Diversity Dialogue Set for Saturday

Charles County Commissioner Edith Patterson, who will lead a blue-ribbon commission on diversity and racial unity, is to attend the forum.
Charles County Commissioner Edith Patterson, who will lead a blue-ribbon commission on diversity and racial unity, is to attend the forum. (By Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)
By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 18, 2007

Four months after a wave of offensive graffiti and vandalism struck Charles County and exposed a race relations problem in the rapidly diversifying jurisdiction, a public dialogue on race is set to take place Saturday.

More than 300 residents and community leaders are expected to join elected officials as well as race relations and demographic experts at a day-long diversity forum in La Plata, organizers said. The forum, called "Unity in Our Community: A Call to Action," will run from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the College of Southern Maryland's La Plata campus.

The event is free, and box lunches will be donated by Chick-fil-A. Officials are encouraging all residents to attend.

"I think we'll have a lot of very interested people," said Michelle Goodwin, executive director of advancement at the college and an organizer of the forum. "It is a call to the community. Anyone and everyone is invited."

U.S. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D), whose district includes Southern Maryland, is planning to attend, as are county commissioners, school board members, state legislators and law enforcement officials.

Following the hate crimes that hit Charles late last summer and early fall, a committee of community leaders and elected officials discussed ways to bridge racial fault lines. Led by state Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles), the committee decided to host the public diversity forum.

The county's demographics have been changing dramatically. The black population increased by more than 50 percent from 2000 through 2005, and African Americans now make up about 34 percent of county residents, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

Last August and September, at least 10 incidents of racist graffiti or vandalism, all classified as hate crimes, occurred in Charles. In one incident, for example, police found "KKK" and other symbols spray-painted on the doors and front sign of Zion Baptist Church, a predominantly black congregation in Welcome.

In late September, Charles authorities charged two 15-year-old Waldorf boys, who are white, in connection with another of the hate crimes.

But after months of investigation, authorities have not identified any suspects in any of the other incidents, Sheriff Rex Coffey (D) said.

"We've got a few little tidbits in, but that's about the extent of it," Coffey said this week. "We've got nothing that we can sink our teeth in."

Saturday's forum will begin with addresses by Middleton, Commissioners President Wayne Cooper (D-At Large) and Commissioner Edith J. Patterson (D-Pomfret), who became the county's first black commissioner when she was appointed to fill a vacancy in 2005. Patterson will announce the formation of a blue-ribbon commission that she will chair and that will form following the forum to continue discussion about seeking racial unity.

The morning program will feature three hour-long panel discussions beginning at 9 a.m. The first will be a discussion of the psychology of diversity and racism. The second will cover the demographics and economics of a multicultural community. The third will focus on the laws and resources used in enforcing hate crimes.

Forrest A. Parker, a multicultural affairs expert and motivational speaker, at 12:45 p.m. will deliver the keynote address, titled "How Communities Have Effectively Achieved Unity."

In the afternoon, participants will break into seven focus groups to discuss the roles of various stakeholders in addressing racial problems.

Sandra Washington, who directs the Ministers Alliance of Charles County and the Vicinity and who helped organize the forum, said she hopes residents will come away with a better understanding of different cultures.

"This will try to get as many of us as we can on one page saying, 'Here, this is Charles County, here's a snapshot,' " Washington said.

The forum will try "to have some dialogue with folks there in addressing some of the myths and some of the realities that are taking place in our community," she said.

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