During the past six months, racial tensions have flared across the country, demonstrating deep divides between ethnic groups.
Yet in a small pocket in Northwest Baltimore, one community is working hard to bridge these divides and promote positive relationships between community members.
In 2011, in response to an altercation in 2010 between two Jewish men and an African-American teenager, CHAI: Comprehensive Community Housing Assistance, Inc. recognized the need to create a program that would promote dialogue between these two diverse groups. As a result, Community Conversations was born.
Working closely with a leadership team, comprised of teachers, police, professionals and parents, among others, who represented diverse socio-economic backgrounds, they came together to talk about a variety of issues, concerns and current events. They saw movies, such as Selma and even read books, including Not in My Neighborhood. Slowly, these dialogues became safe spaces where members felt free to speak openly and candidly, expressing their opinions and asking hard questions.
For Phyllis Ajayi, who grew up in Cross Country, one of the five neighborhoods represented by CHAI’s Community Conversations (the others are Fallstaff, Glen, Mount Washington and Cheswolde), these conversations are a chance for others to have the positive experiences she had as an African American child, growing up with Orthodox Jewish neighbors. Walking home from school, she remembers stopping to talk to an Orthodox Jewish woman, who was always outside with cookies and brownies. She also spent a lot of time playing with a Jewish friend, the granddaughter of one of her parents’ friends.
“In light of what’s going on in the world today, a lot comes down to understanding, having a conversation with different groups and not creating stereotypes. That comes from getting to know one another,” says Ajayi, who is currently co-chair of Community Conversations, along with Nathan Willner.
In that vein, the program, which focuses on safety, civility, security and youth, has made efforts to create programs that promote understanding among the younger generation.
“Most people form their ideas and perceptions when they are young,” says Willner. “We felt this was an area where we could make a difference, and we developed programming to affect young people to carry on as they grow up.”
One of those programs is the Sukkah Hop, now in its third year. Fourth and fifth graders from Cross Country Elementary/Middle School visit area sukkahs, where Jewish neighbors serve treats to the African-American students, while talking about the holiday and sharing traditions, such as the shaking of the lulav and etrog.
At the conclusion of the most recent Sukkah Hop, the students returned to school for a class debriefing. “The students were asked if they saw similarities between the two groups,” says Willner. “One child raised his hand, and remarked ‘we both were slaves.’ I knew then, that we had made a difference.”
Another successful Community Conversations’ project that has made a difference in promoting understanding was the Girls’ Photography Project, implemented last winter. Fifteen African-American and Orthodox Jewish girls were placed in small groups; where they took photos that captured portraits of daily live, including their perceptions of home, friendship and community. The program also featured workshops that enabled the girls to understand one another’s perspectives about living in their northwest Baltimore City community. They received photography lessons and were paired in groups, taking photos that reflected their viewpoints on these topics.
“Being a participant in the Girls Photography program allowed us to make new friends. I learned how special my neighborhood is and how we have a lot in common with our neighbors even if we do not go to the same schools and have the same customs,” said Danielle Press, one of the Jewish girls who participated in the program.
“The product of the partnership of these girls is truly astounding,” said Mitch Posner, executive director of CHAI, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. “They are role models for the community without even realizing it because at the end of the day they just see the love they have for their neighborhood and for photography.”
CHAI also worked with Wide Angle Youth Media on this project. A similar boy’s project is currently being developed.
With Helene Kass, the new dedicated Community Conversation coordinator on board; the program will continue to create new opportunities. Moving forward, more dialogues are expected over the next year and this spring Community Conversations will introduce a grassroots neighborhood initiative engaging Orthodox and African American residents in selected blocks in the community. Together they will participate in facilitated dialogues to promote the creation of relationships, bridging divides and increasing connectedness
“Even though the Jewish and African-American communities may have different daily activities – many Jews go to day school, shop at Kosher stores and go to synagogue – we all have the same core desires for our families and the community. We want to succeed educationally, to live in safe and secure neighborhoods and have friendly interactions with our neighbors. I think this is something we all can agree on.”