elite and the minority elite gathering together at the museum cocktail party—that somehow we'll make contact, [and that this casual interaction] will somehow pass for civic dialogue." [6]

The National Conference survey cited above uncovered a "central willingness on the part of a sizable majority of the American people to give racial and religious and ethnic matters a front-and-center place in the priorities of the nation." [7] Yet, in spite of this readiness, citizens also recognize the lack of opportunities and encouragement to do this in their everyday lives and in the context of their communities. A recent study of Los Angeles conducted by the National Civic League showed that community members feel this absence of opportunity most keenly. They expressed the need for ongoing, respectful, neutral forums where they can meet with members of other racial and ethnic groups. [8]

Creating Institutions for Bringing People Together

Cities and towns across the country are beginning to establish the kinds of bridges between people that lead to community change. Because of the scope of the challenge, these efforts require ongoing commitment, time and resources. Many of these efforts utilize small-group, highly participatory, democratic discussions known as "study circles." The history of study circles in the United States goes back to the Chautauqua movement. Today, a growing number of public officials and community coalitions are using study circles as a way to engage citizens in dialogue and problem solving. Study circles are based on the idea that a democracy requires public spaces where people can build community, openly discuss important social and political issues, and find collaborative ways to address them.

Particularly on the issue of race relations, community-wide study circles have been a powerful vehicle for helping individuals view each other and their communities in a new light. By providing opportunities for safe, respectful dialogue, study circles on race offer a way for people to overcome stereotypes, learn about each other's cultures, and discover commonalities. They also provide a starting point for working together to address a range of other community issues. The Study Circles Resource Center supplied technical assistance and training materials for the projects presented below.

Lima, Ohio. The first of these community-wide efforts began in Lima, Ohio in 1992. When the first wave of Rodney King verdicts caused racial tensions to surface in this city of about 50,000, Mayor David Berger convened a multi-racial task force of clergy members to search for new ways to address the underlying causes of the tensions. At their first meeting, it became evident that even members of the clergy had rarely come together across racial lines for open dialogue. This prompted them to arrange such opportunities for the broader population of the city. It was then that the mayor's office and the Office of Continuing Education of The Ohio State University at Lima teamed up to initiate and organize the community-wide study circles.

At a kick-off meeting, the mayor, Ohio State Lima and task force members spoke to the clergy of the city, enlisting their support in recruiting study circle leaders and participants from their congregations. Ohio State Lima and the mayor's office trained the study circle leaders; the mayor's office coordinated the establishment of the circles, ensuring racial diversity in each by pairing black and white churches.

In the first phase of the program in Lima, nearly 1,000 community members participated in groups of about 10 to 15 members each, meeting for several two hour sessions. [9] Organizers, leaders and participants in the discussions were overwhelmingly enthusiastic, about both what they had learned and the experience of new interracial friendships and bonds. They also knew that they had formed new interracial networks for addressing community issues. Many participants have continued to meet socially, have extended their study circles, or have taken action together in the community as a result of their discussions. An interdisciplinary team of researchers at Ohio State Lima has conducted studies revealing evidence of significant, positive attitude changes toward people of other races as a result of the study circles. [10]

Many of the first-phase study circle organizers and leaders now are reaching out to involve new organizations and individuals in a second round of study circles. "Allen-Lima Leadership," a community leadership-development organization in the city and surrounding county, teamed up with the mayor's office and Ohio State Lima at the beginning of 1994 to help organize businesses, neighborhood associations and schools to participate in the phase-two study circles. The mayor's office has formed a "study circle council," and continues to provide overall coordination for the effort, cementing this new avenue of connection between citizens and the municipal organization.

Lima's experience in promoting interracial dialogue is also having ripple effects in other communities. In an April 1994 conference at Ohio State Lima, organizers and leaders of the Lima program shared their experiences with community leaders from around the Midwest. Also in April, Ohio Governor George Voinovich featured the study circle program at a statewide conference of mayors and other community leaders.

Springfield, Ohio. In Springfield, the Department of Human Relations, Housing and Neighborhood Services, with the support of the city commission, has assumed active leadership in fostering dialogue. Selena Singletary, director of human relations, and Faye Flack, city commission member and assistant mayor, ca11ed together a core group of officials to expand dialogue on race to the broader community, involving government agencies, schools, colleges and universities, churches, and civic groups. Leaders from each of these sectors recruited study circle leaders and participants, and the Department of Human Relations held a training session for the study circle leaders.

In the first phase of the community discussions, about 300 community members participated, with a culminating community event on Martin Luther King Day, 1994. Because of the unique ways in which the study circles have addressed interracial issues in Springfield, the human relations department and the city commission now are p1anning a second round of study circ1es. Community leaders also have carried their program beyond their own city, sharing their organizing model at the April conference at Ohio State Lima and in discussions with community leaders around the country.

Activity elsewhere. As of mid-1994, study circle programs on race relations are beginning in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana; Portsmouth, Virginia; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Columbus, Ohio. Fifteen cities around the country are planning study circle programs. In many of these communities, the mayor's office or a city agency is taking the lead. Even where other community groups take the lead in coordinating the study circles, the city government usually lends its endorsement and involvement.

Each community-wide study circle program reflects a recognition that personal renewal and community change go hand in hand. Mayor Berger of Lima confirmed that connection when he said, "Participants come out of the discussions fundamentally changed. This city will never be the same."

Bringing People together in the Metropolis: Increase the Peace Volunteer Corps

In the fall of 1991, following a summer of racial unrest and riots in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, New York Mayor David Dinkins initiated a program to attract and involve grass-roots participation in solving intergroup tensions in the city's neighborhoods. Housed in the mayor's office, the Increase the Peace Volunteer Corps (IPVC), during its 2-1/2 years of operation, identified, trained and worked with nearly 1,500 volunteers who supplied input, time and attention to how different groups share large and complex neighborhoods, and the city as a whole.

IPVC rested on two fundamental principles. First, residents of particular neighborhoods, or members of a particular group, understand their own challenges in dealing with members of other groups (e.g., their own beliefs, histories, stereotypes, allies, barriers, etc.) better than do outsiders. Armed with the proper tools and training, group members or neighborhood residents themselves possess the greatest potential for resolving conflicts and easing intergroup tensions. Second, IPVC was based on the notion that face-to-face contact among members of traditionally segregated groups—publicly visible to the neighborhood—can have the most far-reaching effects in promoting intergroup peace.

IPVC enjoyed strong, city-wide support. A broad range of people from almost all neighborhoods reported similar reasons for stepping forward: to be close to Mayor Dinkins, who as New York's first African-American mayor symbolized hope for significant progress on race relations; to encounter a wide array of fellow New Yorkers whom they otherwise would have no opportunity to meet; to avail themselves of the free training offered by IPVC; to find outlets for strong desires to overcome apathy and become active in improving race relations in the city; and to protect their communities from crisis and street violence. Some volunteers chose to work in their own neighborhoods while others participated in citywide task forces.

IPVC developed a 20-hour series of three highly interactive trainings, mandatory for membership, which were designed to ensure familiarity with basic subject matter and methods: multi-cultural sensitivity, conflict resolution and community organizing. The first two encouraged participants to examine their own backgrounds, stereotypes, orientations to conflict, and understanding of intergroup tensions, while teaching specific intervention skills. The final training, in community organizing, was a springboard into the activities of IPVC, teaching how to develop a collaborative intergroup project from the idea stage through implementation and evaluation. The trainings offered a shared experience and common bond for all members. An advanced training in neighborhood-based crisis response was offered to highly motivated volunteers from all parts of the city.

Groups of trained volunteers proposed projects to which a staff of nine in the mayor's office offered technical assistance and support. IPVC maintained that effective intergroup relations work can take a great variety of forms, and focus on a range of particular subjects, provided two fundamental rules are observed: Projects must 1) have multi-group participation and 2) result in multi-group benifit.

Interracial groups of community-based IPVC members designed and implemented a variety of pro-active projects, among them:

  • Summer programming in local parks that aimed to break down the segregated use of park space. Youth video "speakouts" on race relations were viewed by hundreds of people, playground cleanups were undertaken by integrated groups, and street fairs and festivals brought social service providers together to jointly inform residents of the various public services available in their communities.

    InJamaica, Queens, a neighborhood serving as a transportation hub for 8,000 high school students each day, IPVC spearheaded a campaign along with neighborhood institutions to reduce racially motivated attacks by largely Caribbean-American customers on Asian-American small businesses. Arrest numbers, usually especially high during the Halloween season were reduced in 1992, as were tensions in the community which had grown to an all time high.
  • In Staten Island, New York's most conservative borough, IPVC member sponsored the first-ever public forum on intergroup relations following the brutal bias beating of a gay man. The meeting was attended by 200 people, and was widely reported in the local press.
  • In selected high schools, IPVC members developed a program to take groups of 20 students from different ethnic backgrounds on a series of field trips to each other's cultural institutions, with the aim of promoting intergroup appreciation and understanding.
  • In high schools where highly publicized racial incidents had taken place, IPVC members and adults from the surrounding neighborhoods actively engaged students on issues of intergroup relations.
In addition to the initiatives listed above, city-wide task forces were formed around l5 issue areas, among them the following:
  • A Black-Jewish dialogue group, which met on a monthly basis for close to two years.
  • A theater group, called Theater for a Greater Peace, formed by 45 IPVC members, wrote and produced a play about neighborhood racial tension, "My Enemy, My Brother," which was performed to excellent reviews in community centers and even had an off-Broadway run.
  • A Women's Issues task force arranged art shows and discussion meetings, and co-sponsored a major conference with the New York City Commission on the Status of Women on the many roles of women as peacemakers in homes, communities and the city.
IPVC'S design exemplifies the two-pronged approach typical of the other programs discussed earlier: municipal sponsorship and involvement, and personal transformation through finding common ground with members from ordinarily segregated groups. The more visible the public sector leadership and the more sustained the work of individuals, the more widely effective the program. The model of people working across race and class lines to improve civic life can change the neighborhood and community-wide climate in very concrete ways.

Fostering Dialogue that Bridges Barriers: Some Final Notes

The programs described above offer hopeful signs that American society, community by community, can begin to span the divisions that prevent us from working together.

While these programs focused on race, the same mechanisms that foster inter-racial interaction can be applied across all lines of our society, including class. By deliberately involving people of all backgrounds in community planning, organizers communicate that everyone's participation is welcome and vital. For example, an additional benefit of the grassroots approaches of IPVC and the study circle examples was their inclusion of socio-economic diversity.

Programs of the type described here are most effective when they involve members of the community who do not readily or ordinarily participate. Widely held misperceptions of individuals of other races decreases everyone's desire and ability to work together in communities. Moreover, when racial divisions are intensified by people's alienation from the general community—as when poverty complicates racial segregation—finding ways to enlarge participation can be the greatest challenge. [11]


The enormity of the challenges of race and class must galvanize rather than paralyze us. The success of a wide-ranging renewal of our civic life and community governance practices will depend on discovering ways to create opportunities for people of all groups to come together. People across the country "only will trust what they themselves can do in bonding with others experiencing similar problems, across racial and ethnic barriers, [while working] specifically and concretely on thousands of projects togither in neighborhoods, towns, villages, city blocks, ghettos, barrios, and cities. . . ." [12]

The models described in this article, while differing in details, offer important lessons for communities seeking to address and overcome racial and socio-economic barriers: 1) Large-scale, face-to-face dialogue among people of different racial and class groups is critical to reducing prejudice, learning how to communicate with one another, finding commonalities, and creating ways to work together on community issues. 2) The collaboration and support of racially diverse leaders from a broad spectrum of community organizations is essential for encouraging dialogue in the larger community. When community leaders themselves participate in constructive interracial dialogue, they provide decisive leadership to members of their own groups and to the community as a whole. 3) An institutional basis for fostering and carrying out interracial dialogue is fundamental to involving all races and all sectors of the community. The study circle programs and the Increase the Peace Volunteer Corps are two successful models for providing this essential structure.

Importantly, a mayor's office or a city agency is especially well positioned to encourage the involvement of the public and community organizations in dialogue, since public officials have high visibility. The institutional base is also necessary for coordinating and carrying out the many daily communication and coordination tasks that add up to personal change and community renewal. The effects of the models described here are far-reaching. Beyond helping people communicate about what divides them they provide ongoing ways for diverse people to understand and take on all the community issues they hold in common.


1. This segregation of groups fosters an artificial and persistent sense that race and class are identical. Clarence Wood of the Chicago Human Relations Foundation is among those who have tried to tease this confusion apart, viewing poverty as an economic issue in need of economic remedies, and racism as a social issue in need of interpersonal remedies. See, Clarence Wood, The Critical Chasm Between Racism and Poverty in Present-Day America (Chicago: The Human Relations Council of Chicago, 1992).

2. 0ne of the most prominent of these calls is coming from Sheldon Hackney, chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, in his proposal for a "national conversation" on American identity. See, Sheldon Hackney, "Organizing a National Conversation," Chronicle of Higher Education, 20 April 1994. Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey also has called for dialogue on race in the context of communities. Consult the Congressional Record for his 26 March 1992 Senate floor statement, "Race and the American City."

3. LH Research, Taking America's Pulse: The National Conference Survey on Inter-Group Relations (New York: The National Conference,1994).

4. Howard Gadlin, "Conflict Resolution, Cultural Differences and the Culture of Racism," Negotiation Journal, January 1994.

5. There are many interesting writings on the requirements for productive interracial dialogue. For one very accessible text, see, William M. Boyd, "Can the Races Talk Together?," Poynter Report, Spring 1993.

6. Henry G. Cisneros, "Valuing the Differences: Diversity as an Asset," remarks to the 98th National Conference on Governance, Los Angeles, California, November 13,1992.

7. Taking America's Pulse, p. 52.

8. Derek Okubo et al., Governance and Diversity: Findings from Los Angeles (Denver: National Civic League Press, 1993), p. 24.

9. The study circles moved from discussions of personal experiences to discussions of race in the greater society, to what can be done in the community. The study circles in this and other programs mentioned in this article use and adapt Can't We All Just Get Along? A Manual for Discussion Programs on Racism and Race Relations, 2d Ed. (Pomfret, Conn.: Study Circles Resource Center,1994). Anyone interested in initiating a community-wide dialogue on race relations may contact the Study Circles Resource Center (SCRC) at (203) 928-2616. SCRC assists and tracks a growing network of communities conducting citizen-based dialogue on race relations and other community issues.

10. Drawn from unpublished research by David Adams and George Handley; see, "Attitude Adjustment," The Lima News, 19 April 1994.

11. Gary Orfield has elaborated on the "underclass problem": "The fundamental problem is that a large share of central-city, non-white children are growing up in settings which have no working links to the jobs and higher education necessary to success in American society. . . . In spite of billions of dollars invested in a variety of compensatory education, housing, and other programs to increase opportunity for inner-city communities, no city has developed a set of policies that have created genuine equal opportunity for young people in areas of concentrated segregation and poverty." (Source: Newsroom Guide to Civil Rights [Washington, D.C.: The Communications Consortium Media Center, 1994], p. 109.)

12. Taking America's Pulse, p. 59.

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