For Tyrone Greenlee, the Building Bridges program has helped to heal some of the racial scars he suffered growing up as an African-American boy in Asheville.
For others, the eight-week seminar simply offers an eye-opening look at how racism operates -- not only in Asheville, but across America.
Building Bridges uses speakers, videos, readings and small-group discussions (mostly centered around cultural diversity) to confront racism and look at ways to overcome it. The next session begins on Jan. 17, launching the program's seventh year in Asheville.
Greenlee, a member of the Building Bridges steering committee, said he had never talked extensively about racism until he became involved in Building Bridges in 1993.
In one of his first small-group discussions, Greenlee revealed a painful incident from his childhood: When he was 7 or 8 years old, he became separated from his mother in an Asheville grocery store, and encountered a white man he didn't know. "He said, 'You're just about the blackest nigger I've ever seen,'" Greenlee remembers, recalling that the man then laughed and walked off.
Greenlee knew that something bad had happened, but he didn't fully understand the implications of the man's words at the time. Now 44, he says feelings of shame prevented him from talking about the incident for many years. But when Greenlee revealed the incident to his Building Bridges co-participants, he was heartened by the warm, encouraging reaction he received.
"I just remember feeling really supported, and [glad to be] in a place where it was safe to share that kind of thing," Greenlee reveals. "There's something about these shared experiences that promotes healing."
Building awareness of racism is the first step toward fighting the problem, notes Jackie Simms, who co-chairs the Building Bridges steering committee.
"Like so many other things, [defeating racism] is a process," Simms explains. "We grow up in a society that has made us accustomed to [both] blatant and very subtle forms of racism, and we come to think of them as normal and don't realize that they're there. Little reminders are helpful to the process of changing."
Racism is defined in Building Bridges literature as "widespread prejudice about a particular racial group backed by the power to impose that prejudice on others."
"In our society, whites have traditionally held, and still hold, disproportionate power to make and enforce laws, extend or decline credit, make corporate policy, develop advertising campaigns, hire and fire employees, provide or withhold social services, and so forth," reads the Building Bridges participants guide. "These policies and practices affect the lives of us all, and their application and implementation is the exercise of power. When use of power is affected by conscious or unconscious prejudice based on color, that is, by definition, racist."
The guide also includes sections on racism in schools and churches, and on its economic effects.
The concept that white people receive economic and societal benefits from simply being white, at the expense of people of color, can come as a revelation for many whites, explains Kathey Avery-Hoover, a workshop facilitator and member of the Building Bridges steering committee.
"Most people think they're not racist, for one thing," notes Avery-Hoover. "[But] whether you practice it or not, you're in a society that is [racist]."
More than 900 people have participated in Building Bridges since it began here in 1993. The Asheville workshop was developed after a similar program was initiated in Brevard, to address racial tensions there. The Building Bridges' participants guide is based on America's Original Sin: A Study Guide on White Racism -- a resource guide offered by the Sojourners, a Christian group in Washington, D.C., which also publishes a magazine by the same name (according to a written history of Building Bridges).
Several participants in a Building Bridges workshop held a year ago -- one that I happened to attend -- feel the workshop was worthwhile.
Wanda Hawthorne, one of two African-Americans in my small group, says she had some initial concerns about the workshops taking time away from her family, but she now recommends the program to others. As director of the Montford Center, Hawthorne is required to get diversity training, along with other employees of Asheville's Parks and Recreation Department.
"In the end, it turned out to be a different opportunity for me," says Hawthorne -- one that allowed her to inform others about the experiences of African-Americans. "I feel like I had the opportunity to educate people."
Another member of my small group, Mike Rudnicke, who is white, says he feels more sympathetic toward African-Americans as a result of the program. "I've been more compassionate to black people ever since this program -- give them a chance," he pleads, adding: "Also, the black man should give the white man a chance. Not everyone's a Ku Klux Klan member."
Another white member of my small group, Dr. David Mouw, found the sessions refreshed his knowledge of race relations. Mouw and his wife, the Rev. Karen Mouw -- who helped to host the workshop at her church, St. Paul's United Methodist Church -- became immersed in learning about race issues in 1967, when they were teaching fellows at the historically black Hampton Institute, now Hampton University.
"It reactivated a lot of those issues for me and got me thinking about it again," David Mouw says. In daily life, people seldom talk about prejudice and race issues. "It's really nice to have a forum where it's OK, he observes.
For myself, I found the readings and presentations gave me plenty of food for thought. My small group, however, had its ups and downs. Since only one co-faciliator and one of 10 participants in my small group were African-American, it meant that I had limited opportunities for learning from people of other races, although the experiences I did have were very valuable.
A year later, I notice a few subtle, lasting effects: I feel more comfortable talking about racial issues, and more attuned to what African-Americans have to say about how they're treated in our society.
One challenge for Building Bridges proponents has been to attract more African-Americans to attend sessions in which most of the participants are white. Blacks tend to believe that whites are already aware of the racial difficulties they encounter (and therefore need no from-the-source instruction on the matter), but that's not necessarily so, Avery-Hoover relates. She tells other African-Americans that it's up to them to tell their stories to whites.
Greenlee thinks Building Bridges has been successful in helping people forge connections across racial and cultural lines. A group of former participants holds ongoing potluck dinners in one another's homes, he notes.
And Avery-Hoover has found that she can personally relate better to people who have gone through the program. "It's always better in life to have somebody understand how you feel," she offers understatedly.
But there's still much ground to cover. Blacks and whites in Asheville lead separate lives, to a certain extent, and don't know each other very well, Greenlee points out. "I think it's essential as a society to have an ongoing dialogue on [racism]," Greenlee concludes. "I think there's still a lot of work to be done."
Building Bridges Jan. 17 workshop
The next eight-week Building Bridges workshop on overcoming racism begins at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 17, at the Mountain Area Health Education Center (501 Biltmore Ave.). All are welcome to attend. But registration (which costs $12 for the entire program) is limited to 90 people, so pre-registration is encouraged. For more info, or to register, call 253-0749.