ALPHARETTA, Ga. — In a side meeting room of Alpharetta City Hall, a small band of people gather once a month to tackle one of the world’s greatest challenges.
The Racial Relations Dialogue draws a steady crowd of close to two dozen people from throughout the northern suburbs. Most come to strengthen their understanding of race relations and learn how they can make a difference in resolving racial tensions, if not world-wide, at least in their own communities.
Though the meetings are open to everyone, those over 50 dominate the gatherings. Whites usually outnumber blacks about 2-1, but the most recent meeting Oct. 10 saw an even split among the 20 or so people participating.
“We will be discussing sensitive issues, we ask all of you to be sensitive, patient and understanding,” founding member John Deerie tells the group.
The group’s mission Deerie says, is to personally build awareness to change behavior associated with racial discrimination and to respect the dignity of all people.
One white woman visiting for the first time stands to introduce herself. Adrienne Mintz from east Cobb tells the group that, thanks to segregation, she never grew up in an environment where she could learn about other races.
“I wish to God I had, but I didn’t,” she says. “So, I’m left up in the air, sort of going ‘I’d like to have a black friend. I’d like to know about some of the stuff people are talking about.’ I read about it, but I can’t learn it unless you make it personal. Reading isn’t enough.”
Most meetings run about 2 hours and include a presentation on the subject of race and understanding. Following the program, the assembly divides into groups to discuss the message, then present a summary of their discussion.
Valerie Williams of Cumming, a retired employment attorney who is black, said she attended the Oct. 7 meeting after hearing about the organization from friends.
“I just wanted to share my experiences and learn from others with different experiences,” she said. “I think communication will help solve some of the problems that we have.”
The Racial Relations Dialogue was founded last year in the kitchen at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Alpharetta. There, each morning after mass, a handful of parishioners had been stopping by for coffee.
Jack McBride, a priest who left active ministry after he married, often led the impromptu discussions. On hand were Deerie, Ellen Reuland and Jim Hynes.
One morning in June 2018, following another instance of racial intolerance in the news, McBride remarked: “What are we going to do about this?”
The answer turned into the monthly dialogue meetings first held at the church and now at City Hall. The meetings are at 7 p.m. the second Thursday of each month.
McBride grew up in a predominantly white section of New York where he was shielded from racial prejudice. His first assignment as a priest in the early 1960s was at a black parish in Washington, D.C.
“I loved it,” McBride said.
The experience inspired him to lead efforts against discrimination wherever he went. This included spending his day off at the parish to fly down to Alabama at his own expense to join the last leg of Martin Luther King’s Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965.
Even after his time as an active priest, McBride remained active in organizing groups to champion rights for minorities and others ostracized from society.
“Someone once asked me, ‘how did you get involved in race relations?’” McBride recounted. “Why would you not? If you’re a professional like I am and in the business of saving souls, why would you not, for God’s sake?”
Veteran participants in the Race Relations Dialogue say that self-healing and understanding is a core benefit to the meetings, but spreading the message to others is just as important.
Birdel F. Jackson, a board member for Roswell Seniors Enriched Living, brought three guests with him, and he wants to bring more. Jackson, who is black, has teamed up with the SEL current President Ricki Brodie and Executive Director Debbie Griffin to spread the word.
“There are people who are concerned about race relations in Roswell and all across north metro Atlanta,” Jackson said. “I want to get the numbers to increase for participation in the program. At SEL, I have access to 400 people.”