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City officials gather for session on racism issues

The Associated Press

CHARLESTON -- A national group debuted its workshop on improving race relations and community inclusiveness Sunday in West Virginia.

The Network of Alliances Bridging Race and Ethnicity held the session during the state Municipal League meeting in Charleston.

The network, based at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, works to bridge racial divisions through a network of community-based organizations, according to the group's Web site.

"One of the big issues is opening up community dialogue on race by getting people to let down their hair and discuss the issues," said James Hunt, Clarksburg city councilman and director of his city's unity project. "Most people in the United States are not racist people.

However, they do not have the forum to discuss problems. Workshops like this give people the opportunity to ask questions without being judged."

About 35 community leaders from across West Virginia attended the workshop, which involved a series of questions that officials can ask themselves to judge the inclusiveness of their own communities, as well as suggestions for improvement, said Michael Wenger, director of the Network of Alliances Bridging Race and Ethnicity.

The questions were established through the report "Steps Toward an Inclusive Community," which was written by the network's senior program associate, Maggie Potapchuk, and funded by $50,000 through the Appalachian Regional Commission.

The report, which is scheduled to be released this week, is based on a November 1999 Ku Klux Klan rally in Clarksburg.

Wenger said city officials handled the rally, "not by ignoring it, but by confronting it in a unified way.

"The key in Clarksburg was that it wasn't only the leadership in the black community that was concerned," Wenger said Sunday. "It was also the leadership in the white community that understood the value of the community's diversity and was concerned."

The city has since continued to address the issue of inclusiveness through year-round projects in the local schools and within the city, Hunt said.

"As city officials one way we can be exclusive is through zoning," Hunt said. "We need to make sure there's at least a discussion to become more inclusive when issues like zoning come up."

At the Charleston workshop, attendees were asked to recall an incident when they knew there were different races.

Hunt was a member of the freshman men's basketball team at West Virginia University in 1969. He recalled a road trip to Washington where the team was denied service at a restaurant because four of his teammates were black.

He said sharing experiences like his helps get people talking.

"I think the most important thing we can bring to our communities is to open the dialogue," Hunt said. "We've only begun to scratch the surface in building inclusive communities."

Other questions from the workshop included how the community addresses racial issues in policy discussions. Leaders determine how their communities handle those issues, and can study suggestions for improvement, if necessary.

A suggestion might be to encourage faith leaders of all races to meet on a regular basis to discuss racial issues, Wenger said.

The network hopes to eventually offer the workshop as a tool for community leaders across the country.

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