Local clergy: Talk spurs action in racism fight

Small groups brainstorm ways to foster harmony

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    The Rev. Otis Gordon, who leads Warren AME Church, said when it comes to changing attitudes about race, many people feel that talk is cheap, and it won’t make a difference.

    But Pastor Gordon said he has seen talk lead to solid action when he lived in Warren, Ohio, in the mid-1990s. The community created study circles there to bring diverse groups together to talk about racial problems — an approach now under way in Toledo too.

    “What that led to was the construction of a community center that is still there today providing services to the minority population,” he said.

    Toledo is embracing the study circle idea with a series of small group meetings that are being called Dialogue to Change, which is a companion effort to the “Changing Minds and Changing Lives: Combating Racism” speaker series sponsored by the Toledo Community Coalition and The Blade.

    The groups had their first meetings last week in local libraries and at two area churches.

    There are eight small groups, made up of seven to 12 people who volunteered to participate and discuss improving race relations in Toledo.

    “Each group is diverse, and there is a mix of races in each. They will meet for seven weeks, once a week for two hours,” said the Rev. Karen Shepler, a coalition member working to coordinate the meetings.

    She said the 80 people participating in the meetings came from a pool of about 150 people who filled out cards after the September and January events that featured national speakers.

    The first “Changing Minds, Changing Lives” forum at Woodward High School featured Tim Wise, who has studied white privilege and institutional racism. The second focused on education and featured David Johns, executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-Americans. Both events were well attended.

    “We contacted all the people who signed up and others contacted us because they had heard about [study circles] from other people and through the articles in The Blade,” Pastor Shepler said.

    She said the study circles will use as a guide a national program developed by Everyday Democracy. According to its Web site, it is a private foundation that started in 1989 and has worked with hundreds of communities across the United States on racial equity issues.


    Pastor Shepler said the point of the sessions is to help people understand one another and know there is no guilt and judgment associated with their participation.

    “We talk about facts,” she said. “It would be wonderful to eliminate racism in Toledo. It probably won’t happen in my lifetime but we can start by doing what we can individually.”

    Each meeting is led by a trained facilitator whose role is to remain neutral. After several weeks of discussion, each group will use the final meeting to develop an action plan.

    “We are looking for constructive action. We want the groups to suggest projects that those groups can work on to promote racial harmony,” Pastor Gordon said.

    He said he learned from his experience in Warren that the process works best if city leaders are involved and take ownership, along with other community members.

    Pastor Gordon said Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins has been very supportive and has agreed to let them organize a Dialogue To Change study circle within the city administration.

    “If we can see in five years that there is noticeable difference in attitudes and organizations, the way the city is run, we will have made a difference,” Pastor Shepler said.

    She said there will be another round of study circles that will begin in April.

    Anyone interested in participating or helping to facilitate those meetings can contact the organizing committee at Toledoforum@gmail.com.

    The “Changing Minds, Changing Lives” forums were motivated by The Blade’s “Battle Lines: Gangs of Toledo,” a series that was published last year and sparked conversations about gangs and race.

    The next forum, tentatively set for April, will look at generational poverty.

    Contact Marlene Harris-Taylor at: mtaylor@theblade.com or 419-724-6001.