Oehmig, Wiley: Black and white in Chattanooga - reaching out, going forward

Oehmig, Wiley: Black and white in Chattanooga - reaching out, going forward

October 19th, 2014 by By King Oehmig, Dr. Linda Wiley in Opinion Columns

From left, Franklin McCallie, Tresa McCallie, Stacy Lightfoot and Wonjen Bagley share a laugh before a practice run of the Tennessee Aquarium's Protect and Serve fundraiser dinner on Sept. 4.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

For a little more than a year Franklin McCallie, his wife, Tresa, his cousin, Eleanor Cooper, and her husband, Mel, have hosted racially mixed gatherings at their house on the Southside of Chattanooga hoping to spur change in our mostly segregated city. They believe that the only way to defeat racial prejudice or division is by bringing people from different backgrounds into friendship with one another. While their work hasn't been researched, their efforts have produced a ripple effect, and social psychologists say their tactic -- facilitating contact and friendship -- will likely produce results.

McCallie's efforts and his journey from privilege and racism to civil rights champion was the focus of a front page story in the Times Free Press on Oct. 5. The story, especially in light of recent events in Ferguson, Mo., has stirred a vigorous discussion about the city's past and future and begs several questions. Should we intentionally pursue relationships with those of another race? What role do we each play in alienating parts of our community? How would the city change if we prioritized inclusion?

Here, two Chattanoogans sound off on the issue. King Oehmig, a white Episcopal priest, and Linda Wiley, a black diversity and inclusion professional, have both attended gatherings at McCallie's home and offer unique perspectives on what separates us and what can bring us together.

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Best dessert ever

By King Oehmig

Anything can be the occasion for revelation -- an errant drive on the golf course hits a low-hanging limb and careens out of bounds. Someone buys the right lottery ticket, and the next 100,000 in line miss out. A baby's smile, a sunset aflame, a violent storm, a passage from Scripture: they all can be interpreted as some kind of message the Divine is sending our way.

Some revelations, however, can be easier to interpret than others. In the spring of 1984, three men and I set out from Cartersville, Ga., and the Church of the Ascension, for Americus, Ga. Four hours later, we arrived at the international headquarters of Habitat for Humanity. At the end of a long day of orientation, though we were exhausted, we welcomed the chance of a lifetime: to meet with Millard Fuller, founder and president of Habitat.

As anyone who met Fuller would know, he was a matchless storyteller of unquenchable enthusiasm -- especially for the working poor. Fuller shared with us one of his early stories of Habitat. Americus was a small, largely segregated Southern town. People didn't understand Fuller so well, so he accepted an invitation to speak to the local Kiwanis Club. At the end of his remarks, an agitated local businessman and church leader stood up and said, "Mr. Fuller, where is all this poverty you keep talking about? I've lived here all my life, and I have never seen it."

Fast on his feet, Fuller replied, "OK, tell you what. You, and whoever else wants to come, meet me tomorrow at noon at the bank, and we'll go for a drive." And so they did. All over. At the end of the day, the group was moved by what they had seen. Especially memorable was one family of 10 who lived out of a two-room shack with no heating or plumbing, some family members even sleeping under the house. Many of these folks were black; yet many others were white. What the businessmen realized: The people of color were ensconced in a ghetto of "sameness" (albeit much worse off); while the middle-class white group also lived in a ghetto of "sameness" -- in gated communities.

Fuller pointed out to the Kiwanis group at the end of the tour: "You see, that is the problem. Each of us takes our familiar route week after week, year after year. We go from home to work. We go from work to the club. We go from home to church. Go from home to the YMCA or to parties or ball games -- all with people just like us. And we never see how other children of God live, let alone interact in any personal, let's-be-friends kind of way. Furthermore, the city planners have made sure that it stays that way. By the road system."

Revelation broke through that day in Americus -- for us, as much as it had done for the Kiwanis group years before. Out of sight, out of mind, out of experience.

Tresa and Franklin McCallie, and Eleanor and Mel Cooper understand the problem of "sameness" and how it works.

Franklin McCallie's story, detailed on the front page of the Times Free Press last Sunday, represents an epic tale of revelation received -- and then acted upon. And at great cost. (Can you imagine the family dinners at the president's home at McCallie School in those days?) But, unlike the rest of us who just accept "sameness" as the way of the world, the McCallies stepped out in faith and created a novel way for all of us -- white, black, brown, or tangerine -- to break down the dull pattern of "sameness" in our communities.

And so we met at the McCallies' home for dessert -- a wonderful menagerie of people packed into the living room just like a family, sharing ourselves and savoring each other's uniqueness. The evening was absolutely magical. Laughter, tears, hugs, conversations, and the sharing of stories ensued for several hours. The only thing sweeter than the cheesecake or creme brulee was the way that we shared the sweetness of each other, the sumptuous diversity of differentness.

We all left uplifted and blessed.

The McCallies and Coopers issued a challenge that night: Start your own dessert evening. Be intentional about making new friends with people unlike you. Reach out. Enjoy the richness that awaits you beyond the squirrel cage called the "spirit of sameness." Break free. And in the process, I bet you will have a revelation that will change your life.

King Oehmig is the priest-in-charge at the Episcopal Church of the Nativity.

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More changes needed

By Dr. Linda Wiley

In the late 1970s in New York City, a 16-year-old girl walked across the stage as part of her high school graduation ceremony. She had skipped the 12th grade and, as an 11th grader, was graduating as the valedictorian of the senior class. It was the second time she had earned that honor.

A few months later, that same girl was again walking, this time across campus as a freshman at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. As she walked in the dark, a car slowed by her side. The driver rolled down the window and proceeded to give her a message. He was a white man, so obviously not a Smith student. His message was, "Oh, I see they let the nig--s out tonight."

The student hurried to her dorm room. She called her family and cried, her tears a combination of hurt, fear and despair. The message she heard from that man was that it did not matter who she was or what she had achieved because people would only judge her based on their biases associated with the color of her skin.

I was that 16-year-old girl. It saddens me to say that, all across America, not much has changed.

Chattanooga is a largely segregated city, and that has a negative economic impact on us all. If blacks aren't educated equally with whites, they can't compete for jobs equally, which affects their ability to eat well, afford quality health care, etc. The rest of Chattanooga is left to subsidize.

Further, if blacks can't compete for jobs equally, they can't live in the same neighborhoods with whites. If blacks can't live in the same neighborhood with whites, their children aren't being educated at the same schools, and again can't compete for the same jobs and the cycle continues.

If blacks and whites don't live, learn, and play together, how can they grow to be friends?

As part of my job commitment, I attend a race awareness workshop every time it's offered to the leadership where I work. The facilitator always asks the group to name one thing that blacks, as a people, have done to whites as a people. I've participated in at least eight sessions with about 200 different participants. No one, black or white, can ever come up with something that sticks. Of course, there are black individuals who have done terrible things to white individuals and vice versa, but we are talking about systemic injustices imposed on one race of people by another race of people.

The facilitator then asks for things that whites, as a people, have done to blacks, as a people. The list runs off of the page - from slavery and segregation to racial profiling, real estate steering, voter rights revocation and more. The point the facilitator makes is that individuals are often prejudiced. However, blacks as a people are not prejudiced against whites, as a people. Blacks are angry about the injustices and have learned not to trust whites. This has to change, and I believe both blacks and whites have a role to play in changing it.

This issue is so much bigger than friendship, but friendship is a great place to start.

I have become friends - no family - with Franklin and Tresa McCallie and attend the dessert conversations.

It's a good beginning, however, I believe that until all Americans look for and acknowledge injustices, examine our own biases about others, educate ourselves about societal systems that still discriminate, and take steps to right the wrongs that continue as a result of our silence, nothing will change. Our group will just be a group of people getting together for dessert and conversation.

Are racial attitudes in Chattanooga changing? Yes, they are - slowly. How slow is too slow? Well, that depends on whether you are the one being negatively affected by the speed.

Dr. Linda Wiley is a diversity and inclusion professional.