by Eric Ginsburg
Three years in, a group of educators, activists, clergy, city leaders and other interested parties continues to meet with the goal of creating a more inclusive and just city, but a meeting last week highlighted the gap between rhetoric and reality.
The push for institutional and community-wide change is bound to be a slow one, Greensboro City Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter acknowledged to the room full of people at the Interactive Resource Center last week, but more voices are being heard and important improvements are underway, she said. Just look at the city council’s votes at its previous meeting to raise the minimum wage for city employees and the implementation of an employment restoration academy, she said. It may not be as fast as we want, Abuzuaiter said, but the change is still relatively quick.
That struggle between patience for institutional shifts and the frustration of immediately oppressive conditions underscored a meeting of concerned residents on Aug. 26. During the individual introductions to start off the two-hour meeting, a man stood and said the gang members and people he works with regularly don’t have time for slow-paced, “ivory-tower” dialogue. Immediate conditions make it impossible to wait, he said, as he excused himself and left the building.
Later Guilford College professor and meeting co-facilitator Sherry Giles would return to the point saying, “We need to have people involved who are just trying to survive.”
The pace of the group known as Counter Stories hasn’t been rapid by any measure. It emerged after Berkeley Law School professor Mary Louise Frampton and a colleague spent months surveying hundreds of Greensboro residents about race relations in the city, and some interviewees watched a play about racial dynamics together. With the goal of deeper community-wide dialogue that could serve as a catalyst for action, Counter Stories formed.
But that was three years ago. It wasn’t until recently that the group decided to hone in on police-community relations, and a few months ago the collection of residents began hosting conversation groups co-hosted by a police officer and a resident to openly address the gulf.
Last week, with a seemingly more cohesive goal in mind that still lacks specific details for execution in many respects, the group invited new participants to join the process and reached out to people who had fallen off in an effort to help draft action plans around restorative justice tactics and to continue the police-community dialogues.
“The first project is to explore restorative justice practices and their application to police procedure, the courts, and disciplinary measures in the schools,” the email invitation read. “The second project is to create a series of workshops, led by civilian criminal-justice experts and police officers, to educate citizens about their rights, responsibilities, and avenues of recourse in police-civilian encounters.”
Members of the Greensboro Police Department and the city’s human relations commission joined Councilwoman Abuzuaiter in representing the city, but most attendees came from activist groups, academia or the nonprofit sector. For the most part, regular participants in Black Lives Matter actions in the city were absent, an omission that a few participants addressed. Love Crossling, the city’s human relations director, said that “a polarization of other work” in the city is “overwhelming,” and that Counter Stories and others need an intentionality to avoid fragmentation that prevents new people from getting involved.
After someone inquired about how the group relates to the recommendations of the Greensboro Truth & Reconciliation Commission held to address the Greensboro Massacre, Giles said Counter Stories is “of a piece” with the commission’s final report.
“We’re working towards the same thing, but with somewhat different strategies,” she said.
It lines up with the commission’s recommendation to hold police accountable and address the city’s polarization, she said, and Counter Stories is in touch with the Beloved Community Center — the nonprofit where the commission originated and in some ways tied to the center of local Black Lives Matter mission — to avoid fragmentation and prevent any effort to force a wedge between the two strategies. Giles has also been deeply personally involved with the Beloved Community Center over the years, which has long pushed for police accountability reforms with limited institutional success and recently spawned an unofficial civilian review board to examine cases of alleged police misconduct.
Most of the Counter Stories meeting last week focused on orienting new or returning members to the group’s work, answering questions about how the organization differs from other efforts in the city and fielding comments about how to involve a greater cross-section of the city’s population including ideas for outreach to immigrant and refugee communities.
Giles and her co-facilitators, including Frampton, also reported back about a pending grant request for $35,000 annually for two years from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem to further its efforts. The Bonner Center at Guilford College is the grant applicant, and would fund restorative justice workshops, implicit bias and structural racism trainings and strengthen the group’s capacity, facilitators said.
Buy-in from police will be key not just for the grant but for the success of Counter Stories more broadly, with Frampton pointing to a unified effort in the small town of Reedley, Calif. to divert kids from the school-to-prison pipeline with a restorative justice approach as a potential model for Greensboro.
As the room of about 40 participants broke into three groups to discuss next steps for community-police workshops, facilitation and restorative justice efforts in the education and legal systems, the conversations often remained abstract. People wanted to take action, they said in the small meetings, and a few ideas were batted around, but a concrete action-plan remained elusive.
But a commitment to figuring it out overshadowed a lack of specifics, with attendees staying to continue discussions even after facilitators brought the meeting to a close and remaining thoroughly engaged and active for more than two hours, with many participants arriving early for a shared dinner before setting down to business.