One Columbus joins mayor's commission on diversity, unity

The independent “One Columbus” initiative created in 2001 to smooth relations between people of different cultural backgrounds today becomes part of a city commission appointed by Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, its mission now to address economic divisions that segregate city residents.

Also joining the Mayor’s Commission on Unity, Diversity and Prosperity will be organizers of the city’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day activities and representatives of the Prosperity Initiative that the nonprofit Community Foundation formed to fight poverty, Tomlinson said.

The 28 commission members meet for the first time this morning at the Government Center. Their objective is to examine “a broad range of issues related to age, race, ethnicity, and gender as they may be connected to issues of poverty and prosperity,” according to the mayor’s directive, which lists these tasks:

Analyze Census data and research to gauge the state of poverty in Columbus and its effect on dividing people by age, race, ethnicity and gender, and determine whether concentrations of poverty segment the population.

Catalog current efforts to address poverty with the aim of improving the long-term prospects of the poor.

Analyze housing options for those living in poverty.

The commission is to continue ongoing events such as the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade and an annual One Columbus diversity forum televised by WTVM.

The first One Columbus initiative was driven primarily by the late Rev. J.H. Flakes Jr., then-City Manager Carmen Cavezza and then-Mayor Bobby Peters. It began with informal groups of people from different backgrounds meeting to talk, and in February 2002 held its first major event, a One Columbus Summit on race relations at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center.

“The main thing we want to do with this One Columbus Summit is to seek to broaden the base of support for communications across racial, ethnic and religious lines,” Flakes said in a newspaper report previewing the event.

About 400 people showed up for the summit’s first day, 250 of them students from Muscogee schools. But only 60 attended the second day, prompting Cavezza to cite the city’s population estimate then as he remarked, “There are about 185,000 people missing.”

Some organizers acknowledged that residents were tired of hearing the same talk about race relations as the same issues lingered.

Tomlinson said the city government commission won’t be just a public-relations campaign touting the value of diversity. It will focus on issues the city can address, and that includes economic disparities.

“The city cannot make you add people to your Christmas card list you do not know. It cannot make you invite people to your home for dinner whom you may not get along with or may not be familiar with,” the mayor said. “What we can do is have a systematic process through which we invest and plan the community so we’re not segregated by income.”

Economic segregation correlates with other demographic divisions, she said:

“Today it necessarily segregates people by race, gender and age, because more women tend to live in poverty, more elderly tend to live in poverty, more minorities tend to live in poverty.”

Peters, now a Superior Court judge in the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit, said he’s pleased the effort started 10 years ago when he was mayor will be renewed with a fresh vision, now that Flakes has passed away and Cavezza has retired.

“Rev. Flakes and Carmen were important catalysts in that movement back then, and now that they’re gone, I’m just glad to see that the mayor is taking hold of it and expanding it and continuing it,” Peters said.