Columbia's racial diversity focus of group discussion

Residents meet to talk about reasons, methods to open up mostly white town leadership

August 26, 2010|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

The lack of diversity on Columbia's governing boards is less an issue than a symptom of the racial divide, a group of about 35 of the town's residents were told Thursday night as they gathered to discuss hidden feelings and bridge cultural gaps.

"It's not about any one organizations," said Candace Dodson Reed, co-chair of a group called twentyfivefortyfive that was formed through the Columbia Foundation to encourage community involvement by younger people.

"It's about the culture in Howard County. How do we get beyond where we are?"

A Baltimore Sun article published July 5 noted that despite Columbia's founding on principles of diversity and with roughly a third of its population that is nonwhite, the 65 residents elected to homeowners' association and village boards are 89 percent white, though the positions are not hard to get.

That was an opportunity to begin talking about building cross-cultural relationships on a very personal level, said Frank Eastham, principal of Oakland Mills High School and the discussion leader.

Participants twice broke up into groups of three or four to describe their own upbringing and their commitment and interest in changing the often-limiting way many people live their lives.

"We don't really connect," observed Regina Clay, 46, an African-American woman who grew up in Columbia but has lived in Baltimore, New York and New Jersey. "How did our growing up shape the views we have now? We don't connect with people in our own neighborhood.

Paul C. Cabellon, an ethnic Filipino who grew up in military bases, said Asian-Americans are often very isolating, with people from different parts of Asia clinging closely together and looking askance at others.

Abby Hendrix, who is white, said she grew up in very diverse Takoma Park in Montgomery County. "I see myself always involved with diversity," she said, but "on the Oakland Mills Village Board, we're not representative of the community. Why not?"

Josh Feldmark, also white, said he grew up in the town but has realized Columbia hasn't reached the real diversity originally intended. "To me, Columbia prides itself on diversity, but it's really on passive terms. We've really missed the mark in an active sense."

Eastham said he grew up in a confining, white-dominated culture and decided as a teenager to escape that. He's worked hard at it over the years, he said, but all people often have trouble matching their conscious intentions with their deepest-held feelings.

"We're very good at hiding our negative assumptions about others, especially in Columbia," he told the group, which met in a Loyola University Maryland building in east Columbia.

To help people reach those feelings, he urged the small groups to first talk about their individual origins, and then later to "think about a time when you experienced confinement. When everyone was like you."

The two-hour meeting was intended to begin a process, he said. "We're not finishing anything. It's just a beginning."

Eastham drew a map of sorts showing that people trying to bridge cultural barriers all feel frustration, tension, confusion and embarrassment, but it's how they respond that's important. Choose to be open, accepting and trusting, and the results will be very different than for those choosing fear, suspicion and inflexibility, he said.

The result can vary, depending on those avenues, from rapport and understanding, he said, to alienation and isolation.

"If we want our boards, our PTAs to be diverse, we have to decide which map to choose," he said.

He wound the session up with a music video of artists around the world singing parts of the song "One World" after telling the group, "Columbia isn't perfect. Howard County isn't perfect, but we have a gift that was given to us. If we can't do it here, how can we expect anywhere else in the country to do it?"

larry.carson@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.