Saturday, 29 October 2011

IoC - Pt 1 - Richmond, Virginia

Initiatives of Change” (IoC) is an organisation to bridge-building within and between communities.
IoC achieves this by providing tools that communities can use to build a dialogue with the “other”. They also have an interesting blog here.

The national director of IoC in the US, Rob Corcoran, discussed a number of these issues in a public talk entitled “Honest Conversations in Community Change” earlier this week.

Assisted by Willemijn Lambert (a graduate in conflict resolution) Rob began by describing how there was a “trust deficit” in the US, between racial groups, between society and business and between citizens and government.

Rob gave a clue as to how difficult it can be to begin a dialogue between groups by pointing out that the four most feared words in the English language are “We’ve got to talk”.

They may not be frightening for the person saying them, but they can certainly be frightening for the person on the receiving end, who may fear being blamed, rejected or having to deal with emotions that they cannot handle.

To investigate this further, Rob asked the attendees to form small groups and consider what qualities were likely to BUILD trust and what qualities were likely to BREAK trust.

In the time honoured procedure for workshops such as this, the resulting post-it notes were put on a board and then discussed.

Dear reader, if you are feeling in a participative mood, you may wish to spend a couple of minutes thinking about what you feel would build or break trust before seeing how your thoughts compare with those of the group at the meeting (which BFTF will reveal in a moment). Let’s play a little music while you ponder. . .

Ready now? The most common responses from the attendees were :

i) Honesty - this was mentioned by every group
ii) Approachability
iii) Willingness to learn
iv) Time (added by Rob as something he often finds that younger group members identify)

i) Lying
ii) Backbiting / breaking of confidentiality.

Richmond, Virginia
This is Rob’s home town in the US. Richmond was the heart of the confederacy during the American Civil War (1861-65) and then became the heartland of what was basically a system of apartheid against the black population under the “Jim Crow” laws. Indeed, it was only in 1954-55 that a series of federal judgements demanded an end to the segregated school system that operated in the South.

In response, a white protest movement, known as “massive resistance” against the integration of schools began in Virginia. This movement continued until well into the 1970s (although many of the discriminatory laws that were implemented by Virginian politicians as part of the campaign were overturned by 1970).

But slowly, surely, the civil rights movement gained ground until, in 1977, Richmond (which by then had a population that was over 50% black) gained a black-majority council and a black mayor.

This change in power structures of the town resulted in a period of soul-searching for the city, part of which resulted, in 1993, in the Hope in the Cities program which aimed at helping to heal the racial wounds of Richmond but using the techniques pioneered by Initiatives of Change.

One reason why the Hope in the Cities program was needed was described by a black civil rights activist who Rob relates as saying that

“we worked so hard to change the structures but because we didn’t change the peoples hearts we have to go back and keep going back to do it again”

This activist thought about what needed to be done to resolve the situation, to “change peoples hearts” and decided to invite the white chief executive of the city council, Mr Todd, and his wife over for a barbecue.

The barbecue allowed the activist and Mr Todd to begin a dialogue which, over time, made a real difference in the way Mr Todd operated. The extent of the difference can be gauged by the comments of another black civil rights activist who, sometime later, told Rob Corcoran that, whereas meetings involving Mr Todd had previously seemed to have all their conclusions decided ahead of time, the activist was now finding that Mr Todd was asking for the activists opinion on the issues being discussed.

That black activist who had made efforts to open a dialogue with Mr Todd had really put their neck on the line. Some other African-American activists could not understand why she was “selling out”, some even stopped talking to her. It was only really when some fruits of the dialogue could be seen (such as the change in the attitude of Mr Todd) that the black community really began to buy into the dialogue. This “movement from the other side” is critical to bringing all the players into the dialogue.

It is also helpful to dialogue when one side admits that they have a problem. In the case of Richmond, the black community only really believed that the white community was serious when the white community itself started to say that it had a problem and that the problem was racism.

(Pt 1) (Pt 2) (Pt 3)

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