Madison, Wisconsin Comes Together to Talk About Diversity and Race Relations

Anthony Ward, of Madison, (right) talks with a small group during the Let's Talk About It: Race Relations community dinner at Madison Memorial High School Sunday. MICHELLE STOCKER
Anthony Ward, of Madison, (right) talks with a small group during the Let’s Talk About It: Race Relations community dinner at Madison Memorial High School Sunday. MICHELLE STOCKER

It was an appeal to make groups settling in at their tables for a community potluck dinner Sunday night less homogeneous.

In an unintended sense, it also served as a theme for the event, which focused on small-group discussions about race relations in Madison.

In setting up an icebreaker exercise, Rev. Alex Gee told the group of about 375 people gathered at Madison Memorial High School to make sure that the people with which they were sitting didn’t all look like them, racially or ethnically:

“Raise your hand if you need diversity,” Gee announced.

Dozens of hands shot up and people found more inclusive groups in which to share stories, detail challenges and learn.

“They wanted perspective,” Gee said later. “Now, if they understand that that’s helpful for discussion, how are they going to apply it to their business, to their child’s classroom, to other discussions about politics?

“People identified that they lacked diversity. It wasn’t a shameful thing. If nothing else, that’s the image that I want people to leave with. There’s no guilt. There was no fear. To have the full benefit of the exercise, don’t you want the full benefit of the diversity of this community?”

Gee, the pastor at Fountain of Life Covenant Church, sponsored the Justified Anger Community Potluck along with Boys and Girls Club of Dane County CEO Michael Johnson, Madison School Board president Ed Hughes and Omega School executive director Oscar Mireles.

It took place three days after about 550 people attended a panel discussion on the social divisions that take place around race and ethnicity, and how the community should talk about them.

One way to talk, Gee noted, is through food, and that was the framework set up to bring people together Sunday. The discussion wasn’t by a panel at the front of the room; it was in six- or eight-person groups around dozens of tables in an otherwise quiet high school.

At one table, a black woman and a black man talked with three white women and one white man.

The participants were honest and often personal. Opinions offered varied from how the school system isn’t adequately meeting the needs of minority children to how neighborhoods need to have a higher sense of self-awareness and self-importance.

“This is my own opinion now: White people expect for black people to tell them what to do,” said Veronica Lewis of Madison. “All we can do is tell you how we feel and tell you the stories that we have.”

Lewis lamented that the people that most need to be included in the kinds of discussions held Sunday are the last ones that would show up.

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Source: The Capital Times |  Todd D. Milewski 

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