Shawn Williams for Paris News: Meeting not time well spent

Here’s an article that I wrote for my hometown rag about the 2nd Racial Dialogue meeting that was held in Paris last week.  Thanks to Mary Madewell for allowing me to express my views.

January 13, 2009

It’s hard to believe the momentum built from the first U.S. Department of Justice racial dialogue meeting could be lost so quickly.  After the successful session that took place in December, I was excited about a return trip to Lamar County.

But at Thursday’s gathering, the Department of Justice’s Community Relation Services duo, Carmelita Pope-Freeman and David Penland, spent too much time priming the pump and too little time in harvest mode.

For a group so into structure, Thursday’s meeting seemed to ramble. After about an hour I thought about heading back across Lake Ray Hubbard, wondering if I would have been better off sitting in front of my television set watching Oklahoma and Florida in the national championship game.

Besides the inordinate amount of time spent on set up, there was entirely too much of this meeting devoted to review and bringing newcomers up to speed. Freeman stressed the importance of timeliness, but the limited amount of time set aside for discussion was not used wisely.

A positive moment came when Freeman opened up the floor for reflections on the tragic fire at the Christians in Action shelter. One of the attendees provided an excellent synopsis of what the heartbreaking catastrophe meant to the community.

The closeness of the Calvary fellowship hall was lost in the much more cavernous Love Civic Center. Where attendees in December tended to sit with people they didn’t know, those who came out last Thursday sought the comfort of familiar faces. It’s hard to find a perfect venue, and the intimacy of the church was a necessary loss in order to add capacity.

The body language of attendees showed that Freeman’s call and response facilitation style was wearing thin. Since Dec. 4, I had prepared myself to hunker down and listen to folks pouring out their hearts with concerns regarding their city.

Citizens were to bring the worksheets that had been assigned to them and be prepared to speak uninterrupted for three minutes. This would allow everyone to have their say and then work towards crafting solutions in subsequent meetings. Instead a group exercise was revisited and each table was asked to select a spokesperson.

Once Parisians actually got the microphone back, the meeting took a turn for the better. There were points made regarding getting parents more involved in the schools, shutting down drug houses and bootleggers, and ensuring criminal justice is enforced equally across racial lines.

But many of the groups on Thursday — as was the case at the previous dialogue meeting — turned their discussion towards education. That’s fitting, since many of the racial tensions that have existed in recent years sprang out of local schools.

If Paris discovers the magic potion that solves the education problem, then you should bottle it and sell it. But the fact that sub par public education is an American pandemic shouldn’t preclude the people of Paris from setting goals related to reforming their school systems.

I think the Diversity Task Force should go back to the Community Relations Service Office and ask for a do over. I would suggest Marva Joe and Mary Clark ask Freeman and Penland to come back and conduct the meeting many of us thought we were heading in to. Yet to do so would set the process back.

At the very least, Joe and Clark should make sure the Department of Justice folks follow their own prescribed guidelines at these meetings. If not, a drop in participation will inevitably be blamed on lack of community interest when in actuality it may be something else entirely.

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