Dialogue on Race is a grassroots organization committed to making racial equality a top priority in Montgomery County.
By Erica Corder, Editor-in-chief Contact the Editor
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In the 1980s, a historic Black community located at the south limit of Blacksburg fought to prevent the paving of a road on their own land that led right up to their cluster of homes.
Backed by the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors, developers paved the road anyway, naming it after the nickname of the family’s late matriarch, Nellie, a former slave — though it was no consolation to the family.
That road is Nellie’s Cave Road. In a News Messenger article from 1992, the late Aubrey Mills Sr., a descendant of Nellie, lamented the disruption of their land, once peaceful and secluded.
“We feel like we get no representation in local government and no respect,” he said.
Over two decades later, a local group is still challenging the issue of limited representation for African-Americans in local government, amid heightened conversations of race relations in the United States. On a recent Saturday evening, the group gathered to discuss this problem, among others, in the park named after Nellie and the road her descendents protested.
Dialogue on Race is an organization that aims to bring together people of diverse backgrounds to talk about racial justice and equality. On Aug. 27, the group convened in the Nellie’s Cave Park picnic shelter to do just that.
Shortly after 5 p.m., the nearly 100 attendees were welcomed by Penny Franklin, who had the idea to start the Dialogue on Race and its steering committee years ago. Franklin helped shape the organization into its current form, with its focus on five issue groups, narrowed down with the help of focus groups and data: education, law enforcement, Jim Crow/White privilege, limited presence, and the employment and income gap.
After a few brief words and a moment of silence, attendees were invited to the potluck-style spread at the front of the shelter, and the next 45 minutes were spent in food and fellowship. After the plates were cleared, attendees split into groups that sat around designated picnic tables or areas of the park for story circles, a method the Dialogue on Race uses to spark casual and uninterrupted conversation around a central prompt.
LaTron Brown, founder of Aging Well Roanoke Valley, reflected on the prompt — ‘what I wish that I would have said’ — and shared his story of dissonance with his small group. Though he is an African-American, he said he has had trouble identifying with some issues raised by groups like the Dialogue on Race.
While data from Pew Research Center shows that the unemployment rate for Blacks is consistently double that of Whites — and has been for most of the past six decades — Brown’s personal success governs his understanding of problems like limited presence or the unemployment gap of African-Americans in the workforce.
“I know that there are those instances where someone has probably looked at my resume and said, ‘oh, that looks like a Black name.’ But, I don’t know. I feel like sometimes we just kind of speculate too much,” he said. “I’ve never really said, ‘someone’s holding me back.’”
Hearing from others at the event, however, gave him something to consider.
“It was good to be able to listen to these different positions because I don’t normally— usually when I hear it, I just kinda tune it out, or kind of shut it down,” Brown said.
After the story circles wrapped up, the full group reconvened for focused discussion on three of the issue groups: education, limited presence, and Jim Crow/White privilege.
Like the law enforcement and employment and income gap issue groups, the education and limited presence groups were started in response to data. Pew Research Center found that though the White-Black gap in high school completion rates has nearly disappeared in the last six decades, African-Americans are still significantly less likely to graduate from college. According to a report by The New York Times, Black people are also underrepresented in high-income fields and overrepresented in lower-income jobs.
Unlike the others, however, the Jim Crow/White privilege issue group wasn’t started with hard data in mind. It was about sharing personal experiences of discrimination, which can be hard to back with quantitative data.
“Folks don’t understand what it’s like to wake up and not be white. They don’t understand how every minute of your day can be consumed with thinking about ‘what am I going to have to deal with when I walk into a store, when I get out of my car, at work’ — everything,” Franklin said.
In many ways, the Dialogue on Race is not simply a ‘dialogue’ and never really was to begin with, Franklin said. From the very first Dialogue on Race community summit meeting in January 2013, the group has used conversation to seek real-world solutions to problems affecting primarily African-Americans.
On Aug. 27, the real world solutions involved taking the ideas spurred by the evening’s conversations to meetings with elected officials and local boards — ideas like incorporating story circles in schools to encourage dialogue among students and staff alike.
Wornie Reed, director of Virginia Tech’s Race and Social Policy Center and member of the steering committee, credits Franklin as the group’s driving force, having spent years organizing to make the Dialogue on Race possible. Remarkably, she didn’t have a ‘precipitating event’ to organize around, Reed says.
“Usually these kinds of things have a precipitating events — something happens, and people say, ‘yeah, we have to do something.’ And then some people take advantage of that to bring people together to start talking about how we need to change some things,” Reed said. “But we didn’t have an issue. And so we said, ‘how do we do it?’”
Reed perhaps best exemplifies how it can be done: as chair of the law enforcement issue group, Reed invited law enforcement personnel to his group’s meetings, and they quickly became regular members of the issue group — most notably, the chiefs of police for Blacksburg and for Christiansburg.
In fact, these regular monthly meetings are held at the Christiansburg Police Department, Reed said. The Christiansburg police chief’s secretary takes notes.
It’s here where members of Dialogue on Race have constructive conversations with law enforcement personnel, tackling the issue of racial profiling and representation on police forces.
“I tell them that they are ruining my street cred because I brag on them so much about what they are doing,” Reed said, laughing. “They consider what we are doing really important.”
Still, Franklin reminded the group that there is more work to be done as she closed out the meeting on Saturday.
“We’ve got to start chewing on some meat,” she said. That meat, she explained, is bringing these conversations outside the Dialogue and into homes, churches, and public offices.
For Chris Heilig, member of the Jim Crow/White privilege group, these conversations are long overdue. The Blacksburg Middle School special education paraprofessional remembers having to sit in the back of the theatre and having friends in school who, because of the color of her skin, wouldn’t acknowledge her outside of school in front of their parents.
She says it’s not something you’re born with — racism is something that’s taught.
“In 2016, it’s still here. And every time I think we have gone two steps forward, we are pushed back another step,” Heilig said. “You know, we have talked about it long enough, and now it’s time for us to go take action to do something.”
“As Penny said, it’s time to put action and have that gut. My gut is ready,” she said. “My gut is ready.”
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