United Vision's focus on the future tackles diversity, other tough topics

About 70 people plan to discuss 8 `key issues'

June 17, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Halfway through a private effort at molding Howard County's fast-growing population into one community, members of a grass-roots project are grappling with tough topics such as diversity -- subjects beyond the county's General Plan review.

That's the agenda for the next several meetings of Howard County -- A United Vision, as about 70 people split into small groups to discuss eight general topics labeled "key issues" in the county's future.

Most, such as growth, are items the county's plan for the future will also consider, but United Vision, a private group, aims to go further, to find ways to link the county's new arrivals to older residents -- rural to urban, young to old and black to white -- to form one cohesive community.

Tuesday night at Savage Mill, a new phase of the process began, as project director Lynne Nemeth told the so-called "stakeholders" that this is "what everyone has been waiting for -- developing issues."

Along with seven other topics (health care, public safety, education, community life, growth, regionalism and preserving natural and historic resources), the nine people who will meet to discuss diversity over the next few weeks aim to define their topic and develop concrete projects.

Growth and education seemed to draw the largest groups, while public safety, normally at the top of most public interest polls, drew only two people -- who quickly joined larger gatherings.

Thomas R. Forno, discussion leader for the nine people who gathered to talk about diversity, wasted no time before revealing his interests.

"I see a split, particularly in Columbia -- a failure in what was devised by Mr. [James W.] Rouse, integrating lower socioeconomic groupings into the life of Columbia," Forno said.

His worry, he said, is that subsidized housing isn't dispersed enough through the county, leading to what another committee member, former school administrator and real estate agent William Chestnutt, called "pockets of poor, rich and middle class."

On the list of key United Vision issues, diversity covers sub-issues that include economic class, race, gender, sexual orientation, seniors and the disabled. But although observers of the O. J. Simpson murder trial learned that racial issues are entwined in every aspect of American life, they rarely came up in Tuesday's discussion.

Chestnutt said he is concerned about class differences that separate people -- socioeconomic separation. "We're much more into that than into race," he said, adding: "Not in my back yard," a reference to neighborhood resistance to group homes for retarded people.

Barbara Reed, a retired Social Security worker who said she lives in low-income housing, said the group should work on including youths, especially from low-income families, in activities that their parents often can't afford. "Young people now do not have access to social activities," she said, and that limits their ability to prepare for their adult lives.

Alfreda Gill, who is originally from Pakistan, worried that children of more recent Asian immigrants don't have the education or money to meld easily with American society.

Jean Toomer, a longtime community activist, talked about how Native Americans could learn from mingling more with children who know multiple languages and cultures.

She said some hold the belief that "everybody's got to learn to live with us.

"Look what we've missed" by having that attitude, Toomer said.

Carla Tevelow, who has lived in western Howard for the past 15 years, lamented that there's "very little diversity out there. It's sad."

"I think things are becoming worse," said Susan Rosenbaum. "People are more reticent. We're becoming more and more polarized."

Chestnutt agreed, arguing that public schools have to help create the social mixing bowl because they're "the only institution in our society that's democratic. The churches can't do it. Religion is the most segregated institution we've got."

Forno's challenge, he said, was to organize his committee and get everyone pulling the same way. The group's final task, Nemeth said, will be to figure out how to keep the process alive after the meetings end this fall.

Pub Date: 6/17/99

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