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2nd DCN Topic: Racism in Our Nation

This was the second topic focused on by the “Democracy Communications Network,” a 2007-2009 project that encouraged leaders in dialogue and deliberation to periodically write op-eds and blog posts as part of collaborative media campaigns that raise awareness of the importance of quality public engagement. Use the “Democracy Communications Network” tag to see all the great articles that were written in association with this project. Also see the General Tips for Writing Op-Ed Articles.

Articles, blog posts and op-eds on this topic:

Background, resources, and ideas for writing on this topic:

As our second topic, members of the Democracy Communications Network are writing about the rising interest in – and action on – racism in our nation. The ongoing coverage of and commentary on statements made by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright; Barack Obama’s stirring “A More Perfect Union” speech; and the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. are all near the top of the news this week, and will likely remain major topics of conversation for some time to come.

Bringing this message home to your readers

Although many newspapers, blogs, and other media outlets have already written about Wright, Obama’s speech, and perhaps the April 4 MLK anniversary, what we hope to do with these essays is go deeper and show – from our long experience in the civic engagement field – how communities are dealing with racism in different ways than they did in the past, and how officials, citizens, and activists are coming to see that action on racial equity is tied to progress on a broad range of policy issues including education, economic development, the criminal justice system, housing, and many more.

A survey released March 27 by the Pew Research Centers found that “Barack Obama’s March 18th speech on race and politics is arguably the biggest political event of the campaign so far. Fully 85% of Americans say they heard at least a little about Obama’s speech, and most (54%) say they heard a lot about it.” (More here.)

You might use the Pew survey and/or the King anniversary as a news hook, then ask: What has been happening in your city, state, or region to help people not just talk about race, but take action against structural racism? If the answer is “not much,” perhaps you can point to examples of officials and citizens elsewhere who have already moved racism to the forefront of their public agenda. If you don’t have local examples, feel free to use any of the examples or talking points below. And if you have examples or talking points that you’d like to add to this list, please send them to Sandy Heierbacher at sandy[at]ncdd[dot]org and we’ll add them to this page. We’ll also post your writings there as well, if you send them to Sandy.

Examples and talking points

· In Memphis, Tennessee, a brand-new coalition has sprung up to commemorate the 40th anniversary of King’s death with a project called Common Ground which will, in the words of Memphis Commercial Appeal editor Chris Peck, help local residents “work together to talk about race in Memphis, gain a better understanding of one another, and pledge to take on specific projects that can repair and restore race relations in this city.” (More from Peck’s column here.) With strong support from local businesses, faith communities, and the media, the first round of facilitated Common Ground circles will start meeting April 24, with an action forum planned for early June.

· Eleven years ago, board members of the Syracuse, New York, Community Wide Dialogue planned to spend a year talking about race and racism in their community. They soon realized, however, that one year of dialogue on such an important issue would not be nearly enough. In fact, they decided a decade wouldn’t do it, either. Last year, as the Community Wide Dialogue to End Racism (CWD) marked the end of its first decade, leaders reported that they were about halfway to the goal of having 10,000 people who have talked deeply about race and racism, and who have the skills to take action against the ways racism still hurts the community. CWD recently announced a new project aimed at cooling ethnic tensions on the city’s Near Northside, where many refugees from abroad are settling. (More here.)

· Syracuse, Memphis, and hundreds of other communities are addressing racism with the help of Everyday Democracy (formerly the Study Circles Resource Center), which has resources including its revised-in-2006 guide, Facing Racism in a Diverse Nation. In a forthcoming column for the spring 2008 issue of Everyday Democracy’s Focus newsletter, executive director Martha McCoy writes, “Lately, race has moved back to the front and center of our national discourse. All of us who pay attention to this issue know that this happens every decade or so. But there’s something different this time. The conversation is more about the impact of racism on our communities, our institutions, and our policies, and less about “can we all just get along.” It’s more about quality of life, and less about race as an inter-personal matter. … A new “racial literacy” is taking shape. We see it developing in small, medium and large communities, rural, urban, and suburban. It’s happening in those with very diverse populations, and those that are just starting to diversify. Communities are learning to frame and discuss questions of fairness, opportunity, and what it will take to close gaps in housing, education, public safety, and social services.”

· Matt Leighninger, author of The Next Form of Democracy: How Expert Rule is Giving Way to Shared Governance – And Why Politics Will Never Be the Same (Vanderbilt University Press, 2006), says he has noticed that while race inevitably comes up in all sorts of civic conversations, people are starting to challenge assumptions about how we talk about it. For example, he says, “The participants in these local civic experiments question the notion that racism is just an easily identifiable, individual sin – that we are all either racists or non-racists. When people take a closer look, they usually begin to see racism as a blurry spectrum, a series of individual and institutional biases that get progressively more inaccurate and damaging.” He adds: “Diversity is both a strength and a challenge: sometimes you celebrate diversity, sometimes you have to deal with it, but the challenge is how to do those things effectively, not how you can make differences disappear.” Race, he adds, may well be something we will be working on for decades to come, “the great American project” in shared governance.

· At its website, Public Agenda has a race issue guide that lays out research results and fact sheets on many policy implications of structural racism, along with discussion materials for citizens to grapple with solutions. “We’ve always been strong believers in the public’s ability to have real, meaningful dialogue on race or any other issue, given the right conditions. But there are certain things people need to get started. They need insight into the other guy’s point of view – and the public opinion research tells us that the perception gap between the races can be substantial. They need to know where things stand today, and to have a framework for discussion, some sense of clear alternatives for the road ahead. Finally they need a place in our public realm to have a conversation that encourages a real exchange of ideas rather than broadsides and bitter commentary,” said Scott Bittle, Public Agenda’s executive vice president and director of public issues analysis. “Public Agenda’s Issue Guide on Race provides some of the essential raw material for that conversation.”

· Julie Fanselow wrote a blog post at Daily Kos on March 26 that includes several other examples of communities addressing racism and attracted more than 60 comments ranging from whether dialogues – even action-oriented dialogues – about racism are simply a “feel-good” exercise to whether reparations are part of the discussion.

· In his March 20th blog post, Peter Levine compared CNN’s shallow, horse-race coverage of the Obama speech to more thoughtful reflection on the speech, including a New York Times article detailing how Obama’s speech provoked deep discussions among the staff members of a 12,000-member mostly white evangelical church in Florida. (The Times article has quotes from people across the country reacting to the Obama speech.)

· Rich Harwood wrote a blog post on March 25 making a case for why local – not national – conversations on racism are the way to go, and why conversation alone is not enough. “Deeper connections will emerge only by rubbing shoulders and finding solutions together to common challenges, demonstrating to ourselves and others that progress is possible,” he wrote.

Please be sure to offer links and/or attribution if you use any of these examples or talking points. And don’t forget to look over the tips for writing op-ed articles at http://ncdd.org/rc/item/4911.

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