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The City That Dares to Talk

Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the southern states, which seceded at the time of the American Civil War, has a cheque

Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the southern states, which seceded at the time of the American Civil War, has a cheque

They walked along the banks of the James River quietly, deliberately. Two hundred and fifty years ago, they were enslaved Africans, brought to Richmond, Virginia, for the economic gain of whites. Today, their descendants and other African Americans are walking together with white Richmonders, retracing the same steps in search of a new path toward relationship.

Ben Campbell, Pastoral Director of the Richmond Hill ecumenical retreat centre, sees the city as 'ground zero' for race relations in the US.

Richmond was one of the world's wealthiest cities in the mid-1800s, thanks to its income from trading slaves to other southern states. In 1857 alone, this trade grossed $4 million. After the Civil War, the city erected monuments to the defeated Confederate leaders in a fashion usually reserved for victors. Several decades later it led resistance to school integration.

And yet episodes in recent history whisper of a change in Richmond--the election of the US's first African American governor and the erection alongside the Confederate heroes of a statue of tennis legend Arthur Ashe, who was once banned from playing on certain courts in the city.

Richmond has always taken a quiet approach to its racial history and relationships. After the civil rights movement of the Sixties, life in Richmond returned to what John Moeser, Professor of Urban Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, calls a 'velvet glove approach'. Some Richmonders refused to talk about the city's racial past or present. Others had grown weary of talking and seeing no change. And others, both in the black and white communities, had come to accept a status quo.

In 1977, Henry Marsh became the first African American mayor and held out a vision for Richmond as a model city. Susan Corcoran, who works with Initiatives of Change (formerly MRA), remembers a group going to ask him what they could do to support this vision. That type of care for the city, and the individuals who lead it, became a hallmark of the work now known as Hope in the Cities.

Hope in the Cities (HIC) was launched nationally in 1993 through a conference in Richmond titled, 'Healing the Heart of America' (FAC August/September 1993). It was the first time the city had held a public gathering which addressed both the city's racial history and the need for new relationships to redefine a course towards prosperity for the city and the surrounding counties. The effort to hold 'an honest conversation on race, reconciliation and responsibility' drew people who had been involved with MRA over the years into partnership with other organizations and individuals.

There are three key elements in HIC's approach, as it has developed over the last nine years. First, everyone with a stake in new community relationships must be invited to the table and be actively encouraged to participate in the process of transformation. Second, there must be an honest acknowledgement of a shared racial history. This can lead to forgiveness and a new level of understanding, so that all can work for change. And third, each individual must take personal responsibility for the change process.

Today, says Virginia's Lieutenant Governor, Tim Kaine, 'people realize that Hope in the Cities has a track record. When there are racial sensitivities in the city or region, Hope in the Cities is now asked to come in and advise.' For example, in the last year, an HIC member was called in to mediate a dispute over the decision of Chesterfield County, south of Richmond, to declare a Confederate Heritage Month.

Paige Chargois, Associate National Director of Hope in the Cities, believes its credibility is a product of its staying power. 'In the work of racial change and healing, people expect you to leave it alone after a while, because people get tired of talking about it or do not really stay with it. We've said this is what we're going to do and we've stayed with it no matter what. And we knew so well what we were about that we refused to be pulled into other issues.'

The conference in 1993 drew participants from 50 US cities and 20 foreign countries and put Hope in the Cities on the map. 'Prior to 1977, there was a lot of activism,' says Collie Burton, a community organizer. 'Between 1977 and 1993, that got diffused. The organizations became ineffective or nothing happened. In 1993, the conference pulled all of those people back together again and those few became the catalyst for what has happened so far.'

What has happened so far includes: the launch of two dialogue programme formats and an annual breakfast celebrating Metropolitan Richmond Day; the development of history walks including that along the slave trail; the establishment of a not-for-profit organization providing job training to African American fathers; the offering of programmes on reconciliation for the staff of the daily newspaper and for the region's premier leadership programme; the development of several HIC-affiliated programmes in other cities and countries; and participation in national programmes, including the President's Initiative on Race, convened by Bill Clinton.

At a national level, the result of HIC's work is that 'honest conversation' has become a catchphrase for racial dialogue across the US. It also provides the national model for communities attempting to reconcile their racial history.

Since 1993, HIC has continued to garner the support of the Richmond community, including elected officials, representatives of all faith groups, and educational, business and community leaders. This has sustained its basic dialogue programme--a six-part series covering race, community, forgiveness, atonement and the building of hope for the future, with an emphasis on the individual's role and responsibility.

'HIC provides a safe forum that enables people to speak openly and honestly,' says Moeser. 'There are instances of individuals being deeply moved by listening to people from very different backgrounds recount their own stories. These sessions have been life-changing for some.'

The programme has endured because of its openness to people. 'People are invited together in a non-judgmental way, so that they are able to be themselves,' says Rob Corcoran, National Director of Hope in the Cities. 'It's significant that we have conservative business leaders who feel equal ownership of HIC here in Richmond. They don't have to somehow be somebody else.' One of these, Jeff Williams, is now a co-chair of the local HIC steering committee, and says that traditional business thinking has often found it hard to address something so subjective as race.

HIC's second dialogue programme, launched in 2000, is the Metropolitan Richmond Dialogues on Race, Economics and Jurisdiction, co-convened with Richmond Hill. These 48-hour residential sessions aim to develop a clear understanding of issues affecting the city which have previously proved impossible to address, and to explore the advantages of accepting Metropolitan Richmond as a single, vibrant community. Twenty people, representing all sectors of the community, take part in each weekend event. They are then invited to a public 'report back' convocation and to develop strategies to affect public policy.

For Robert Bolling, a senior programme manager with the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, the greatest challenge of taking part in the Metropolitan Richmond Dialogue was 'the fear of exposing personal beliefs' without this openness being reciprocated by non-African Americans. 'On the flip side, there was intrigue in exploring my beliefs about race and economics in my birth-city with a group of persons willing to do the same.'

The 'epiphany' for Bolling came after a session in which participants had been divided into racial groups for discussion. 'During a break after the groups had shared, a white male approached me and told me that the whites had not been truthful in what they had shared for fear of offending the blacks. After a short discussion, we agreed that he would reconvene the white group to discuss the matter. In the end, the white group not only shared its issues, but also its reservations about saying those things.' Although the conversation was 'heated and caused much anger, discomfort and resentment', it enabled them to get through to each other on a much deeper level.

Bolling and others say that Richmond is already reaping the benefits of the dialogues. Workgroups have been formed to address such topics as education, regional governments, sharing of economic prosperity, and exploring culture. The real goal is not just to generate working groups, but to provide impetus for a genuine reform movement in the public policy area and to empower participants with the tools and knowledge to take action.

'HIC has gone to a deeper level of community conversations,' says Viola Baskerville, a Virginia State Delegate. 'In the past dialogues were helpful, but now the conversations seem to be stripping away years of unwillingness to talk earnestly about race, politics and economics. It's about time!'

What distinguishes Hope in the Cities' dialogue programmes from those of other organizations is their emphasis on acknowledging racial history. A centrepiece of the 1993 conference was the Unity Walk, a two-mile route through Richmond that highlighted the city's untold past. Since then, with the official involvement of the City of Richmond, signs have been placed at such sites as the docks where the slaves were landed and the market where up to 350,000 people were sold. Richmond has continued to host Unity Walks and Baltimore and Philadelphia have held similar events. Hope in the Cities is now further developing its use of the slave trail along the James River as a 'walk through history'.

Addressing historical issues is probably one of the greatest points of risk-taking within Hope in the Cities' work. This is especially true for African American members who may be misunderstood by their own community, for instance in honest discussions about African participation in the slave trade. Paige Chargois has courageously defended the right of Confederates to publicly commemorate their history and played a pivotal role in reaching out as an African American to the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV). Her step built a bridge of trust for others to walk upon, including a black bishop and the SCV regional commander who were pictured embracing on the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

While Hope in the Cities has received numerous local, national and international endorsements for its work, the real secret of its success is the people involved.

The Burtons and Corcorans are neighbours in the Carillon district of Richmond. When the Corcorans moved in over 20 years ago, Audrey Burton wasted no time in crossing the street to welcome them. 'Rob said Susan was upstairs bathing the baby and I just went right upstairs without any hesitation or reservation,' she recalls. 'The longer I live, [the more] I believe that nothing in my world is accidental. There are things that God really does. There's something about drawing like people together that has nothing to do with the colour of the skin. We couldn't ask for better neighbours, better friends or for better colleagues.'

Rob Corcoran clearly shares this sentiment. He also identifies a professional growth point, when the Burtons got involved with the work to which he and Susan had long been committed. 'The engagement of Audrey and Collie in MRA in the early Eighties was very important,' he says. 'Audrey and Collie encountered a largely white organization. They were not intimidated by it and were prepared to challenge it, mould it and to help break the old and to move towards something new. Which is of course how we met Paige and many others. Sometimes it was a little confrontational and that was good. Up to that point, although we had had black Richmonders involved in MRA, largely they had remained polite and not challenging to the culture.'

Cleiland Donnan, a native Richmonder and retired dance instructor, had been part of MRA's outreach team in Richmond. She describes how her desire to be a bridge builder between black and white Richmonders was inspired by meeting people from South Africa, while it was still in the grip of apartheid. 'That was the first time I thought that anything I did at home could influence or encourage someone somewhere else in the world. I simply had a weak desire, that was honoured by other people. All I had to do was whisper to God and boy did he throw it at me.'

While some Richmonders had been active with MRA for many years, Susan Corcoran identifies a 'key moment, when we thought about who we were meant to work with in the city. Then you find out that there are a lot of people who want to work for change and are already working for change.' This led to the birth of Hope in the Cities.

Miriam Davidow first came into touch with HIC through her work at the Jewish Community Federation and is now a member of its steering committee. She sees its work as providing a face and a focal point for the issue of reconciliation. 'My job and that of others would be much harder if there were no foundation already laid and nobody to provide counsel regarding the wisdom and viability of a given proposal.'

The relationships that Hope in the Cities has established with other organizations in the community are also unusual, says Cricket White, HIC's Director of Training. She talks of its 'non-proprietary sense'. 'We are committed to solving the problem, not necessarily getting all of the credit for having done it. That means that sometimes we are absolutely silent partners. We don't ask that our name be on it, but we are willing to work hard. The result has been that people like having our name on things with them and, of course, we appreciate that. But the bottom line is we are all very committed to a solution, not the claim.'

'HIC provided an outlet for our desire to integrate our work into the work of the community,' says Davidow. Introductions from HIC enabled her organization to include people from outside the Jewish community in mutually beneficial initiatives. 'HIC was a wonderful 'match-maker' allowing us to achieve some of our goals.'

One point of connection with other groups has been HIC's faith-based foundation. According to Moeser, 'HIC's strength comes from the moral leadership that it exercises. While it eschews dogmatic positions and self-righteous assertions, it does not hesitate to base its positions on values that are central to all people of faith regardless of religious tradition.' This has been particularly critical following the terrorist attacks of 11 September after which, for better and worse, a greater lens has been focussed on the Muslim community.

'My work with HIC and my participation in the dialogue programme presented the Islamic Center with an open door to the community in Richmond,' says Muhammad S Sahli, former president of the Islamic Center of Virginia. 'It also convinced the members of the Muslim community that it is important to communicate with other religious groups. This work and the relationships it is generating demonstrate to the faith communities that there are more commonalities between us than differences.'

Rob Corcoran feels strongly about the importance of HIC's spiritual base. 'A lot of the racial justice movement in this country has steered clear of overt references to spirituality, because they feared being lumped into the religious right. But you can't yield that ground to the religious right because spiritual values are essential.'

While Miriam Davidow notes that HIC contains people with deep religious convictions, she welcomes its lack of 'religious fervour'. 'This actually was a plus for our involvement and an inducement to participate. It also allowed for the opportunity to include understanding of our religious diversity and varying belief structures.'

HIC's partnerships with other organizations are rarely for one-off occasions, but are the building blocks for long-term relationships. HIC has also developed partnerships on the national level. One such partner is the Network of Alliances Bridging Race and Ethnicity (NABRE), a programme of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington DC.

'HIC has been a vital partner as a member of the initial NABRE Planning Committee and now as a member of the Steering Committee,' says Mike Wenger, NABRE's Director. 'The fact that Rob [Corcoran] co-chairs the Program Development Subcommittee is indicative of the importance of HIC's support and involvement. Even before NABRE was launched, HIC provided an opportunity for us to discuss the concept and get feedback on it at a conference at the Initiatives of Change international centre in Caux, Switzerland.' HIC and NABRE were co-hosts of last summer's Connecting Communities conference at Howard University, Washington DC.

Hope in the Cities' work does not pay for itself. But from the very beginning its leadership has turned the need for funding into an opportunity to expand its team in the community. Before the conference in 1993, they raised $20,000 from individuals and businesses in the region. Those who invested their money were also asked to invest their time and thinking, and many did.

Five years later HIC received a $240,000 grant from the Kellogg Foundation. This enabled HIC to expand its programmes to other cities, including Portland, Oregon; Selma, Alabama; Baltimore, Maryland; and Dayton, Ohio.

Each new locale is expected to develop its own base of funding and community involvement, so each has developed differently. A model is the work of Portland's Oregon Uniting, a not-for-profit organization seeded by Hope in the Cities, which organized a 'Day of Acknowledgement' at the State Capitol in Salem in 1999. This is thought to have been the first such instance of a state government acknowledging its racial history (

Since 1998, HIC has had a funding partnership with the Community Foundation in Richmond. The Foundation made its first grant to DadsWork, which offers job preparation, job placement and job maintenance to men of colour trying to reunite with their families. In 2000, the Foundation made a grant in support of the Metropolitan Richmond Dialogues and continued this grant for a second year last October.

Susan Brown Davis, Director of Programs for The Community Foundation, describes HIC as a 'natural fit' with the Foundation's mission to help strengthen families and build sustainable communities. And while the Foundation has provided grants, HIC has contributed to the partnership by organizing--with Richmond Hill--two racial history bus tours to raise awareness among the Foundation's donors, board and staff.

The partnership started when Rob Corcoran was asked to represent the Foundation at one of six regional meetings aimed at raising the visibility and strength of community foundations to support bold and effective anti-racism initiatives.

The Foundation chose Corcoran, says Davis, because HIC was the 'resident expert' on bringing together disparate groups to address such issues. 'Rob's value was evident when he returned and reported that there was a high level of interest in the work of Hope in the Cities and that during the breaks he was surrounded by participants from various cities wanting to learn more.'

Chargois sees HIC's 'sense of openness' as something that is rare in similar work. 'As long as a person wants to be involved we have helped them find a place to do that. Another unique aspect is being unafraid to step up to the challenge. Fear and faith cannot occupy the same space.' Walter Kenney, a former mayor who is now a member of the HIC steering committee, uses a baseball metaphor to take that sentiment one step further. 'I don't think we ever went to the plate and struck out (missed the ball),' he says.

When Tony Brooks joined DadsWork he was living in a shelter. He hitchhiked 35 miles twice a day to attend classes. Now he drives tractor-trailers and is able to provide financial support for his two children.

And what of the future? With national and local needs for Hope in the Cities programmes, participation and counsel increasing, the organization is at a crossroads. 'There is a need for more people who are totally committed,' says Rob Corcoran. 'The folks involved at the core of this work have made some pretty hard, clear choices. A movement like this only goes forward when you have a sufficient number of people ready to set new priorities in use of time, resources and relationships.'

And there is no lack of opportunities, both on the national and the regional level, since 11 September. 'The current national climate provides an opportunity to teach people about the dangers of profiling, scapegoating, and negative racial and ethnic stereotyping,' says Mike Wenger of NABRE. 'HIC's voice will be vital to ensuring that we do not sacrifice civil liberties and justice in the current wave of consciousness about our security.'

John Moeser, whose academic work focuses on urban relationships and structures, sees unfinished business for HIC on the public policy front. 'Many of the inner city neighbourhoods as well as working class neighbourhoods in the older suburbs are experiencing severe decline. Those areas tend to be characterized by growing racial/ethnic populations. The city is land-locked and shrinking in political and economic importance. We need strong political leadership at all levels of government in Virginia to speak to these issues, but unfortunately most leaders benefit from the status quo and, consequently, have little desire to change course.

'What HIC is trying to do is to mobilize citizens. As the bumper sticker says, 'When the people lead, the leaders will follow.'

To learn more about HIC's work in Richmond and elsewhere and to identify key points of action in your own community, read 'Connecting Communities', a 128-page handbook on building and sustaining diverse teams working for reconciliation and justice. Available at A case study on HIC's six-week dialogue series, written by Karen Elliott Greisdorf, appears in 'Intergroup Dialogue: deliberative democracy in school, college, community and workplace', edited by David Schoem and Sylvia Hurtado, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2001.

By Karen Elliott Greisdorf

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Publishing permission refers to the rights of FANW to publish the full text of this article on this website.