Volume 12 Number 5
Can Straight Talking Help the World's Cities?
01 October 1999

Mike Brown spent a week at the MRA international conference centre in Caux, Switzerland, to find out whether 'honest conversation' is as useful as is claimed.

Conferences, by definition, are 'talk fests'. This one promised to make an art of it--a chance for 'honest conversations that include everyone and exclude no-one', to quote one of the organizers, Rob Corcoran.

For 10 years Corcoran, who is National Director of Hope in the Cities (USA), has been part of a network of people and groups trying to establish such honest conversations across the racially charged issues of American cities. Their approach has found echoes in towns and cities around the world.

As Corcoran noted, many are working, often quite courageously, to build partnerships with those of different backgrounds. 'Though the specific problems may differ,' he said, 'some approaches are emerging which appear to have universal application.'

The week-long conference in Caux brought together some 300 people to examine these common approaches. They met under the theme, 'Partners on the road to reconciliation and justice; sustaining the builders of community'.

But were they just talking about honest conversation or actually practising it? When so much needs to be done and talk seems cheap does honest conversation really lead to significant action?

It was during his ten-year prison term on Robben Island, South Africa, that Sydney Choma began to understand the power of honest conversation.

The warders had been selected from the 'backward' and most conservative section of the Afrikaner population. 'Their brutality was meant to separate the races,' said Choma. But over some years the prisoners built 'an extremely good touch' with their keepers. Many prisoners were highly qualified--doctors, mathematicians, lawyers. They encouraged the guards to improve their education, and provided study materials, helping them with assignments. The guards, in return, smuggled in newspapers. The dialogue was active, practical.

'What we experienced in prison was some sort of political evolution, in the sense that if one was able to convince those warders, you felt it wouldn't be difficult to convince other white people,' said Choma. 'It was a confirmation of our policy that all the races could live together in peace and harmony.'

Choma, Mayor of the mining and industrial town of Middelburg, and his colleagues told a story of tackling a crisis in housing and basic services which has won the town two national awards (See article).

Hearing such stories, in a Swiss mountainside village, made Caux seem like 'an incredibly beautiful palace of peace on a mountain', enthused one American.

The struggle for peace is less poetic when you sit down to breakfast with Palestinian Michail Fanous and his friends from the Israeli city of Ramle. Over the first cup of strong coffee, Fanous waves his arms, speaks passionately and laughs affably. But he shakes his head in sorrow when I ask about honest conversation in Israel. 'If we said what we really feel, we would just split. There is so much denial about our history. How could we even try to heal the wounds?'

Next to him Yehezkel Landau, a Jewish peace activist, takes up the point: 'People are afraid that if they open these old wounds, relations will deteriorate. And there's an additional resistance: for so long most of us (Jews) have been harbouring the self-image of victims, and we still feel that the Palestinians don't accept us in our homeland. So we are very reluctant to acknowledge the injustices caused to the Palestinians; or that we produced terrorists of our own.

'It really requires a change in one's own self-image,' Landau says. 'Our leaders don't help us. Nobody at the top really sets an example for us to speak honestly.'

Fanous, Landau and his wife, Dalia, have been trying to set that example through 'Open House', which they established in 1991 as a day-care centre for Arab children, and a 'co-existence laboratory' for children and adults from both communities. In the past year 1,200 have taken part in its programmes. It is a microcosm of a wider story--for it was originally the home of a Palestinian family who were evicted in 1948, to be replaced by Dalia's family who came as Jewish immigrants from Bulgaria. A generation later, both families agreed to turn the home into a 'peace centre' to be shared by all three Abrahamic communities, with Fanous, a Palestinian Christian, as its director.

And at the political level? Well, yes, something is happening, admits Fanous (see article).

Not everyone in Caux was impressed by Ramle's story of hope. Hamzeh Zeid Kailani, an Imam to the Muslim community in the Netherlands, complained of the Israeli attacks on Lebanon and cluster bombs killing children. Such conflicts caused tensions in cities far from the Middle East. 'And you cannot compare the situation in Ramle to that in large European cities.'

The Imam was one of 43 people who met three times in a workshop on 'Europe and its Muslim communities'. Those who took part felt that the dialogue needed to focus more on specifics. Imam Abduljalil Sajid, the first Asian magistrate in Britain, instanced 'the sense of helplessness among elderly immigrants who cannot communicate. Or young Muslims, who are angry against the system. A survey of the 1991 Census showed that 77 per cent of the minority population feel excluded from decision-making, even those British-born.' Pakistani-born Dr Sajid founded the Ethnic Minorities Representative Council which brings together 58 ethnic groups in Brighton. He had to choose whether 'to stay quiet and earn my living; or, taking God into my leadership, go and talk to Jews and Hindus, and to the Muslims who were fighting because of past wars in their countries.'

Fathi Osman from Los Angeles (where there are 100,000 Muslims) has been part of interfaith dialogues for 30 years. But he was dissatisfied. They tended to be elitist, he said, and not go deep enough. Rather than 'passive' belief within one's faith community, or fundamentalist passion to convert the world, MRA had 'pioneered a third way'. A resident scholar at the Institute of Study of Islam in the Contemporary World, Dr Osman believed the correct emphasis, in an age of globalized cities, was 'all faiths working together, elevating the spirituality of one another, through work for the community'.

The conference at Caux was convened by Hope in the Cities, based in Richmond, Virginia, which has set out to 'build partnerships for racial reconciliation' in the US.

Paige Chargois, Associate National Director of Hope in the Cities, recalled how the issue of race had ignited at a conference in Caux in 1992, just months after violent riots in Los Angeles. 'We knew after that session we had to have an honest conversation.'

Among the 70 Americans present in '92 was Walter Kenney, then Mayor of Richmond. He agreed to launch the process in his city, once a major port for the slave trade. It began with walking, as much as talking--a 'Unity Walk' through sites of Richmond's painful racial history. And has continued, provoking similar processes in other cities (see article).

As one of Richmond's first African-American mayors, Kenney knew how white flight to the suburbs had left people of colour landlocked in the resource-poor inner-city. Equality in education, public housing, integrated transport, public safety were critical issues... and still are. So had honest conversation brought any change, I asked Kenney in Caux this year. Well yes, he replied, instead of the earlier reluctance of corporate or political leadership to address those issues, now at least 'the city is talking about them'.

Dr Chargois described how she and colleagues had been engaging the editors of the Richmond Times-Dispatch in a dialogue on the reporting of race issues in their city. At one point some 30 editors and writers had been taken on the Unity Walk to increase their sensitivity to the issues.

Then, realizing that a positive vision was needed, Hope in the Cities drafted 'A Call to Community'--outlining what America's community could look like. Kenney's executive assistant in the Mayor's office resigned her job to help full-time. Over several years they developed a Dialogue Guide taking people through six two-hour sessions of honest conversation.

In 1997 President Clinton announced that his administration would promote honest conversations across America 'to lift the burden of race'. Hope in the Cities was one of six organizations approached by the White House to help draft a 'One America Guide' to assist the process. Mike Wenger, former Deputy Director of the President's Initiative, said in Caux that recommendations of its advisory board were still before the administration. Unless the President acted with 'boldness' before the end of his term, 'the best opportunity we've ever had for genuine racial healing will be lost'.

Hope in the Cities is not waiting for government to act. It has begun a two-year programme to train and support facilitators for these dialogues in 12 US cities.

The City Manager of Dayton, Ohio, sent a team to Richmond to study Hope in the Cities. One of them, Sarah Harris, drew together 20 people from organizations 'who do things on race relations in our city' to see if they wanted to use a similar model in Dayton.

'They were battle-scarred, weary, saying, "I'm tired of talk and no action",' Dr Harris told a workshop in Caux. 'We asked ourselves why have other initiatives failed? From that first meeting we began building trust. These are organizations which never meet together. We decided we wouldn't continue if resources weren't there.' They went back to the City Manager and got funding.

'We also needed action,' Harris continued. It came soon enough. The Klu Klux Klan was launching its programme in Dayton. Harris and friends went to the media, asking them to downplay coverage of the Klan. Later they sent letters of thanks for the way the media handled it. Now they are re-examining vexed issues like 'busing' school-children, and affirmative action.

Almost as an afterthought, Sarah Harris said that it was 'the spiritual that sustains us. We are people of many faiths. And we open and close our meetings with interfaith prayer. We're not naive. This work has to begin inside us.'

Or as Fiona Martin, former Mayor of Witbank in South Africa, put it, the 'inward conversation is most important. That's where you make resolutions.'

Canon Nicholas Frayling, Rector of Liverpool, England, took that inward conversation deeper, and applied it to the quest for peace and justice in Ireland. In his lecture on 'A wisdom beyond our own?', he put as much emphasis on that wisdom coming through others, as through prayer and meditation. 'Listening is not a substitute for action, but an absolutely essential precursor. It is the raison d'ĂȘtre of the peace-maker (see p 18 in the printed edition).'

Practising what he preached, the Canon sat for several hours in the roasting midday sun listening to young people--from Guatemala, East Europe, Australia. 'Honest conversation' for its own sake was 'an indulgence', they argued. The Canon agreed: 'You need some end-game in mind.'

Developing action with young people was one of the future priorities emerging at the end of the week. Their conversations tended to take place late at night, round a bonfire, or in the Caux Café. Or through music and dance, which is the language of a group called 'Creative Connections' in Huddersfield, England. With support from the local council and the police, they recently enlisted a dozen bands to produce a CD called Boiling point preventer--a code of practice for clubbers and pub-goers. Ten thousand copies are being distributed free. 'This is a classy compilation... Sounds range from deep jungle to upbeat dance, funked-up soul and happy pop,' wrote one reviewer. Kevin Nurse, one of the four young Anglo-Caribbeans who presented their work at Caux, said it proved 'what can be done when adults and young people have a proper dialogue'.

The other emerging priority was to engage corporate leaders. One brave businessman, Richard Hawthorne of Nottingham, England, was at Caux. His company's mission statement includes 'responsibility to the community'; but he confessed he had needed 'open-heart surgery' to 'step through the fear barrier and take responsibility' in the Nottingham Community Relations Council. Now he chairs a regional Partnership Council, working on job creation, skills development and combating racism. 'Business leaders do have hearts and should not be just thought of as providing finance,' he concluded.

So this process of honest conversations has many challenges--and much potential--ahead of it. As Carolyn Leonard, Coordinator of Multi-Cultural Education in Portland, Oregon, said: 'Honest conversation is the most basic point--a paradigm that must not be eliminated as we move to action. Everything begins with the individual. But it must not stop there.'

At the end of the day, the test of honest conversation will be how it affects people like Terzinha de Jesus, who lives in a 'violent community' in a Rio de Janeiro shanty town. Her face was drawn and tired as she told of her efforts to protect children who survive by selling drugs. She works with 'my own hands almost 24 hours a day', helping single mothers make a living stitching garments. 'I'm a woman, I'm weak; but God gives me the strength,' she said. 'I go out onto the streets, just to be a bridge between the need and the deed.'

That says it all.
Mike Brown