Building Bridges

So, segregation is over, laws have changed, and now everything is equal between white and black people. Right? Well, how come our churches and neighborhoods are still largely unintegrated, and blacks still have so many more barriers to jobs, education, loans and more?

If you’re white, like me, you probably do sense that things are not quite right. You sense frustration or mistrust from black folks, but you don’t really understand why. Or, you don’t know how to cross the gap. And if you’re black, you may believe that white folks know what the problem is, but they just don’t want to do anything about it.

People, we need to talk about it. Come to Building Bridges, a program where we can get these things out into the open We need to talk about racism and what it has done to all of us.

African-Americans feel the effects of racism every single day. White people, in general, don’t see how racism affects black people or how it deadens our own culture and spirits. We need to figure out what to do about it “rather than accept the comfortable but deceptive myth that it will simply go away, given enough time,” says David Voyles, a past participant and English teacher at Erwin High School.

“Whites, by and large, do not really want to acknowledge that racism exists, especially in schools. But young people are much more inclined to initiate the changes we need to combat racism, because they have less conditioning to accept the status quo,” notes Voyles. However, he adds, these opportunities to recognize and deal with racism will not occur if those in charge of schools do not recognize it themselves. “As a teacher, I think Building Bridges helped me understand how my minority students feel in an overwhelmingly white environment. It has prodded me to embrace opportunities to discuss racism with my students, rather than shying away from it. I would especially like to see all school board members, school administrators and teachers participate.”

The nine-week program, begun in 1993 as a grassroots effort by clergy and laypersons, includes speakers and videos. Recommended readings are meant to inform as well as stimulate discussion in the small groups. Each group is facilitated by one African-American and one white person.

“It always amazes me the level of emotion that is engaged around issues of culture,” says Mark Gordon, past participant and a vice president at Mission St. Joseph’s Health System. “It surprises me how people have such a great deal of emotion: guilt, hate, self-hate, anxiety, denial. People are afraid to talk about it because racism is a dangerous topic. … But once you say these things, it almost pulls you to the next step — if you have the courage to get it out.”

Getting out the things we are afraid to say to each other is absolutely essential. White people are generally so insulated that we are often not even aware that whites and blacks live in parallel worlds. We live and breathe alongside each other, yet have very different experiences.

“I recommend Building Bridges especially to those who are ready to honestly do some self-examination around the issues of racism,” says Tyrone Greenlee, past co-chair and administrative assistant for the New Mount Olive Baptist Church, “and to those who are in positions of power or in institutional positions where they have contact with minority persons.”

It is especially important that organizations and businesses address racism. Many American institutions were founded during a time of legalized segregation. And just because the laws changed, the policies and attitudes that set things in place have not. One “diversity training” will not do it. Only ongoing dialogue can bring it about.

“Any organization will benefit many times over by sending personnel through Building Bridges,” declares Robert Griffin, interim fire chief of the Asheville Fire Department. “I thought that I had a good understanding of the definition of racism. I also thought that I was understanding and respectful of others. Building Bridges allowed me to gain insight that I could never have experienced [otherwise]. It is one of the best programs I have ever taken.”

We all need to make an earnest effort to repair the damage that still lingers from racism. We have everything to gain and nothing of value to lose.

The 15th session of Building Bridges begins Tuesday, Sept. 12, at 6:30 p.m., and continues for the next eight Tuesdays, from 7 to 9 p.m. The sessions take place at Berry Temple United Methodist Church. For more information, call 253-0749 or 687-7759. The total cost is $12. Asheville City and Buncombe County school teachers and United Methodist ministers can earn 1.8 CEUs by participating.

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