Nearly three years ago, before I founded a race-relations initiative in one of the South's most racially polarized cities, I taped a piece of paper above my desk: "Go after a dream that is destined to fail without divine intervention," reads the quote from Mark Batterson. Racial reconciliation in Memphis, Tennessee -- a city still stained by Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination here 43 years ago -- is easily such a dream.
Memphis remains largely two cities -- one black and predominantly poor, and the other white and much less constrained by poverty. Our racial biases and presumptions are part of the fabric of life here -- where we choose to worship, where we decide to live, where we send our children to school, whom we vote for and why. I've had a front-row view to the tensions that shackle and segregate my city.
For the past seven years, I've been the metro columnist for Memphis’ daily newspaper, The Commercial Appeal. I often write about race and how it affects this large Southern city. For the first four years, I frequently found myself engaged in deep race-related email conversations with readers. Generalizations were rampant; white people encouraged me to demystify why black people did what they did, and black people wanted me to chastise white people for slights real and imagined. Literally thousands of emails made this much clear: There was a desire to talk about race and racism, to ask the questions that were pressing but seemed impolite, and a longing to understand and be understood.
I thought: What if this were the city’s conversation, in some sort of safe space? I also thought I was foolish. I’m in my 30s -- what would make me presume I could help fix what had plagued Memphis for longer than I’d been alive?
But I had to do something. I didn’t have to succeed, but it was my moral obligation to try. So I convened a group of like-minded people -- a rabbi, the directors of two leadership development organizations, the director of the National Civil Rights Museum, a graphic designer, a newspaper colleague, a grassroots organizer, a college vice president, and others. This small group dreamed big, and we came up with what is now Common Ground: Conversations on Race, Communities in Action.
For the inaugural round of Common Ground, the steering committee defined success as 100 participants. More than 240 people were in our first class in the spring of 2008, and that’s not including the 45 people who served as trained facilitators. Before the first session began, Lisa Moore, who then worked at Bridges, an organization that builds leaders among area teenagers, joined me behind a stage at the host site, Rhodes College. Together, we prayed that God would bless our efforts. We quoted Galatians 6:9: "Let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not."
In those two years since that prayer, Common Ground has taken more than 1,500 people, who pay nothing for the experience, through guided small-group conversations on race, using a curriculum developed by Everyday Democracy. The curriculum calls for individuals from diverse ethnic backgrounds to come together for two hours, once a week for seven weeks. The participants talk candidly about their race, about racism, inequities, the past, and how they might make the future different. The sessions end with an action forum, where the participants make individual and group commitments to improve race relations in Memphis.
Thankfully, we have enjoyed community support. We are never at a lack for space, as churches, schools, and other organizations have eagerly opened their doors so we can offer sessions across the community for free. Still, during those two years, there have been many times when I was weary. No one else in Memphis does anything like this, yet funding for staff is always scarce and the work seems endless. But for every instance when I've felt like fainting comes a moment of sheer satisfaction.
One story in particular stays with me: On her way to a Common Ground session, a white female participant's car was rear-ended by a car driven by a black woman. The white woman's car was barely damaged, but the black woman’s car was inoperable; she had just gotten her car out of the shop. Without the car, she wouldn’t be able to take her daughter to school or get to work.
The white woman later told me how she watched as the black woman took baskets of laundry from her car before it was towed away -- she'd been on the way to the Laundromat. Standing there on the side of the road, the white woman remembered what she’d discussed in Common Ground -- the inequities that exist in our society, often simply because of the color of your skin. The white woman, who was solidly middle class, realized that for her, this accident would be a minor incident; but for this working-class black woman, this minor fender-bender could be a life-altering setback.
So the white woman bought the black woman a used car.
This example is the outlier, but Common Ground has been the vehicle to prod alumni to volunteer in city schools, deliver supplies to neighborhood after-school projects, host race-related film screenings, volunteer at local food banks, and, most recently, form a book club to have deeper discussions about race.
Slowly but surely, this initiative is bringing together people who otherwise would never meet—black, white, and brown -- and revealing how much we share in common.
Money is still tight, and all of us involved have times when we are weary. But this mission -- of one Memphis full of residents living intentionally diverse lives -- will require divine intervention. I’m just faithful enough to believe in miracles. And patient enough to wait on harvest.
Wendi C. Thomas is an award-winning metro columnist for Memphis' daily paper, The Commercial Appeal.
An Eye-Opening Experience
When Betzaida Agis moved When Betzaida Agis from New York City to Memphis, she felt she had gone back in time.
"You notice the racial tension here as though it were 100 years ago," Agis told Sojourners. "In New York, I was exposed to a lot of different ethnicities, and everyone tried to work together, but here in Memphis, everything comes down to black vs. white."
When Agis heard through her church in Memphis that local columnist Wendi Thomas was heading up an initiative to gather people from the community to talk about race issues, she knew she had to join. "People just needed to come together and talk through the race issues that have been passed down from generation to generation," she says.
Begun in spring 2008, Common Ground Memphis is a grassroots organization with the vision to improve race relations in Memphis through dialogue and civil action. Participants commit to meeting for seven weeks to receive training in racial reconciliation through dialogue with other participants. During the last session, participants propose initiatives for the community -- such as film festivals, public forums, and political action -- and work to apply publicly what they have learned. Common Ground has held 18 sessions since it began.
For Jessica Swan, 29, Common Ground was her first opportunity to make friends of a different race, which has been an eye-opening experience for her. "As a white middle-class female, I don't face a lot of the issues that some of the other participants face," Swan says. "But building relationships with people who are so unlike me has impacted me greatly."
Jimmy Scott, a 38-year-old African-American man, has found healing through the Common Ground sessions. Sharing moments when he’s faced racial discrimination has helped him to process these experiences openly in a safe space. "Sometimes you can’t say anything because you are at your workplace, but if you can do it in an inner circle, it is very healing. These conversations heal the community as a whole," he says. Scott is now a trained facilitator for Common Ground and has resolved to continue working toward healing his city.
"Everyone is invited to come and build bridges in our community," says Scott. —Jeannie Choi
Jeannie Choi is web editor at Sojourners.