Volume 15 Number 5
When Communities Connect
01 October 2002
Straight talking is a first step towards new attitudes and policies, discover Sandy and Caz Hore-Ruthven.
'We're living in a world where your colour matters more than your character,' said one black female singer. Refugees and people of colour can be at the raw end of discrimination and racism, sometimes even violence. But how often do people of different cultures and colours get the chance to really talk about the thorny issues surrounding race equality and how it affects us personally?
A conference at the Initiatives of Change centre in Caux, Switzerland, this summer gave people the space to think, talk, listen and reflect on that very issue - 'Connecting Communities for Reconciliation and Justice - towards an inclusive society'.
One of the most inspiring stories of connecting communities came from Baptist minister Pastor David Kates, the first African American Mayor of Clarksburg, USA. Along with ex-Mayor Jim Hunt, he told a humorous and inspiring story of black and white unity against racial hatred in 1999.
'When I was elected mayor, the Ku Klux Klan approached us to ask if they could rally on our courthouse plaza,' says the pastor. 'Everybody expected me to say no, but I wanted to show that we are a town that accepts everyone. So I said yes, they could come.' Everyone was shocked - especially the black community, and people started wondering if it was a dangerous thing to do. 'I'd made the decision on the spur of the moment but after a while I started to panic. Many people in the city started to back down from supporting the idea.'
At this point Hunt, then a city councillor, stepped in. He suggested arranging a 'Let's get Real' rally in a city park at the same time as the KKK rally 'as a way to focus the community's energies'. It took as its slogan, 'Bring blankets, not sheets'. On the day, 500 people came to the alternative rally and only a handful came to see the KKK, who never returned. News of the success soon spread, and Clarksburg came fourth in a national race relations award scheme operated across America. The event also sparked positive change in the town: more black people are now working in the town centre and new community projects are being developed.
Together, Kates and Hunt exemplify what can be achieved by black and white cooperation. A white mayor alone could not have welcomed the KKK for fear of being branded a racist; a black mayor alone might have been called a trouble-maker and lacked enough support from the white community. Together, they were unstoppable.
The Clarksburg story was one of several experiences shared at the conference of how US communities have encouraged mutual respect and real dialogue between different cultures and colours. Other speakers described efforts in Dayton, Ohio, to stimulate honest conversation about black poverty and exclusion; a programme being launched in Oregon schools to teach children about their state's chequered history of race relations; and programmes to target the root causes of poverty in New York.
The conference was co-hosted by Hope in the Cities International and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the leading US institution conducting research on policy issues of special concern to African Americans and other minorities. The roots of the conference lay way back in the summer of 1992, following the Los Angeles uprising, when a group of young people from LA were among those from the US who attended one of the first international cities forums held in Caux. They and others walked out of one meeting, in frustration because racial issues were being skimmed over.
'It was a painful issue,' says Rob Corcoran, National Director of Hope in the Cities, US. 'Everybody's nerves were fairly raw. But we thought if we can't talk about this issue at Caux where can we talk about it? One afternoon all the Americans gathered in the foyer and talked about what was going on. At that point we decided that we were going to launch a national movement to heal the heart of America.'
It was a pivotal moment. Walter Kenney, the Mayor of Richmond, Virginia, offered to host a national event in his city the following year. Hope in the Cities, which began as a local Richmond initiative, was launched into the national arena. 'It was time to recognize the existence of white privilege and begin a process of honest conversation,' says Corcoran.
The Hope in the Cities programme offers an honest conversation on race, reconciliation and responsibility as a way of building trust between individuals - and therefore communities. This process has proved to be a powerful agent for change. Hope in the Cities is recognized in the US as one of the pre-eminent organizations on race relations, and was even called in by the White House to design a model of dialogue on race.
'Our basic dialogue curriculum is designed to help people look at their own experiences of racism or attitudes to race,' says Corcoran. 'It asks questions such as: Where did you come from? Where are you now? What role does race play in your life? What in your experience has not been heard? There is sometimes a lot of anger at that point, which leads to a discussion about history and to a process of healing. Everyone's experience is real for them - you may not agree with it, but it's real for them.
'By the time we get to the third or fourth session we reach the concept of forgiveness. What role does that play? Then we look outward again to the community. If your community was to be truly reconciled what would it be like? Then it goes back to the individual - what can I do in my life?
'The emphasis is on taking personal responsibility. We go beyond the victim/victimizer standpoint. We're all responsible to make a difference now, wherever we are, whatever has happened. And that is a challenge to what you might call being 'politically correct', because we're not talking about other people - we're talking about ourselves.'
Hope in the Cities is also being developed in Britain. 'Going to the Healing the Heart of America conference in 1993 was a profound experience for me,' says Lawrence Fearon, National Coordinator of Hope in the Cities, UK. 'There we were, looking at the difficulties of race and saying we need to have an honest conversation about this. This was unheard of, especially in the UK. We have equality legislation, but no-one seems to want to talk about the issue in a very open and honest way. Racism in the UK is thought to be a black problem - not a white problem. But in America they were saying this is our problem. There was real acknowledgement.
'It is difficult to put race on the national agenda in the UK, because there's still a huge denial about it. In the UK we talk more about social exclusion. So, with Hope in the Cities, I talk about building an inclusive society. Within that, you can talk about racism.
'The concept of white privilege is widely acknowledged in the US, but in the UK it's unheard of. What do I mean by that? Well if I go out to hail a taxi, it may not stop. If a white person hails it down, it may stop. That's a privilege.'
A particularly big issue tied up with racism is immigration. The subject was addressed both in plenary sessions and in a three workshops on 'The West's response to asylum seekers'. Caux was a poignant place to talk about asylum. During World War II the hotel which later became the conference centre gave refuge to some 1,600 Jews. One survivor called it 'that small bridge from the darkness of the Holocaust to the light of freedom. For my family and me... Caux was, and will always remain, a magical place amidst alpine peaks where salvation was found.'
Over 50 years later, millions of people are still running for their lives from brutal regimes. But Europe is increasingly hostile towards refugees. Bashy Quraishy, Chairman of the European Network Against Racism, believes racism is undoubtedly at work when it comes to giving asylum. 'I have no doubt that one of the reasons why Europeans do not want people from Third World countries, especially Asia, Africa and the Middle East, is because of colour, culture and religion.
'You often hear in European debates, 'We don't want Muslims' - even if people don't know what a Muslim is. A Pakistani Muslim is totally different from a Moroccan Muslim, but they are lumped together. These are excuses to keep people out. If someone needs help, you shouldn't look at their colour. Because the UN and EU have signed human rights conventions and the Geneva Convention, I believe it is their duty to accept people who are running for their lives.
'When I see headlines like 'Europe is being overrun by economic immigrants and bogus asylum seekers', I don't think the media has lived up to its responsibilities. The media has enormous power to shape public opinion, and if it were balanced and reported neutrally I'm sure all the controversy would eventually die down.'
The vast majority of the world's displaced people do not come to the West, Quraishy points out. Most stay in neighbouring countries. 'For example the bulk of the Afghan refugees went to Pakistan.'
One outcome of the conference was that Quraishy, whose network links 600 European NGOs, and Mike Wenger, director of a network of over 160 US racial justice organizations, agreed to form an alliance. Wenger's organization, the Network of Alliances Bridging Race and Ethnicity (NABRE) is an initiative of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
The conference also included a dialogue on the integration of Muslim communities in Europe, led by Mohamed Sini, a city councillor from Utrecht in the Netherlands, and Helmut Schmidt, a commissioner from Mannheim in Germany. Sini said that 11 September had sent a 'shock wave' through Europe. 'The multicultural society as it was was not strong enough to handle such a crisis. We must recognize each other as people.'
As with many Caux conferences, a lot of learning came 'in the gaps' between formal sessions when people had the chance to share their experiences and reflect on what had been said. As one delegate put it, 'It takes more than social action to really make a difference, it also takes a good heart.'
Richard Williams was one of 23 from the English city of Nottingham, where he is Secretary of the Black Police Association. 'I came to Caux expecting to find solutions and instructions to use when I returned,' he says. 'As a result all I found was frustration and aggravation. I was involved in workshops that quite frankly were not teaching me things that I thought I needed to know. But in the last few days I learned a powerful lesson.
'Caux is not an environment that is meant to provide you with instruction from presenters on the stage, but somewhere to give you time to think and gain inspiration from others who feel equally passionate about the need for change in society. Mountain House seems to have an atmosphere that promotes reflection and personal realization that defies explanation. I don't class myself as a religious person, but I know that I'm being guided and I leave myself open to that guidance.'
Other delegates experienced personal change away from the conference centre. Remi Ajetunmobi arrived from the UK feeling angry and frustrated by his experiences of discrimination, and by the inequalities faced by black people. After a heated exchange, several people suggested his views might be valid, but that he needed to slow down and be less aggressive.
The next day Ajetunmobi went down the mountain to visit Montreux, the city on the lakeside beneath Caux. On the way back he had a strange compulsion to leave his friends and walk back up the mountain alone. Eventually he passed a potter at her wheel. He felt moved to turn back and talk to her, and they shared a conversation about spirituality. The woman asked him to take any item of her pottery as a gift. From amongst all the fine pots and vases, one small plaque caught his eye. It said 'slow down'.
We will never know how many others experienced their own personal journeys during that week, but some shared their life stories with us all from the stage. Aboriginal musician Johnny Huckle in particular touched everyone with his experiences of racial discrimination, disability, domestic violence and alcoholism. His life had been a struggle against all the odds, but he showed how it is possible to overcome even the toughest obstacles and be part of the journey of healing.
As Hope in the Cities puts it: 'Our greatest need is not for more race relations or diversity experts or for more research papers analyzing the problem. If expertise or intellectual analysis could solve the problem it would have been done long since. What is needed is something simpler, but more difficult. It is for each one of us to look in the mirror and ask ourselves, 'What am I doing to build racial reconciliation and justice?' '
A REFUGEE'S STORY
'Maria' fled from Albania to England in 1998 in fear of her life. She was in danger after being open about her political views, and her family were also threatened. Her husband tried to get an British visa in Albania, but was refused at the embassy.
'I went to church and prayed,' she says, 'and then went to the embassy myself. I told them I wanted to go to Britain for a holiday. I hated lying, but I had to. I wrote to a gentleman I knew in England, and the day I arrived he came and greeted me. He was 85 years old, and I hadn't met him before.'
Adapting to a strange new country was very difficult. 'It was terrible. Very hard. I didn't know what was going on. I couldn't speak English. I lived in terrible housing conditions, it was damp and cold.' But she was luckier than many asylum seekers; at least she had some friends. 'My friend came everyday to see me. He was like a father to me. I was welcomed and I had support, especially from my church - they helped me without any reward.'
Maria was eventually granted refugee status and her family managed to join her. She now speaks English, has work - although this does not match her qualifications - and helps people in the community.
While Maria regards herself as safe, there are still threats, even in England. She is particularly concerned about one organization which purports to help refugees, but suggested she lie about her nationality and, she feels, discriminated against her because of her religion. She also received death threats from an Albanian man who mistakenly thought she was related to someone he had a vendetta against.
Interestingly, Maria does not want Britain to be a haven for all comers. 'I only want the UK government to open its doors to genuine people, those who need shelter. I want Europe and the UK to be really tough on pimps and criminals, because they are the ones who the genuine people are escaping from. We can't blame governments all the time - they have to be fair to both their own people and to refugees in need. How can we separate genuine people from people who abuse the system? This is the key. If we can - things will get much better and I think people will support immigration.'
Maria's name has been changed to protect her identity.
Sandy and Caz Hore-Ruthven