Racism, its effect on the community and ways to improve Pine Bluff were discussed Tuesday in a community conversation facilitated by staff from the Clinton School of Public Service.

Racism, its effect on the community and ways to improve Pine Bluff were discussed Tuesday in a community conversation facilitated by staff from the Clinton School of Public Service.

“The person next to you may look differently, but a lot of the things that they said were things that they had in common with you,” said Charrisse Coates, a consultant working for the Clinton School. “Despite your differences, there are a number of things that you have in common, and those common denominators can be used to build upon.”

About 60 people participated, and more were turned away for lack of space in the RSVP-only event. Participants were arranged into small round-table groups, each with a Clinton School student to help facilitate the conversation.

Charlotte Williams, assistant professor and director of the Center on Community Philanthropy for the Clinton School, said that several of the students recently completed a practicum on race relations in Phillips County, using what they learned from the community conversations they conducted there to write a facilitation guide that they are now taking on the road to different parts of the state.

It is all part of a three-year initiative called Pathways to Racial Healing and Equity in the American South: A Community Philanthropy Strategy. The initiative kicked off in the spring with a two-day conference in at the Clinton School in Little Rock.

“We want to begin to move the community into the more equitable future that they want for themselves,” Williams said.

One of the goals is to give people practice and get them comfortable with talking about race in a constructive way, Williams said.

“Ultimately, we hope we will be able to dismantle structural racism and the effects it has on the community,” Williams said.

Williams said the program organizers intentionally sought out people from a cross-section of the community — politicians, police, firefighters, educators, health care providers, doctors, lawyers, everyday residents, community organizers, people in the arts and more — so that the individuals could take back what they learned to their respective fields and hopefully effect change.

Coates set the ground rules for conducting a respectful, productive discussion about race — encouraging everyone to listen to each other from a position that everyone had something to offer.

“Each of us has a piece of the puzzle,” Coates said. “Alone, we just have pieces. Together, we have a big picture, a picture that’s greater than all of us, that’s bigger than all of us.”

She encouraged the groups to focus on what she termed “structural racism,” which she defined as:

• intentional or unintentional systems that perpetuate inequality based on race, resulting in the failure of an organization to professionally serve people based on their color, culture or ethnic origin

• occurring on the institutional rather than personal level — with government, private business and universities as an example.

Participants then broke into their small-group discussions where the Clinton School student facilitators encouraged them to envision an ideal community and the kind of characteristics they would hope for Pine Bluff.

The small groups then rated the current state of affairs in Pine Bluff in the fields of education, economic development, law enforcement and health care and the availability and quality of the services in each category offered to everyone, regardless of race.

They then discussed what actions they could take to move from how things are to the future they would wish for Pine Bluff.

The small groups then made reports to the group as a whole. Action goals stated by the groups included:

• the elimination of violence and lack of respect;

• improving economic opportunities;

• fostering compassion and tolerance for people of varying races, genders and socio-economic statuses;

• increasing safety;

• improving schools;

• improving Pine Bluff’s image and attractiveness;

• developing and implementing programs to address parenting skills and other underlying issues;

• increasing community cohesion, inclusiveness and neighborhood involvement;

• and supporting existing entities and programs and helping them grow.

The program’s organizers will compile notes and conclusions from the event and distribute them to a representative from each small group for dissemination to the community. From there, Coates said, it will be up to Pine Bluff residents when the next meeting will be and what issues they want to tackle.

“This is your community. This is your city; and you can do it,” Coates said.