When Audrey Yatras moved to Asheville in 2006 from Alexandria, Va., she was shocked. “I kept hearing about how diverse this community is, but I didn’t see it,” she recalls. “We want to pat ourselves on the back, but we’re actually not diverse at all. Racially, we’re not diverse, and economically we’re not diverse.”
Today, Yatras serves as board co-chair for Building Bridges, a nine-week community program that teaches participants how to confront and overcome racism by addressing their own attitudes and ideas. The program was founded in 1993 by local clergy who were concerned about cultural segregation and race relations in Asheville. Today, over 1,500 people have participated in the program.
“The immediate goal is to teach you to check yourself in your thought process,” Yatras explains of the bi-annual sessions. “When people insert race into the stories they tell or the way they perceive people, what they’re doing is showing that they have an unconscious bias.”
The program also teaches participants to confront stereotypes they may encounter in their everyday lives. “When you’re watching the news, start paying attention to the use of the word, ‘they,'” Yates says. “Think about what we mean when we say, ‘inner-city youth,’ or ‘black-on-black crime.’ Why don’t we ever say white-on-white crime? Black people are always ‘African-American,’ but if your parents are French, would you be called ‘French-American’? Would your children?”
Yatras explains that Building Bridges explores institutional racism — something much more damaging but perhaps harder to recognize than racist slurs. The classes in each session explore issues including housing, education, income disparity, policing and access to health care. “Racist comments, things like that, aren’t what’s going to put people behind,” Yatras explains. “But not being able to get a loan for your house, only being able to live in certain places, only being able to put your children in certain schools — things like that are institutional things that are much harder to overcome.”
Primarily, Yatras says, Building Bridges serves to remind the community that improving race equality in Asheville has to be an ongoing effort. “Dr. King could have been speaking about the situation of the United States 10 years ago or today,” Yates says. “We want to say, ‘We elected a black president,’ and ‘We’ve come so far.’ But time isn’t enough to make things equal, as much as we want it to be.”