Cover Story: All Talk, Then Action

Center programs hope to show Cincinnati how to get along

Cameron Knight

Interactivity with visitors helps make the Freedom Center's message contemporary.

In the Freedom Center's final exhibit, people unsatisfied with the museum's programming verbally create their own. Those fed up with forever talk, talk, talk find ways to act on the verbiage — not alone but in "cross-cultural collaboration," a phrase Cathy McDaniels Wilson uses often.

At the end the succession of exhibits pulling visitors through the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is the Dialogue Zone, which Wilson directs. Here visitors can talk through what they've seen and what they've yet to see, both inside the museum and on the streets of a city that's still no model of healthy race relations.

The belief that conversation leads to healing is why museum President Edwin Rigaud calls the Dialogue Zone the key to the Freedom Center's success.

"Because if we can get to the point of having honest dialogue, then all these points of view that you talk about that are all legit," he says. "They're all over the place but they're all legit. They all stem from a legitimate (place), either fact or feeling — that's where the healing will begin."

The Dialogue Zone is a simple, rounded room with glass windows looking into the "Reflect, Respond, Resolve" exhibit. Ergonomic black plastic chairs form a ring interrupted only by the door and an easel supporting a list of ground rules.

Don't be shy
The zone's immediate goal is to create a safe space that allows people to reflect upon their thoughts and feelings, Wilson says. To that end are the ground rules, an interracial dyad of facilitators to lead discussions and red laminated circles 2 or 3 inches in diameter. Two facilitators of different ethnicities model the healthy interracial dialogue they hope to inspire in participants, who can discreetly flash a red circle when the conversation takes an uncomfortable turn.

The sessions start hourly and last about 40 minutes. Facilitators first introduce the process, then ask participants what they're thinking or feeling and finally steer conversation toward more structured discussions about freedom. The discussions might include freedom from prejudice, freedom from slavery or what freedoms or lack thereof exist in their lives — and what solutions there might be.

Wilson is a psychology professor at Xavier University.

"This is not psychotherapy," she says. "This is just a space to reflect upon what you're exposed to."

The goal is bringing together people with different worldviews, experiences and perceptions to "listen to each other, to hear each other adequately, to rebuild trust in one another," she says.

Before the session wraps up, facilitators pass out a "Freedom Conductor's Resource Guide to Cincinnati," a list of organizations as disparate as the Holocaust Center, Stonewall Cincinnati, the American Indian Movement, the ACLU and AIDS Volunteers of Cincinnati.

Participants are also given "Ten Things Every American Should Do," issued by a national advisory board formed by former President Clinton.

"If it is not your inclination to think about race, commit at least one day a month to thinking about how issues of racial prejudice and privilege might be affecting each person you come in contact with that day," the pamphlet says.

People desiring more dialogue are directed to the Healing Through History Program, developed by the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ).

So far visitors to the Dialogue Zone have been few, but Wilson expects attendance to pick up after the museum's grand opening Monday. She says reactions to the museum have been positive.

"I think people in general have been very pleased with the exhibit material," she says.

Some people have "very serious concerns" about the significance of the Freedom Center's location in Cincinnati or its references to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community's freedom fight, according to facilitator Ahoo Tabatabai. Out-of-towners also found it ironic that people once fled to Cincinnati for freedom.

"Folks were expecting that there would be more attention paid to the lack of freedom in the city right now, more attention paid to police brutality and the April 2001 riots," Tabatabai says.

They are encouraged to broach those topics in the Dialogue Zone and in the Healing Through History program, in which eight to 12 diverse people meet for three hours five times over two months.

"In the Healing Through History program, we don't want participants to be shy," says Tony Malinauskas, the program's director. "If they want to talk about the Timothy Thomas event, that's something that's painful to them or they want understanding about it, they want to expand their perspective about it, there will be space for that."

'Let's do something'
But understanding history is crucial because it fosters a common context, a common "data set," Malinauskas says. It's a way to bridge various assumptions and debunk "certain myths about history that color their viewpoint about current interracial relations."

For example, he's met people who think slavery existed in America from the first settlers. But the first African Americans in Jamestown were actually indentured servants, not slaves, who won their freedom after years of work just like their white counterparts.

Understanding that America evolved into slavery means that it can evolve back out of it.

"When you see something as changing, you have some hope for changing it even more," Malinauskas says. "We can change it into something we want."

Looking at history might inspire hope, but first it inspires communication, according to Rigaud.

"We did some experiments around the country, some focus groups with black and white folks, and you try to get them around a table — strangers — to talk about race and race relations," he says. "You can't get anywhere. You show them a historic film about slavery or the Underground Railroad or something like that, and they start talking about the history and then their own family history and their own personal backgrounds and pretty soon they're engaged in sometimes heated discussions. And then at the end of the session, they're exchanging cards and contact information, wanting to get together."

Healing Through History starts with a history of interracial relationships in Cincinnati from World War II to the present. Participants parse case studies of events that shaped Cincinnati.

"We want people to personalize what's going on here because this is the history of our ancestors, our relatives," Malinauskas says.

One case study considers the time when two communities vied for an aircraft manufacturing company. Mostly because one community was largely African-American, the other community landed the plant. Today there are vast economic disparities between the communities.

"We explore how did that happen and what implications does that have for those people even today," Malinauskas says. "We really have to start thinking, what should decision-makers today know about that history and consider about that history to bring more parity or plan for future development?"

The program starts with history but leads directly to plans such as creating community groups or organizations that participants feel passionate about, he says. The end goal is action.

But nothing happens unless first there's communication, Malinauskas says.

"People are thinking we've dialogued too much, let's do something," he says. "And it's kind of like, if we stop dialoguing, then our alternative is mind reading, and we're not going to get a whole lot of progress trying to do that."

Even though the program focuses on interracial relations, it also touches on other struggles for freedom.

"We realize that our community can't be truly the best place it can be for all of us if there are other ­isms floating around, like sexism, classism, heterosexism, ableism," Malinauskas says.

Nichelle M. Bolden contributed to this story.

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