BATTLE CREEK, Mich. - A small group of people hand-picked because of their commitment to diversity gathered Tuesday to help the Calhoun Race Impact Alliance decide how it might tackle the complex web of racism in this community.
About 15 gathered in a dining room at Miller College for the first of two forums CRIA will use to plan its future role in the community, said Director J.R. Reynolds. The second forum happens next week.
CRIA formed roughly two-and-a-half years ago, in partnership with the now-defunct National Center for Racial Healing, to further the lessons of a race exhibit that launched in Kalamazoo, said Reynolds, who also writes a regular column for the Enquirer called "Humans Being."
Now partnering with Kellogg Community College - and housed at KCC's downtown campus on Capital Avenue - the group wanted public input on the kind of work it should tackle moving forward.
"Where we are today is a little different than where we first started," Reynolds said. "Two-and-a-half years later, we're checking in again, to figure out where the community wants us to be going."
Facilitated by Chéree Thomas, who works on race and women's empowerment issues for the YWCA Kalamazoo, attendees at Tuesday's forum broke into four rotating groups to answer four questions: What is racism? Where does the community stand on race issues? What did they expect of CRIA? What role should CRIA play in the community?
The attendees gave CRIA a tall order.
Many in the room said Battle Creek was obviously divided along racial lines, with noticeable divisions of neighborhoods and resources - few stores or amenities on the north side, where many people of color live, for example.
They described a small community where people were afraid to make waves for fear of being ostracized. They described a community where many groups were dependent on nonprofit funding or partnerships with other organizations, and people were afraid to speak out for fear of damaging those partnerships or losing funding, and where funders directed community work instead of the other way around.
Thomas offered a definition of racism commonly used by those working on racial healing. She said racism is "racial prejudice and the misuse of power," and many in the room said that was present here.
As for the role CRIA could play in addressing the issue, those in the room envisioned several possibilities.
Some said CRIA could provide structure to a number of other groups tackling racism and related issues, including some 80 community members who have gone through an intensive racial healing training called White Men and Allies. It could provide cultural and diversity education. It could help facilitate dialogue and connect local racial healing efforts to work happening statewide or nationally.
Others said CRIA could be a resource, a physical place where those who want to work on racial healing could go for advice and help.
"So, like if schools wanted to talk about race, they can go get CRIA's help," offered Martha Thawnghmung, who runs Battle Creek's Burma Center. She said such an aid could be important because "racial issues make us feel so helpless."
But attendees cautioned CRIA from becoming so structured it stifled grassroots efforts, or from taking over the missions of other groups it supported, or from pretending to speak for all groups or all minorities.
The forums and other work were funded by a $46,100 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Reynolds said. He said CRIA would use the information from Tuesday's forum and the one next week to develop another grant application that would fund the group's future work.
"As for what that work is, it'll come out of these forums," Reynolds said.
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