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New relationships built through Mosaic Partnerships

by Amy Kingsley

Over the past year, racially mixed pairs of city leaders have met with each other and in small groups to talk about family, friends and work. The discussions are part of a city project to build trust and create a cohesive community out of personal relationships, like piecing together a mosaic out of discrete bits of tile.

Consultants from Rochester, NY selected the 152 participants for the first round of the three-year Mosaic Partnerships from lists of prominent citizens. A survey conducted in September and personal interviews with some participants revealed that the majority benefited from the process with increased understanding of other people and cultures.

The Mosaic Partnerships coincided with the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a grassroots effort to address a Klan-Nazi attack on Nov. 3, 1979. Some detractors have questioned city official’s apparent inconsistency in conducting the Mosaic Partnerships while refusing to support the truth and reconciliation process. Mayor Keith Holliday dismissed such allegations, insisting that the projects were unrelated and only overlapped by coincidence.

Mosaic Partnerships grew out of a Social Capital Community Benchmark Study conducted in 2001 that revealed city residents give more time and money to charities than the national average but have lower levels of trust. The city is trying to increase trust by promoting informal relationships between citizens of different ethnicities.

‘“In Greensboro we have a lot of formal interactions,’” said Spoma Jovanovic, a communications studies professor at UNCG who has observed the Mosaic but not taken part. ‘“But unless you have the informal interactions you’ll never move forward as a community.’”

Holliday and Joseph M. Bryan Foundation member Shirley Frye championed the project and traveled to Rochester a year and a half ago to visit Idea Connections, a consulting firm that created the model. They spoke with Rochester city officials and partners in the project to gauge its success in that community. Once they decided to import the program to Greensboro, obtained city council approval and secured private funding, they got lists of community leaders whom the mayor invited to participate.

‘“What struck me is that these were people from all walks of life, not just the choir members,’” Holliday said. To duplicate the Rochester project in Greensboro, he recruited a wide variety of local business, political and religious leaders, many of who had probably never undertaken a race relations project before.

In addition to meeting in pairs, clusters of pairs met in larger groups to undertake some directed discussions about race, trust and other subjects. Some pairs developed deep friendships while others simply got to know each other better.

‘“My partner was Steve Showfety, the president of Koury Corporation,’” Frye said. ‘“When we started I thought I knew him, but I really didn’t. He is a dear friend from here on.’”

Frye noted that most participants knew each other through formal interactions such as foundations, churches and government but did not socialize informally.

‘“I learned that by having direct dialogue with people you have a better understanding,’” she said. ‘“You find out you have more in common than differences.’”

Jeff Thigpen, the Guilford County Register of Deeds, said that he gained insights from the program but stressed the work left to be done.

‘“I think that underneath this, Greensboro is a city that needs to spend a whole lot of time talking about race,’” Thigpen said. ‘“Mosaic wasn’t the end all for talking about racism and I want to be very clear about that.’”

Thigpen testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission along with some of the other participants in the Mosaic Partnerships. Participants’ opinions split on whether the city council votes on the Commission created distrust about the Mosaic Partnerships.

‘“How is it that the Mosaic can come into being with a city council that is very divided along racial lines?’” Thigpen asked. ‘“That’s a contradiction that is part of the Mosaic.’”

Jovanovic, who testified at the third Truth and Reconciliation hearing, said the timing of the Mosaic Partnerships might have inspired some suspicion.

‘“We don’t trust your process so we’ll do our own process was certainly a message that was communicated,’” Jovanovic said. ‘“Whether it was intentional or not I don’t know.’”

The Mosaic Partnership shares the same goals as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission ‘— to have honest conversations and build bridges across race, Jovanovic said. Only the grassroots nature of the commission differs from the top-down approach of the Mosaic.

‘“I don’t see where we had any conflict,’” Frye said. ‘“If anything it accelerated the process. It’s like my grandma would say, ‘everyone’s trying to get to heaven, but they’re all going a different way.””

Carolyn Allen, co-chair of the local task force for the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, also participated in the Mosaic Partnership. She said that her cluster of partners discussed the commission at one of the meetings.

‘“I suspect that people in the white portion of the Mosaic Project feel far removed from the truth and reconciliation process,’” she said. Nonetheless, the Mosaic provided a forum for those people to discuss issues like race and religion that do not often emerge in day-to-day conversation.

About 40 percent of Mosaic Partnership members responded to a survey conducted in September about the program. Some of the highlights indicate that more than half of the respondents met their partners’ family and almost half had met friends. The survey also revealed high levels of trust between partners.

For next year, the consultants will select and match another group of emerging community leaders for the same process. Participation in the final year will be open to all city residents, although limitations on the number of partners will necessarily restrict enrollment. In the meantime, Jovanovic said she hopes the city will choose to support community-based initiatives.

‘“What I’d like to see more of is greater support by city officials for citizen-based initiatives,’” Jovanovic said. ‘“The city should step up and participate. I think the citizens would respond with more activity.’”

Thigpen said the Mosaic might change local leaders’ perspectives in ways that generate tangible results for the community.

‘“ A lot of times politicians are dealing with race in the context of another issue like education, housing or criminal justice,’” he said. ‘“People represent districts in their county ‘— some are overwhelmingly white, some are overwhelmingly black and they are both overwhelmingly isolated. You’ve got actual political consequences but there isn’t always the impulse to grow and learn, to be creative, serve constituents and also possibly come up with new and different ways to approach issues that affect everyone.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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