Race relations in the U.S. reached a low point a few years ago, and in many parts of the country, that trend is holding steady. But in Montgomery County, Virginia, it’s a different story. People there have been working together for the past several years, to tackle racial inequality and injustice.
It's the annual winter summit of the Dialogue on race and more than 200 people are here on a Saturday morning.
Keynote speaker, Menah Pratt-Clarke tells the crowd a personal story about what it’s like for her to be the only black woman in a sea of white people, which given U.S. demographics, is quite typical.
She says, “Women of color have to show up--- and smile. I think its such an important social dynamic that we rarely talk about.”
Pratt-Clarke is vice president for inclusion and diversity at Virginia Tech. But years ago, as a young lawyer at a 7 person, all white, male law firm in Nashville, she recalls with a laugh, that it somehow proved difficult for her colleagues to do something as simple as invite her to lunch. Mentoring was one of the firm’s requirements and she was a mentee. Nonetheless, everyone was awkward. They talked about the weather, she said. They tried. But it wasn’t natural, comfortable, or, well, right.
“Still,” she told the audience, “I go. We show up in these spaces. We try to socialize but when we’re the only one, it takes a toll.”
On this January morning, the Winter Summit of the Dialogue on Race at the Christiansburg Middle school auditorium has an almost festive atmosphere as people who know each other chat and some who don’t, meet.
Surveying the crowd, Pratt-Clarke sees a “multi-cultural, multi-generational, multi- community –Blacksburg, Christiansburg— different sectors are represented So, there’s obviously university members, but also community members, so I think it’s an extraordinarily diverse group.”
“The expression, ‘A Rising Tide Lifts all Boats’ is absolutely true,” says Keynote speaker, Penny Franklin. Franklin is President of “New Mountain Climbers: which sponsors the Dialogue on Race, and a member of the Montgomery County School Board. She says, “The work that is going on right here in southwest Virginia, Montgomery County, is absolutely amazing. To pull in 200 people at every(major) event that we do, for the last 7 years and to keep them engaged in focus groups around these issues” speaks volumes. She credits the Blacksburg police department for coming up with a way to build relationships between police and people of color. “It’s an initiative that extends to all people no matter what their race. We see law enforcement creating the possibility of a 2-year education for every child in Montgomery County, not just the African American children. That is, absolutely, a way that you move the whole area.”
Earlier that morning, DOR held its first ‘Coffee with Cops’ at this event.; Thirteen tables of people chatting and strategizing. "It’s been going on informally for several years,” says Blacksburg police Chief Anthony Wilson.
“It grew out of the Dialogue on Race. We were looking for connection points and one of our mandates for the law enforcement group, was to figure out why we weren’t attracting minority candidates. What barriers were in place ?
Actions points like that are what the Dialogue on Race is all about. That’s why its organizers asked everyone to come up with something they would do to develop relationships that challenge racism.
Ryan Wade teaches 8th grade Civics at Blacksburg Middle School. “What I’m going to do is first, is go to my administration and let them know that I attended this (DOR Winter Summit) and let them know about the discussion we’re having here, and ask them, if we can have events like this.”
Wade is the only African American teacher at the school. He says he can tell his story, but he can’t tell everyone’s.
“So I think it’s important that we get people from this community who have lived here a lot longer than I have, to explain their story because their grand kids are going to these schools.”
One of the themes that came up often in conversation and on the podium is, the feeling by African Americans that they’re often the only one, on boards, committees, -- where people looking for new members look to their acquaintances, colleagues and friends, to join those groups. And when it comes to social events, it’s the same way.
With a black population under 5-per cent in Montgomery County, it’s more than just a feeling.
Ann Goette, lives in Giles county. Her ‘take-away’ action item went right to the heart of the focus of this year’s winter summit, developing relationships across racial differences.
She says, even though you’re sincere, it can be awkward. You want to reach out to someone of a different race, but “It is sort of embarrassing to say, ‘Well, I don’t know you very well. I just want to have a better relationship with a black person. How do you go in there? I’m not saying I want to be your friend just because you’re black.” I want to be your friend because I need to know you, and if I don’t know you, we’re not going to progress at all.” Goette says, when she is invited to parties, she asks the host if she can bring some gal pals with her. “ So come to my paty and bring 5 people.”
The Dialogue on Race has monthly meetings for each of its 5 main mission groups on everything from the social to the political, the-economic and the educational, all focused on developing relationships to challenge racism.
Issue Groups Information
Limited Presence Issue Group - Focuses on the value of the presence of African Americans in leadership roles; and monitoring and assessing marketing to include African Americans.
Meets: First Tuesday of the month, 7:00pm-8:00pm
Where: Institute for Policy and Governance, Virginia Tech, 201 West Roanoke St., Blacksburg, VA. Easy, free parking behind building.
Jim Crow/White Privilege Issue Group: Focuses on having constructive conversations/dialogue with people of other races about white privilege. We are willing to visit different organizations/groups in Montgomery County to continue the conversation.
Meetings: Second Thursday of month, 4:30pm-6:00pm.
Where: Luther Memorial Lutheran Church (corner of Tom's Creek Rd. and Price's Fork Rd. in Blacksburg) in the Fellowship Hall.
Contact: Debbie Sherman-Lee email@example.com( NEW EMAIL)
The Education Issues Group The purpose is to discuss the education goals and identify ways to work with MCPS to achieve these goals.
Meetings: the 1st Wednesday of the month, 5:30-7:00.
Where: Amelia’s Pizzeria & Restaurant, 1130 Cambria St., Christiansburg
Contact: Martha Ann Stallings firstname.lastname@example.org
The Law Enforcement Issue Group Focus is to eliminate racial profiling in Montgomery County. To have police personnel resemble racial makeup of Montgomery County. Improve Police/Community Relations.
Meetings: 2nd Thursday of the month at 9:00 a.m.
Where: Christiansburg Police Department, 10 E Main St, Christiansburg, VA 24073
Contact: Wornie Reed email@example.com
The Employment and Income Gap Issue Group To have significant increase in African American employment. Distribute information on income gaps and promote additional dialogue on why disparities exist where employees have equal qualifications. Make it easier for employers to hire African Americans.
Meetings: Contact for more information.
Where: To be determined.
Contact: Penny Franklin firstname.lastname@example.org
The mission of the Dialogue on Race is to create a forum
that examines racial issues articulated by the African-American
community in Montgomery County, Virginia, and then develops
and implements solutions.
⇒ Download African American Directory: https://www.dialogueonrace.info/directory-1