Some sensitive subject matter will be brought to the center in a "fishbowl" discussion planned for Sept. 6 at the McGee Center in Conway.
Phillip Fletcher, an advocate for residents in Oakwood and Brookside trailer parks and director of City of Hope Outreach, planned the meeting after publicity surrounding the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman verdict handed down in July stirred negativity and fueled racial arguments worldwide.
Fletcher said "The Fishbowl: Answering tough questions about ethnic relationships," is a second stab at facilitating a community discussion with goals to reduce misunderstanding between different ethnic groups, build new relationships, and strengthen old ones.
The first meeting of its kind took place in January around the largest table at ZaZa’s and dealt with interracial relationships.
Participants found it easier to ask tough questions by writing them anonymously on index cards and throwing them in the fishbowl that sat in the center of the table, Fletcher said.
"People vented their frustrations and were able to be heard," he said. "I want people to be heard without name-calling, shouting and dehumanizing."
The format is one Fletcher and his wife have used at home when the couple has hosted discussions with married couples.
In the McGee Center meeting room, Fletcher hopes participants can explore how other ethnic groups view the world, "and create a situation where people are listening to one another and not shouting at one another."
"Before you can come up with solutions, you have to hear all sides," Fletcher said.
In the six years Fletcher and his wife, Nicole, have lived in Conway, Fletcher said the two have found the subject of race is one people don’t want to talk about.
"Not talking about something causes a situation where you may act off of a stereotype," he said.
Fletcher said the use of the "N-word" is something that would probably be up for discussion and cited a recent incident where a Philadelphia Eagles football player was filmed saying the word at a Kenny Chesney concert.
If Fletcher were to submit a question to the discussion, he said he might ask if African Americans had any responsibility for the word’s popularity and why it was OK for a black person to use the word but unacceptable for use by other races.
"I’d ask if we as African Americans have normalized the word. It’s a common word used among African American males and in music and movies. Are we communicating to a larger culture that it is to be used like ‘hey brother,’ and ‘what’s up man,’ and if it’s OK for us to use it, why is it not OK for another person to use it," Fletcher said. "For the football player, it’s a racial slur. This is cognitive dissonance in my opinion, and we have to embrace the word or reject the word so there will be peace among the people."
Fletcher said the Fishbowl discussions are independent of his involvement with City of Hope Outreach, a nonprofit Christian organization that works with people in low income situations, but the two efforts have similarities.
COHO has a presence at Oakwood and Brookside trailer parks.
The nonprofit headed by the Fletchers was started, according to Phillip Fletcher, when he found himself at Oakwood by mistake on his way home from work six years ago.
He said God impressed upon his heart the mission to be part of that community and assist where needed.
Two churches, a community center, a community garden, a playground, a homeless shelter, an educational assistance program and more community involvement are the fruits of COHO, Fletcher said, "but I could go on forever."
The ultimate measure of success he said, is in relationships.
The fishbowl discussion begins at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 6.
(Staff writer Courtney Spradlin can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 505-1236, or on Twitter @Courtneyism.)
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