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Footsteps After the March

How Americans overcome racism one encounter at a time

IT only took a moment for Sheila Donovan to weave through the crowded meeting room, to find Zakiya Alake, and to shake her hand. It was an easy gesture, really, an impulse.

But for these two women, both mothers, both opposed to the construction of an asphalt plant near their Boston neighborhoods, last month's conversation was an epiphany.

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With each phone call, each mug of tea, each step of the community petition drive they have launched together, Ms. Donovan, who is white, and Ms. Alake, who is black, knock a brick from the invisible wall that separates Americans: The wall of race.

Theirs is only one friendship. It's undeniable that black and white communities in American remain profoundly divided by many things - by reaction to the O.J. Simpson verdict, by perceptions of affirmative action, by the often profoundly different ways of looking at their own shared history.

But at a time when America seems more confused about race than at any time since the early 1960s, Donovan and Alake offer the untold story of race relations in the United States. They exemplify the millions of human connections that stand in opposition to all-too-familiar racial conflict and transgressions.

From Boston petition drives, to Chicago church meetings, to Los Angeles marches, and even cyberspace, many individuals continue to try to bridge the racial divide. At times, it turns out, the distance between the races in America may be no wider than a meeting room.

"It's always more comfortable to talk to someone who walks and talks and looks like you," says Mark Whitlock, a leading black activist in Los Angeles. "We have to go back to that period when we learned how to walk and remember how difficult it was. We have to realize that we are in that difficult period in race relations, but eventually we will learn to walk and talk, just like we will learn about each other. Then we will run."

Indeed, in many cities and towns in America, people from all racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds are joining together in search of racial reconciliation.

Take Annette Samuels. After the Simpson verdict and the Million Man March, she felt that a sense of puzzlement had gripped America, a collective question of "now what happens?"

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Ms. Samuels, a prominent African-American in Washington politics, logged onto the Internet and sent this message: "I think we need to talk." The response was immediate.

While the population of electronic-mail users is relatively small and largely white, middle class, Samuel's effort represents the kind of person-to-person encounter that some say can make a difference.

"We have to start talking to each other," she says, "whether that means inviting 10 people to your house on a Sunday afternoon and talking about what bothers us, or eating with someone new during lunch at work. Those of us who feel strongly about it have to start the conversations."

Some of those conversations are already occurring at the Rock of Salvation Church on Chicago's West Side. There, black and white churchgoers engage in something they call "fudge ripple" Sundays.

First there's the "chocolate" meeting, when blacks get together to hash out concerns. Next the "vanilla" folks do the same. Finally, the congregation comes together in a swirl of discussion that ranges from O.J. Simpson to interracial dating.

"We believe that a basic of the Christian faith is reconciliation - breaking down barriers," says the Rev. Glen Kehrein, a white minister who, working with the Rock's black pastor, the Rev. Raleigh Washington, has built a church dedicated to racial harmony.

The Rock is at the forefront of efforts by US churches to bridge the country's racial divide - one that in many communities, ironically, is most obvious in self-segregated services on Sunday morning.

When the church was founded a decade ago in the violent, inner-city neighborhood of Austin, Ill., few believed it could attract middle-class black worshippers, let alone whites. Today, the church has grown from 50 members to 500, with 40 percent white.

Central to the church's creed is that genuine racial reconciliation starts with friendships: a white housewife who decides to tutor a black youth, for example. As the relationship grows, "your whole world begins to change," says Mr. Kehrein.

Through such fellowship, shared worship, and "fudge ripple" Sundays, the Rock's congregation has achieved a stable diversity that has stood the test of divisive national events.

"When the verdict came down with O.J., a lot of people were driven into their different camps, but that didn't happen here," says Kehrein. "We knew where each other was coming from."

Perhaps nowhere are the racial obstacles, and the effort to surmount them, more prevalent than in the nation's public schools. Borrowing an idea hatched in Lane County, Ore., several school systems across the country have declared their schools "Racism Free Zones."

In Oregon, schools display plaques that read: "We will not make statements or symbols indicating racial prejudice. Freedom of speech does not extend to hurting others. Racism will not be tolerated and action will be taken to ensure this."

A three-year-old program initiated by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in Montgomery, Ala., equips teachers to combat racism. Morris Dees, the center's director, explains that SPLC distributes kits, entitled "Teaching Tolerance," that are now in use in 55,000 schools nationwide.

"If a child goes to a school that is overwhelmingly white, they graduate into a culture that doesn't reflect their experience at all, and they don't know how to deal with it," says Wendy Schwartz of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education in New York. "Unless they are taught how to live in a multicultural society at a young age, they are at an extreme disadvantage when they get into the workplace."

In Los Angeles, a city that has provided the stage for some of America's most virulent racial conflicts, disadvantaged neighborhoods have become laboratories.

In an attempt to enhance business and economic development in the city's African-American community, Mr. Whitlock, who runs the "Renaissance" program started by the First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME) here, has launched an effort to encourage white-owned banks and businesses to invest.

With $5 million in grants from Disney, Reebok, Sony, Warner Bros., and Atlantic Richfield, FAME Renaissance is offering low interest loans of $2,000 to $20,000 to aspiring business owners.

"Without help from the white community, we'll never erase the Mason-Dixon line that divides blacks and whites in Los Angeles," Whitlock says. "We need to look at how banks work with African-American, Latino, and Asian-owned businesses to level the playing field ... If we are to march, let's march together."

In the multiracial Pico-Union area, the National Service Corp. has begun a project where adults from colleges and churches tutor and supervise blacks, Hispanics, and Asians with an emphasis on fostering cross-racial bonds.

Next month in Los Angeles, a coalition of groups is sponsoring a grass-roots march for all races in Los Angeles, and an interfaith group in Orange County, Calif., will gather to promote dialogue between native Americans, Indian Sikhs, black Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Hindus.

But this burst of activism is not limited to California. From a Racial Harmony Summit held in Cincinnati this year, to the third annual Stamp Out Hate campaign in Bergen County, N.J., there are countless more examples. In Memphis, Ellen Rolfes hopes the city will be awash in red dots by March. Wearing red dots is part of a program called "Cultures United," launched last month by five Memphis organizations to promote racial unity. "If we have dots everywhere, people notice the collaboration," Ms. Rolfes says. "It's like connecting dot to dot. It's in that connection I think [racial understanding] lies."

In Atlanta, the 13-year-old Black-Jewish Coalition is sponsoring hundreds of dinner parties across the city where, as coalition member Sherry Frank explains, Jews and blacks can meet "to hear each other."

But beyond these organized efforts, Americans are beginning to talk more openly about race. When whites ask him to explain the black community's distrust of police, and their jubilant reaction to the Simpson verdict, Jim Wallis, a white civil rights activist in Washington who edits Sojourners magazine, tells the story of his childhood friend Butch, who is black.

One day, Mr. Wallis recalls, as the two set out to play, Butch's mother pulled her son aside to remind him what to do if he got lost in a strange neighborhood. "If you see the police," he remembers her instructing, "run and hide and wait until they're gone before you come out."

Likewise, when Isetta Spikes, the national membership director for the NAACP in Baltimore, hears anybody talking about differences between ethnic groups, she argues that many such perceptions are based solely on ignorance.

As a child in Hartford, Conn., Ms. Spikes remembers, she was one of the first black students to integrate a predominantly white elementary school. On her first day, she says she had trouble distinguishing one white child from another. "I thought they were all related," she says, laughing, "and they asked me if I was related to the Jackson Five."

This kind of candid dialogue, to many Americans, is the key to defusing racial and ethnic tensions. Sheldon Hackney, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, counts himself "among the people who have always thought that race is the largest social problem America has."

As a solution, Dr. Hackney invented the "National Conversation." He explains that the program consists of discussion points and group exercises designed to help Americans of disparate backgrounds explore their similarities, and to help foster a "civic nationalism beyond race." So far, he says, there have been more than 10,000 such conversations across the country.

One exercise asks participants to think of new metaphors for America beyond the "melting pot." During a recent conversation between city planners, Hackney says, he heard something remarkable.

"America," one participant said, "is like a jazz band. Everyone plays a different instrument, but the music only fits together if everyone returns to the same theme."

Indeed, if jazz is a metaphor for America, then its riffs and crescendos are alive in millions of people like Ms. Donovan and Ms. Alake, the two Boston neighbors.

What began as a tentative tune of opposition to an asphalt plant has grown into a thriving duet. Donovan and Alake are trying to start a children's cable show on the environment and work to improve health conditions for children in their neighborhoods.

"We're all in each other's backyards," Donovan says. "We have to come together to protect our city. People are beginning to realize that we're not all separate."

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