Burlington’s Political Therapy Group met Saturday at the library to hear a panel discuss divisions within our community, specifically those related to race, culture, poverty and crime.
The Rev. Brice Hughes of Zion UCC moderated the group that included Supt. Freddie Starling of Faith Temple Church of God, Maj. Dennis Kramer of the Burlington Police Department, Char Blodgett of the Burlington Homeless Shelter, the Rev. Orlando Dial of St. John AME Church, and Mayor Shane McCampbell.
For a two-hour discussion period, the panel was a little large. Introductions and opening comments took up 45 minutes. Still, it was a worthwhile morning and Hughes did a good job keeping it moving forward. Try as he might, there simply wasn’t time to wrap it up with a unifying sense of what to do next.
The Bridges Out of Poverty program was cited several times as an effective way to address some of the problems raised — and it is. If Bridges does nothing else, it introduces participants to how different classes of people speak, set goals and use their time. Of course, Bridges is so much more than that. It’s an excellent program for anyone to get involved with.
I left with a couple thoughts:
Former state Sen. Tom Courtney encouraged the police department to add more minority officers. He said the force should reflect the racial makeup of the community. That’s easier said than done.
Back in the ’90s, we took steps at The Hawk Eye to increase the number of minorities in the newsroom for the same reason Courtney mentioned. We wanted it to be more like Burlington, which meant 10 percent of our newsroom should have been black. We attended workshops, advertised on campuses and tried some recruiting, all to limited success. Eventually, we concluded our scope was too small. Ideally, the workforce inside the building at 800 S. Main St., which numbered about 100 employees would have 15 percent minorities. That would include ad sales people, designers, carriers, office personnel and press people. Despite our efforts, we never came close to achieving that kind of diversity. The important thing, though, is it remains a worthy goal. Just because it doesn’t happen doesn’t mean the effort should stop.
I’m confident the police department encounters the same problem. I’m also confident it’s doing what it can to meet that goal, however long it takes. Kramer said as much. It requires persistence.
Also in the ’90s, we took steps to increase the number of minority faces in The Hawk Eye — particularly beyond the front page and in the Sports pages. Specifically, as the managing editor, I met with pastors and others to try to understand why there was a dearth of black faces among our Family Album photos and in the obituary columns. There was no single answer. Mostly, it seemed to be a lack of awareness or a sense within the black community that the newspaper wasn’t interested in them.
Submissions did increase, but not to my satisfaction. Again, I think it was a matter of culture and routine. These things don’t change overnight. But the welcome mat remained. As new pastors were introduced to the community, I continued to make my pitch. I hope the newspaper still has that emphasis, even after my departure.
McCampbell noted it takes effort to effect change. As a self-described “large black man,” he’s cognizant that he sometimes makes people uncomfortable. Rather than being upset, McCampbell does what he can to make incremental change. For example, the mayor said once he was rushing from a store to another appointment and noticed a woman cringing at the counter. She obviously was uncomfortable with his presence. McCampbell stopped, offered a welcoming hand and shared an encouraging word. A small gesture to be sure, but one that surely helped put the woman at ease.
Former school board member Dennis Kuster suggested police officers have a similar problem.
Recently, he said, he was pulled over legitimately, but he could not help but think how the officer made him uncomfortable with his shaved head, stern demeanor and dark uniform.
“Please encourage them to grow some hair!” he joked. Both Kramer and McCampbell, who are follically challenged, laughed. But they had to acknowledge that first impression can improve.
I’ll go further. Burlington Police Chief Doug Beaird will retire next month and City Manager Jim Ferneau will be appointing his replacement. I’m hoping the next chief will return to civilian wear at work.
Until Stan Rowe was appointed chief (also in the early ’90s), the top law enforcement officer in the city wore a jacket and tie. Rowe, a Marine, changed that practice and chiefs since — Dave Wunneberg, Dan Luttenegger and Beaird — have worn dark uniforms. Returning to civilian wear would signal a welcomed change at the top. (Changing the color of cruisers, another Rowe move, would help, too. The dark navy is too sinister.)
Breaking down community barriers is a big challenge. Small, everyday steps accompish a lot, particularly if they’re done consistently and persistently.
“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
— Winston Churchill