An Honest Conversation on Race

An Honest Conversation on Race

Wednesday, 2. January 2008
Rob Corcoran and Audrey Burton

Rob Corcoran and Audrey Burton

An unassuming man, softly spoken with an accent that betrays his Scottish origins, Rob Corcoran is National Director of Initiatives of Change, USA. He talks with Mike Lowe.

When Rob and Susan Corcoran first arrived in Richmond, Virginia, in the early 80s ‘it was like landing on Mars,’ says Rob. Former capital of the Confederate South during the Civil War, it was very traditional, very conservative. ‘I was quick to judge,’ he admits. The city had grown rich in the 19th century trading African slaves to southern plantations – a legacy that still scars community relations. Coming from ‘outside’ turned out to be a blessing, as the Corcorans escaped the historical baggage which leads people to label each other on both sides of the racial divide.

The Corcorans were unpacking boxes on the first night in their new home when an African American neighbour knocked on their door to welcome them. With a background in community work and a deep faith, Audrey and her husband Collie quickly became firm friends and then close colleagues with the Corcorans in their work of Initiatives of Change. ‘It was a huge gift to us,’ says Rob. ‘They and other African Americans took the risk of being misunderstood by their own community to identify with what we were trying to do.’ A few years previously, Henry Marsh had been elected as the city’s first Black mayor and held out a vision for Richmond as a model of racial integration. The small IofC group offered to help support this vision.

Corcoran learned a lot from John Coleman, a Black preacher and ‘pioneer of reconciliation’. A recovering alcoholic, Coleman ‘was always so real about himself and his own battles that he inspired trust’. Among his sayings were, ‘You have to build a bridge of trust that is strong enough to hold the truth that you want to communicate’; and ‘If you want to be a bridge-builder you have to be prepared to be walked over.’

These have become two hallmarks of the work that became Hope in the Cities – launched in 1990 to bring together political, business and community leaders to address the issue of racial healing. HIC’s methods include three elements: honest conversation, personal responsibility and acts of acknowledgement.

Honest conversation means creating space where people of all racial/ economic/ political backgrounds are welcomed and heard. ‘There are plenty of racial justice efforts that just “preach to the choir”,’ explains Corcoran. ‘The fact that in HIC conservatives and liberals can give equal leadership in working for racial reconciliation and justice is quite unique, and is very important if we are to bring deep enough change.’ The phrase ‘honest conversations’ has found its way into the vocabulary of racial dialogue across the country, thanks in part to HIC being invited to help design the dialogue guide for President Bill Clinton’s initiative on race in 1998.

The second element, accepting personal responsibility, means moving beyond the victimhood, denial and blame which exist across the spectrum.

The third element, acts of recognition, has seen HIC pioneering the ‘walk through history’ – which can be physical or metaphorical. Visitors to Richmond today can walk the ‘slave trail’ from the docks to the slave market from which Africans were ‘sold down the river’. Alex Wise, founder of Richmond’s American Civil War Center, says that HIC has brought the gift of ‘historical imagination’ to the city. He acknowledges that his vision for the Center – which tells the story of the Civil War from three perspectives: Unionist, Confederate and African American – would not have been possible without the community dialogue which HIC has facilitated.

‘Some of the most important dialogues have been when African Americans have risked reaching out to those who honour the Confederate memory,’ says Corcoran. Rev Paige Chargois, a descendant of slaves, paid a visit to the home of a former regional president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Immediately she found herself confronted with the hated Confederate flag and a lecture on the ‘facts’ of Confederate history. She was tempted to scream out, ‘Lady, I’ve got your “facts” on my back!’ But she held her peace and listened, and began to understand that for that woman, the Confederate flag represented her loss and pain – whereas for Chargois it was a symbol of oppression. As Chargois left the house, it dawned on her that all her hatred of that flag had gone.

‘You can’t justify systems of oppression,’ says Corcoran. ‘But some have found a way to empathize at a human level to allow others to enter the dialogue.’

From the beginning HIC was a team effort. ‘We didn’t know very much when we came here, so we had to engage others. People like to feel needed. In our case it was genuine,’ says Corcoran. ‘My natural inclination would be to work alone so I don’t have to bother with “difficult people” and can just get on with my things. But when it comes down to it, what gives me energy and keeps me going is the experience of working with such an incredible group of people who have committed themselves to a project. Sharing the experiences and hardships together creates a special bond.’

In a diverse team it also creates opportunities to learn and grow. ‘I remember doing a review of our team-building process with an African American colleague who told me, “You withhold your true feelings as a way of keeping control”. It was a shock. What I thought was just Scottish reserve was interpreted by someone from another culture as control.’

Dialogues to build sustainable ‘movements for change’

Dialogues to build sustainable ‘movements for change’

In 1998 HIC received a large grant from the Kellogg Foundation to expand its work to other cities across the country. Having developed an effective dialogue process in Richmond, the team now learned that a whole set of other skills were needed to build sustainable ‘movements for change’ in each city. ‘There are so many stresses in the life of a community,’ says Corcoran. ‘Thinking through issues of team development is important.’ Out of that experience grew a Connecting Communities Fellowship Program, to offer training in those skill sets, now in its third year. ‘The fundamental skill is building trust, taking enough time to explore the values and way of life which enable us to build trust around us.’

For the past three years a major focus of HIC in Richmond has been public education. ‘Schools are more separated by race and class and income than they were 20 years ago. More than half of all children in public education in the south come from poverty backgrounds. How do we create healthy integrated public schools?’ The Corcorans’ three sons all went through the public sector – gaining invaluable lessons on being a minority and coping with diversity. Reflecting on this experience, Susan Corcoran articulated the question which HIC is using to challenge the wider community: ‘If every child were my child, what might I do differently?’.

‘We spend a lot of time designing questions to get good conversations,’ says Corcoran. ‘We have to move beyond the accusatory blame mentality because that simply doesn’t engage people. Instead we want to raise the moral question through the community, so that everyone wants to be part of the solution.’

When 450 people came to the Metropolitan Richmond Day organized by HIC in November to consider the future of the region’s schools, ‘they knew they were going to see people they didn’t usually see,’ says Corcoran. Creating the safe environment where people of diverse backgrounds can ask themselves the hard questions has become one of HIC’s hallmarks. ‘I see HIC less and less as a programme and more as a process,’ he concludes.