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Words Up

Partnership Embarks On Initiative To Spark One-to-One Dialogues Across Racial Divides

By Afefe Tyehimba | Posted 4/3/2002

Seated at a conference table in a sunny office in lower Charles Village, two women, one black, one white, are creating a tense scene--literally. The black woman, Denise Gantt, who prefers to be called Kumani, is being congratulated by the white woman, Jacqueline Robarge, for putting together a theatrical hip-hop show. Shaking hands, the duo grin at each other. Then Robarge casually leans toward Kumani. "You know," she says, "this isn't really theater."

"Now, what am I to do in that moment?" asks Kumani, stepping out of character and glancing around the table where several members of Fusion Partnerships Inc. have been observing the exchange.

The nonprofit group was formed in 1999 to promote peace and social-justice issues. The scene played out by Fusion partners Kumani and Robarge at a March 23 workshop was part of the preliminary work on the organization's next major initiative: a series of dialogues on race, starting April 8 and continuing through the spring.

Like other recent local initiatives on race relations, Fusion's goal is to bridge cultural divides. But organizers say they are taking a different approach, focusing on building one-to-one relationships across racial gaps rather than just pinpoint systemic ills or institutional barriers. "We're getting people to focus on speaking their own truth to help in relationship building," says Paul Harris, a founding member of Fusion. The group views the upcoming dialogues as a gateway to "engaging people's minds, bodies, and spirits," he says, "so we don't just bring people to the table but we change the shape of the table."

That holistic approach evolved out of consulting and diversity training work Fusion has done over the past three years, both nationally and for local outfits like the Downtown Partnership and the National Aquarium. In addition, the group organizes conferences to help rally the troops of like-minded organizations such as the urban-policy philanthropy the Open Society Institute.

"From our perspective, what holds this whole region back is all the breaches that exist because of racism and fear," says Diana Morris, director of the Open Society Institute's Baltimore office. "It's going to take individual work to break through all that, and small groups coming together. If we fail to make those connections, every one of us suffers--and our kids are only going to be able to work well if they can benefit from a diverse population."

Baltimore City College Principal Joseph Wilson makes a similar point in touting DiversCITY, an after-school program Fusion began at the high school last year. "Students are hungry to know more than just the kids in the next neighborhood," Wilson says. "Increasingly, students are realizing they are going to have to be citizens of the world who must try and understand the viewpoints of others."

The small-scale, across-the-table approach aims to penetrate further than bigger, high-profile efforts, such as President Clinton's late-'90s race initiative, which focused on large gatherings--and garnered mixed reviews from blacks and whites alike before petering out after about 15 months. During the same period, the Baltimore-based Interfaith Action for Racial Justice (IARJ), a coalition of local business, civil-rights, and religious organizations, held a series of dialogues and "study circles" to address the racial aspects of issues like economic development and residential growth. While hundreds of people often turned out for IARJ's gatherings, its broader efforts were not universally embraced. In 1997, for example, Carroll County officials declined to join a regionwide IARJ forum dubbed "A Call to Community." (IARJ did not return calls for this story.)

Such past setbacks don't appear to concern the Fusion partners. "This effort is less about changing institutions than finding individuals who can institute change," Harris says. "It's about planting seeds, not saying, 'Now this organization is healed.' But at some point, when there's enough people carrying the seeds, that's when the alchemy happens."

That alchemical process begins when people start being honest, participants say. "I expected that I would have my attitudes challenged by them in a way that respected me," says Richard Gorelick, Center Stage's public-relations chief and a March 23 workshop attendee. (Gorelick is also an occasional City Paper contributor.) "Some people came to the workshop because they needed to nurture their soul, and I needed some medication for some bad stuff I've been carrying around--everyday racism and everyday bitterness that had started to build up like tartar."

Gorelick came to the workshop at the invitation of Kumani, a colleague of his at Center Stage. "What Fusion is teaching me," he says, "is that it's a long, long process, and it's one step forward and two steps back. Every day we have to commit ourselves to the work."

Gorelick says his participation in Fusion is driven mostly out of a need for personal growth. Kumani--who says she and Gorelick enjoy a good working relationship--says one reason she invited her colleague was to help foster changes at their workplace.

"I've often wondered why we couldn't keep African-Americans on staff, and why the organization hasn't done a better job of bringing in [more diverse] plays," says Kumani, who organizes youth programs at Center Stage. "I don't think organizations understand how isolating and debilitating it is to witness that, and that's the nature of racism in this country. . . .

"And if we are able to create a space where people begin to see one another more fully and interact with one another based on that [new understanding]," she adds, "we'll be doing fabulous work."

For more information on Fusion Partnerships' Dialogues for Unity and Peace, call (410) 889-4700.

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