by Marion Marks
Discordant race relations dominate many Shreveport contract discussions, economic development, politics and conversations about the general state of affairs in Shreveport. Hearts and minds change slowly, survival and protection of self-interests determine who gets what and how much. The lesson “Follow the Money” seems to be the constant – everywhere. Demographers eagerly point to data demonstrating why it should be clear to all that Shreveport is measurably shrinking, while demands for limited resources continue to grow.
Comparing Shreveport to other southern cities working through racial tensions becomes more difficult to explain to educated critics because other cities have equally compelling and unique stories. One well documented success story is Charleston, South Carolina, where, following tragedy, the calm and tempered work of determined activists is exemplified in their Reconciliation program, based on the Nat Fuller Dinner. This historic concept originally held in1865, has been revived and enlarged. A similar constructive community engagement program is what a group of Shreveporters are attempting to build.
However, Shreveport, in the minds of many, cannot be compared to Charleston. So why bring an event based on the Reconciliation Dinner to our community? Can a dinner and one evening of open discourse really make a difference when so many other issues demand attention and resources to address them? Very simply this diverse group of Shreveport citizens believe that confronting issues that Charleston continues to work to resolve through candid, open discussions can also evolve from a Shreveport Reconciliation Dinner.
Last year when a gunman murdered nine members of a black church in a Charleston Sunday School classroom, credit for calm was given to lessons learned at their Reconciliation programs and dinner. Families of the dead members of the church, including their minister and leading advocate for reconciliation displayed compassion, forgiveness and introspection that inspired Charleston and the nation. Anger and misunderstanding transformed into symbols of resolution, and leaders solved greater problems when riots and more deaths were anticipated. Justice for the crimes will come, but justice will be found in the courts rather than in the streets. Citizens worked peaceably for answers to deeper community issues.
Shreveport traditions, like family traditions, provide continuity our younger generation needs. Families with the closest bonds have greater compassion and understanding when younger members question why the need to honor family traditions. Children need logic and reason behind why grandmother expects some things to remain the way they have been in the past. When children ask over and over “Why,” there must be a lesson in the explanation. Modern family traditions often follow the rule, “it’s the way we did it last year,” as rationale that covers the fact that there aren’t many long-standing traditions. The media tries to cover disparate cultural rituals, but communications too often go without being received.
Shreveport’s diverse population comes together in celebrations we love that are well attended. Red River Revel, Mud Bug Madness, The Highland Jazz & Blues Festival, Farmer’s Market, Texas Avenue Maker’s Fair, the 4th of July at the River Front Park and many other publicly and privately sponsored community events foster a cross-community spirit, devoid of boundaries of race, age, religion, gender or sexual preference. The June 15th evening gathering downtown at the courthouse in commemoration of the Orlando club tragedy crossed all boundaries, and city leaders worked to mend both new and existing wounds as we united to mourn.
Reconciliation is accepting that things aren’t perfect and won’t always fit neatly in a definition of “fair” or “ideal.” The Reconciliation Dinner will never be acceptable or understood by all demanding critics in the same way a repaired road will always have flaws even when it meets community standards. Sometimes you have to accept that sidewalks, even with cracks, are better than muddy passages or none at all.
America may not be a perfect nation, but our form of democracy seems better than whatever comes in second place. With our many imperfections, we go about our tasks each day determined to fix problems that are repairable. Instead of focusing on defects, we seek to recognize citizens who seek common ground and reconciliation, and nurture an environment from which positive change can grow.
We will begin by mending broken fences that may exist because of our poor communications . But we want to be known as builders of bridges that draw people together as we strive to move Shreveport forward. As we strive to build bridges, those who chose to work to hold a Reconciliation Dinner begin with the premise that Shreveport could benefit greatly from emulating the model Charleston created. Thus this effort began.
None on the volunteers on the Shreveport steering committee claim ownership of the product, but all take pride in the open discussion we optimistically hope will improve as our model evolves. By creating or replicating any tool designed to facilitate constructive communication and change, the very work creates change in those who work toward it. The test will be for others to pick up the message and carry it forward.
There will always be traditions based on bias, ignorance or years of misunderstanding, because some agents of government or business have stifled citizens’ efforts to confront problems and reconcile issues that perpetuate inequalities. Perhaps they believed the preservation of division was a safeguard for their own power. “Separate but equal” and “set asides” exist because we haven’t solved all problems that allow us to work on an even playing field. Solutions acceptable to all parties are a work in progress that will allow us to break the cycle that continues to evade reconciliation. Powerful and capable agents of change haven’t found common ground to break down all barriers of fairness and transparency.
In reconciliation we understand and accept the diverse elements of our city. Almost 400 years ago, John Donne penned these simple words, “No man is an island.” Our path to reconciliation must be based on the premise that together, not as an island, we can learn and begin to appreciate constructive values in our community’s diversity. We believe that Shreveport can become a better community by breaking bread together, and, with a commitment by a broader segment of the community, we can promote more open and honest communication.
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
― John Donne, Devotions, 1624