'Study circles' on race to begin Discussions designed to address divisions in area communities

March 17, 1997|By James Bock | James Bock,SUN STAFF

It sounds simple enough: Gather a group of 10 to 15 people, white, black, Asian and Latino, from city and suburbs, and talk about race.

But a rather elaborate process has been designed to make such conversations, known as "study circles," flourish over the next five years throughout the Baltimore metropolitan area.

Spearheaded by the nonprofit Interfaith Action for Racial Justice, the process will officially begin tomorrow night with "A Call to Community: An Honest Conversation about Race, Reconciliation and Responsibility."

The opening event is set for 7: 30 p.m. in LeClerc Auditorium, College of Notre Dame of Maryland, 4701 N. Charles St. NAACP President Kweisi Mfume will speak.

Study circles, billed as a community-building exercise in participatory democracy, have sprung up in the country this decade as residents have sought fresh approaches to often intractable issues such as race, education, crime and violence.

The Baltimore effort is unusual in that it aims to create a metropolitan discussion, inspired in part by author David Rusk's "Baltimore Unbound." Rusk's book suggests that Baltimore's "growing social and economic isolation" will sap the vitality of the whole metropolitan area unless the city is relieved of its role as the "region's poorhouse."

Organizers of "A Call to Community" don't necessarily endorse Rusk's suggestions, but they do support the need for neighborly chats across political boundaries about what divides area residents, particularly race.

"The agenda is to lay the groundwork for better consensus," said John C. Springer, executive director of Interfaith Action, founded in 1979 as Baltimore Clergy and Laity Concerned. "The question I ask is: Do you really feel your children or your grandchildren will not be affected or at risk by the city's downfall?

"The region as a whole has never really taken on the issue of race before," Springer said. "The political leadership has not made the commitment to talk about race."

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke of Baltimore and County Executives Eileen M. Rehrmann of Harford County and Charles I. Ecker of Howard County have endorsed "A Call to Community."

Carroll County commissioners decided not to endorse the effort or earmark funds for it, although Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown sent a check and letter of support.

"I just don't think we have a problem out here," said Richard T. Yates, president of the Carroll commissioners. "I think the problem has to be dealt with in Baltimore City."

The Baltimore area was 70 percent white, 27 percent black, 2 percent Asian and 1 percent American Indian in 1994, the most recent year for which racial estimates are available. (Hispanics, who may be of any race, made up 2 percent of the population.)

Other minorities were spread rather evenly across Baltimore and the five surrounding counties, but two-thirds of the area's 656,000 African-Americans lived in the city. While Baltimore was 63 percent black, African-Americans were a small, if growing, minority in the suburbs: 14.1 percent in Baltimore County; 13.5 percent in Anne Arundel and Howard counties; 9.9 percent in Harford County; and 2.8 percent in Carroll.

Interfaith Action's aim is to develop several pilot study circles of six, two-hour sessions this year and eventually involve more than 1,000 residents across the metropolitan area in small-group discussions of race. Interfaith Action will recruit church, community and nonprofit groups to sponsor study circles, train volunteer discussion leaders and find racially diverse participants.

Baltimore's "A Call to Community" is modeled after the work of two national organizations, the Topsfield Foundation's Study Circles Resource Center in Pomfret, Conn., and Hope in the Cities, a Richmond, Va., nonprofit organization, which have helped such efforts elsewhere.

In Lima, Ohio, a blue-collar city of 46,000, more than 2,000 people have taken part since 1992 in study circles on race, crime and violence, and youth issues.

Howard County started study circles in 1995. About 65 people have participated, said James E. Henson Sr., county human rights director. "We are, sure, preaching to the choir, but we are trying to enlarge the choir," Henson said. "It helps us put faces on faceless images that we can easily dismiss, ignore, even hate."

Measuring study circles' effectiveness is "extremely difficult," conceded Matthew Leighninger, the Study Circles Resource Center's program director. "It's a social thing, people meeting people unlike themselves, forming interracial relationships."

"A Call to Community" will try to get people talking about race in an atmosphere devoid of blame and guilt, following curricula developed by the two national groups. Participants will consider translating their discussions into action. The sessions are voluntary and free of charge.

"This is not about guilt," said Robert Corcoran, national coordinator of Hope in the Cities. "This process challenges each person, whether black or white, to take responsibility for making changes where they are. It's not about assigning blame, pointing the finger and saying it's the other person who has to change."

Pub Date: 3/17/97

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