Building Bridges

When I think of all that Building Bridges has meant, both to me personally and to the Asheville community as a whole, I am nearly overwhelmed. I’ve been privileged to be involved with the Building Bridges of Asheville Racism Discussion Series since its inception, more than 11 years ago — first as a small-group leader, then as a member of the steering committee, and now as a volunteer.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Building Bridges changed my life in many ways. First of all, it opened my eyes to my own racial issues — not only the psychological and emotional scars and wounds that I sustained growing up in a racist society, but also my own prejudices and stereotypical thinking. In my first small-group experience, I witnessed firsthand the power of honest communication in dismantling the racial barriers that so often exist in our relationships. I became educated, and I was finally able to understand and articulate the racism I’d lived with my entire life.

I was also blessed with friendships that are still maintained 11 years later. Being exposed to people from cultures and backgrounds different from my own has enriched my life immensely. My world has been expanded, and I’m thankful to each and every person I’ve met through my involvement with Building Bridges for all that they’ve brought into my life.

My work on the Building Bridges Steering Committee is another experience I cherish. Although there will always be issues and struggles in any group of this nature, in retrospect I find that I’ve been uplifted by the passion and dedication of every one of the many people I served with over the years.

I’m also indebted to all the people who participated in the various small groups I facilitated. Although my co-facilitator and I were billed as the group leaders, I learned so much from every single group member — about myself, about how to listen, and about honoring each person’s racial path.

Seeing so many members of the Asheville community participate in the journey of Building Bridges over the years has in itself been a great source of inspiration and hope for me. It isn’t easy to examine the issue of racism from both a societal and personal perspective, and each person who has done so is to be commended for their courage and commitment.

My own involvement with Building Bridges has given me a greater sense of social responsibility. I have come to understand how important it is for each of us — including me — to do our part, however small, to make this world and our community a better place.

I’m grateful to Building Bridges for being a consistent presence in our community since 1993 — and for fostering an ongoing dialogue concerning these vital issues that affect each of us. It’s also true that Building Bridges would not have survived these many years without the support of the people and institutions that make up our community. We’ve been embraced and sustained by those who have given us a home, who have given their time and energy to make presentations, who have encouraged their employees to attend: We owe our continued existence to all of you.

Another thing I’ve witnessed over the years is that the power of the Building Bridges dialogues doesn’t end when the nine weeks are over — it extends outward in a kind of ripple effect. Some small groups have agreed to continue meeting, either to carry out some social-action project or to further nurture the relationships begun during the program. I myself am part of such a Building Bridges offshoot.

For the past seven years, I’ve participated in a multiracial group of Building Bridges graduates. We meet monthly, each of us taking our turn as host, to share a potluck meal and to share our lives. The food and the lively discussion are wonderful, but more important is the sense of connection and community these gatherings have fostered.

Many other examples of this kind of community-building have resulted from the Building Bridges process. But for me, the program’s most important benefit is perhaps an enhanced openness that enables me to step into new situations, to reach outside my usual social circles, and to regularly examine my own attitudes and baggage around the issue of race.

At this time of year, it’s traditional to reach out — to friends, family, even to strangers — and to practice unconditional love and acceptance, even as we reflect on the things in our lives for which we’re thankful. That makes me even more acutely aware of the gift Building Bridges has given our community — the gift of celebrating human connection.

Taking the plunge

Building Bridges is a nine-week program focusing on race relations, dialogue, community-building and cultural competence. All are welcome to attend. There’s a $12 registration fee, and scholarhips are available. The winter program runs on Monday evenings, Jan. 24 to March 21, 7-9 p.m. at the Mountain Area Health Education Center (501 Biltmore Ave. in Asheville).

For more information, call 253-0749.

[Asheville native Tyrone Greenlee is administrative assistant for the New Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church. He serves on the boards of directors of the North Carolina Stage Company and Voices For Recovery.]

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