Shawn Williams: Outsiders more than meddlesome intruders

Here’s the text of a column that I wrote which appeared in the Paris News on Wednesday. This is more follow up to the meeting with the Department of Justice held their last Thursday.

“Wow…we didn’t even speak.”

That was one of the first things I heard in response to the Community Wide Dialogue on Race Relations hosted by the Diversity Task Force and the Paris Chapter of the NAACP.

Before last week, I had never heard of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Relations Services Office, which presided over the meeting held at Calvary Methodist Church. I doubt that very many Parisians had heard of them either, but that didn’t stop folks from showing up in droves to see what all of the hubbub was about.

The 90 in attendance were a testament to the hard work put in by the Diversity Task Force and other interested parties.

But I had the sense that the citizens who decided to drive down Lamar for the meeting had a different idea of how things would go that Thursday night. Carmelita Pope Freeman, Regional Director at the Community Relations Service office in Dallas, directed what amounted to a two-hour brainstorming session. There is no doubt that many of the meeting attendees were busting at the seams for a chance to have their say. I understand that time is to come later.

There were so many groups and interests represented that night that I was tempted to ask the people at my table to start a new organization on the spot. We could have been called Seven for Change, or Paris People with a Purpose. That wouldn’t have been much different than some of the groups who sounded like they had just formed in the Calvary parking lot.

On an evening that was actually designed for very little dialogue, one sentiment within the room did find its way into the conversation. There is a group of Paris residents that are tired of outsiders coming in to town and meddling in local affairs.

This point was visually illustrated by a sheet of paper floating around that had the picture of a black man dressed in black gear — presumably a member of the New Black Panther Party — with a red circle around him and a red cross marked through it.

This document didn’t give the impression of people looking to find common ground on these difficult issues. It merely reinforces the image that so many citizens are fighting hard to erase.

Upon my return home the following Saturday, I was reminded of what’s at stake for the City of Paris. While visiting with members of the men’s ministry at my church, I discussed with them the meeting that I had attended in my hometown.

“I was supposed to look at a car down in Paris,” one of the gentlemen said, “but I didn’t want to have to go down there at night.” To my dismay, he expressed his idea of Paris as a place not welcoming to African-Americans. Though some folks may resist outside influences on city matters, what about outside dollars for the city coffers?

It’s not just about black, white, or brown; it’s also about green, as in dollars. This is another factor in the efforts that have been put forth by the Diversity Task Force.

But in the end, Ms. Freeman and conciliation specialist David Penland gave Paris just what is needed in this critical time in the city’s history: a road map that should eventually lead to a reduction of racial tensions that have gripped the town during the past 18-plus months.

Even the ground rules that they put in place for the next town hall forum — three minute time limit for each speaker, respecting all speakers by avoiding interruptions — are an important part of what is sure to be an emotionally charged event. And at the end of the road is the potential for Congress to invest in the children, who were on the minds of many that night.

Yes, the people of Paris are responsible for their own fate and are charged with turning this current conflict into a benefit. But I hope the rhetoric towards out-of-towners, who sacrifice their time and money to lend a helping hand, is toned down a little. Believe it or not, there are a few decent ideas that exist outside Loop 286.

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