Dialogue over debate

What happens when four killings take place in one week? Or when a black man, out with friends, is shot dead on the side of a highway?

Some gather and talk. Even when there’s no blatant racial unrest, the One Columbus Dialogue Group meets to discuss issues around race — and also poverty and class and gender. Some people come and go from the group. Others are steady regulars, hashing out definitions and perspectives and reactions, week after week.

In the beginnings of its new session, the Dialogue Group is meeting for the next four weeks at the offices of Chattahoochee Valley Episcopal Ministries on Lockwood Avenue. After next month, a new topic will be introduced for another cycle.

“In a debate, you start out with your stand and defend it. In a dialogue, you bring the perceptions of your culture but you come to learn about others’ perceptions. It’s a real learning experience,” said Ken Crooks, the executive director of One Columbus for the past five years.

The Dialogue Group is one piece of the pie of One Columbus, founded informally in 1992 by the Revs. J.H. Flakes Jr. of Fourth Street Missionary Baptist and Charles Roper of St. Thomas Episcopal. Flakes invited Roper to join him in developing a citywide unity service, and One Columbus grew from there.

“Yes, I will help, but first I want to know you as my brother,” Roper reportedly told him. The two began meeting over meals and other venues, then included other people. “Gathering around that common ground, they found they could reduce the hatred, suspicion and distrust that had pervaded the South for hundreds of years,” according to the One Columbus Web site.

Roper, now retired, lives in the Atlanta area.

Other One Columbus pieces include a bi-monthly breakfast at the Huddle House on Victory Drive. The meals typically include local leaders.

The Dialogue Group is a current incarnation of the old Leadership Morality Institute (LMI). H. Berrien Zettler, who moved to Columbus with wife Nancy in 2005, has been the group’s facilitator since 2006.

No such thing as race?

These 18 years later, the bonds have been tested — not necessarily between the two original clergymen but the wider community which experiences, like all communities, strife and tension and sometimes bloodshed. People who participate in the Dialogue Group, as well as other One Columbus entities, help hold the tethers down by encouraging talk — however heated — rather than violence.

At times the group has wrestled with taking some sort of public stand. But typically its focus is talk.

The first meeting of this season’s Dialogue Group was Sept. 14. The gathering is 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays. John Studstill, Ph.D., who teaches at Columbus State University, challenged the eight attendees in this thought: There is no such thing as race understood as a biological construct. And if there is no such thing, how does racism exist?

From Studstill’s presentation: When subjected to analysis, it turns out that what is called race is more accurately described as “caste,” as in India, he said; people find themselves separated by a pre-determined social order.

There is no biological basis, for example, to consider any group of persons inferior as persons to any other, Studstill continued. Nevertheless, the country’s history provides instances where one group of persons has been defined as inferior, even as subhuman.

At times, attendees interjected comments or asked questions.

Take President Obama, for instance. The question arose: Why is he called a black man, when his pigmentation is only slightly black? (Obama’s mother was white.) To their knowledge, members of the group weren’t sure Obama calls himself black. Studstill, who is white, said he prefers “Euro” to describe himself. “We have very confused terms of race,” he said.

“We need to get underneath the issue of labels,” said H. Berrien Zettler, who plans the Dialogue Group and disperses notices and summaries about meetings.

Those labels include Negro, black, African-American and, as the professor said, all are used or have been used to justify discrimination. “The terms are irrational, illogical and meaningless,” Studstill said.

“But they serve a purpose,” Zettler added.

“It’s a matter of control,” said participant James Brooks, retired from the military.

One Columbus’ vision

The group this night was mixed racially and religiously. Most who attended are either Christian or Jewish. A new Hindu priest in Columbus has been invited for future sessions, Ken Crooks said.

The Dialogue Group now meets in midtown, having convened the past three years at First Presbyterian Church. The annual sessions start up again in September, but people can come in at any time. At times participants itch to take some kind of action, Zettler said, but the talk sessions will remain.

“The press for action pretty quickly comes to the fore, but we encourage people to form an action group, if they desire,” said Zettler, who’s retired from the federal Labor Department. “I hope it changes people’s minds and their outlook. Most who attend are already predisposed to be open on racial issues, or believe that they are.”

For the next few weeks, the group will continue studying a film, “Race: The Power of Illusion.”

“Where there are problems or challenges concerning race, advocacy will be pursued for mutual respect and improvement of race relations — communicating, conciliating, moderating, relating, uniting, building bridges of tolerance, understanding, acceptance, respect, compassion and love,” the One Columbus Web site states. “The vision of One Columbus is a united community embracing all people and giving every citizen a way to participate meaningfully in the activities and decisions that comprise community life.”

Allison Kennedy, reporter, can be reached at 706-576-6237

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