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Guest columnist Paula Green: Race matters: Bridging for unity

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Sunday, January 27, 2019

Slavery, its history and legacy, remains a poison in the American body politic — too painful for many white Americans to acknowledge and for African-Americans ever to forget. Avoiding the anxiety of encounters across the racial divide, we keep ourselves trapped in a cycle of injuries and misapprehensions.

A group of us here in the Pioneer Valley feels called, in our small way, to follow other local groups active for decades in undoing racism, to break that cycle, to confront history and contemporary racism. Since last fall, 18 African-American, white American and indigenous local residents, spanning the region from Springfield to Shelburne Falls, have joined in a dialogue project on race called Bridge4Unity. We intend to probe the barriers to connection and solidarity that exist across racial divides and to engage collaboratively out of our collective wisdom.

The Bridge4Unity dialogue project will include participants not only from the Pioneer Valley but also from Beaufort County, South Carolina, and Letcher County, Kentucky. The project was in part inspired by Hands Across the Hills, the 2017-18 Leverett, Massachusetts-Letcher County, Kentucky, dialogue and cultural exchange project. It follows the same model of two, three-day residential exchange visits. B4U dialogues will be focused, purposeful, heart-centered and demanding of our sensitivity and awareness of each other and the role of racism in our lives.

On Jan. 24, our group will travel to the South Carolina Lowcountry to spend three days in dialogue with residents of diverse races and backgrounds from Charleston and Beaufort County as well as participants from Letcher County in Kentucky — linking Hands Across the Hills and B4U. Some of our South Carolina participants are Gullah, descendants of an African-American community who, by living on isolated barrier islands, managed to maintain some of their traditional African roots and folkways. Each of our groups reflects a mixture of racial identities as well as disparities of economics, opportunities and perhaps politics.

I will be facilitating the dialogues with an African-American woman professor of social justice living in South Carolina. So far, in the process of leading our own Valley group in monthly dialogues, I can say that race is harder than politics, which was the focus of our original Hands Across the Hills project. It goes deeper into the bones and DNA of this country and every one of its residents. At this moment in our acrimonious and fractured national polity, such conversations and the commitments they produce create a counter-narrative to the ways race is used to divide us.

In our three days in South Carolina, we will engage in daily dialogue circles of honest conversation, tour the historic legacies of slavery, learn about Gullah survival and cultural renaissance, enjoy the stories, poetry and music of our regions and heritages, and build bonds across common ground and differences. We will begin our weekend at a dinner hosted by Beaufort’s Jewish mayor, descendant of an immigrant from Czarist Russia, who will tell us about his dedication to reviving the local history of the post-Civil War and pre-Jim Crow Reconstruction Period. Our dialogues will take place at Penn Center, where Martin Luther King, Jr. resided when he polished his “I Have a Dream” speech.

The vision for Bridge4Unity came from Deborah Snow, an entrepreneur who co-owns the Blue Heron Restaurant in Sunderland. Deborah attended the public programs of Hands Across the Hills, participated in dialogue training that I led last winter, has family in Beaufort and displays Gullah art at her restaurant. Deborah and I are partnered in Bridge4Unity, and together identified the Western Massachusetts group members, including two who participated in Hands Across the Hills.

After we visit South Carolina in late January, the Pioneer Valley B4U will deepen our monthly dialogue on race and racism while also organizing for the June 2019 visit of the South Carolina and Kentucky groups to the Valley.

Their stay will include an open event, each region sharing with the public the joys, challenges and outcomes of our meetings, conversations and cultural exchanges.

B4U hopes to continue beyond June, perhaps seeding something larger in the Valley to develop more connections across race and class. Right now, our focus is on both our own dynamics and the challenges of acknowledging and absorbing the complex racial histories of our own region, of coal country Kentucky, where African-Americans arrived from further south to work in the mines, and of South Carolina, with its history of slavery and the Civil War.

One of our B4U participants is Amilcar Shabazz, professor of African-American studies at the University of Massachusetts and chair of the National Black Studies Association. Asked to articulate why he chose to participate, he wrote: “Speaking truth to power has been a righteous part of our democracy and culture. But now, more than ever, is the time to speak truth to each other… If we can get out of the media spin and polarized politics, then I have faith that we can move from divided-we-fall to united-we-live.”

Paula Green, founder of Karuna Center for Peacebuilding and Professor Emerita at the School for International Training, leads Hands Across the Hills and Bridge4Unity.