Could Rochester's blueprint be adapted to Hagerstown?

October 19, 2005|by BOB MAGINNIS

When it comes to relations between the races, Richard M. Williams isn't letting anybody off the hook. The legacy of slavery is still affecting African-American families adversely and will continue to do so until there is a unified effort to overcome it at the national, state and local level.

Williams, the author of "They Stole It, But You Must Return It" and "Torches on the Road of Passage," was the opening speaker at the 2005 Black Talk Conference, held Oct. 14 at the Bethel Gardens Community Center.

Williams described how city officials in Rochester, N.Y. asked him to help put together a program there to improve the community. But instead of just spending money, Williams said he first had to look at the root causes of the troubles of African-American families.

Again and again, Williams said, whether the issue was nutrition or family unity, it was possible to trace the problem back to things that had become engrained during the time of slavery, whether it was the forced separation of family members or the poor nutrition caused by owners who offered only table scraps to the humans they controlled.


Consider also, Williams said, why there are so few black-owned businesses with more than 50 employees.

African-Americans are the only race that came here for other than economic reasons, Williams said.

"Economics was no part of the slave experience, because you were a product yourself," he said.

But Williams did not portray the situation as hopeless. With a unified approach, such as that used in Rochester, communities can be improved so that they become fully functioning parts of the larger society.

Nutrition is a part of that, said Williams, who has doctorates in health education and health administration.

Working together for common goals is another, he said.

At one meeting in Rochester, 120 ministers showed up. he said. Soon that grew, until there were 300 volunteers, "willing and ready to work."

The ministers came up with a plan - the Faith Community Alliance - which Williams said incorporated plans of many types.

According to the September 2003 newsletter of the Greater Rochester Diversity Council, the Alliance, the Greater Rochester NAACP and Excellus BlueCross Blue Shield reacted quickly to a study that showed many African-Americans in Rochester were likely to die from diseases that could be treated if caught in the early stages.

The three groups organized a community health fair, during which there were a variety of free health screenings, entertainment and refreshments. The local BlueCross BlueShield provider also worked to make sure health insurance was as affordable as possible.

But Williams noted that the health of the community goes beyond the the physical well-being of its members.

In Rochester, that alliance also dealt with teen pregnancy and with the need to find men to act as mentors to young males.

There's a need for business development as well, Williams said, so that there is a network of business owners who can support and mentor one another.

In early September, at the suggestion of Hagerstown's first African-American Councilwoman, Alesia Parson-McBean, the city took a step toward building such a network by starting to compile a list of the city's minority owned businesses.

For years before it actually happened, I advocated for a black candidate for the city council, in large part because it would show young people of color that they too could have a role in local government.

What Williams advocated here was an entire community coming together in recognition of the fact that when one part of the city is lacking something such as affordable health care or economic opportunity, it affects the whole area adversely.

Williams may be from out of town, but his message is the same as the local school system's Minority Achievement Task Force: We must help those in the community who need assistance, not only because it's the right thing to do, but because it will benefit everyone if the job gets done.

My thanks for Andy Smith and Brothers United Who Dare to Care for putting this program together. Perhaps just as the late Jimmy Resh was inspired to open a Rescue Mission in the same neighborhood, someone else will be inspired to lead the effort to improve the city by improving the lot of its citizens.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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