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‘Healing Racism’ event brings people together in Amherst

“I want your imagination to run wild,” said Love, a professor emerita of social justice education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, to a crowd of around 50 in the Woodbury Room of the Jones Library on Sunday. “I don’t want you to be constrained by possibility or probability.”

Love — who noted that it is no coincidence that this is her last name — was the facilitator of a dialogue on “Healing Racism” at an event organized in celebration of Black History Month by the Amherst organization Citizens for Racial Amity Now. Amherst resident Ray Elliott, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday, founded Citizens for Racial Amity Now two years ago to gather individuals aiming to establish a National Race Amity Day and to promote amity, or friendship, among people of different races.

In an interview after the event, Elliott said he was pleased with the attendance. “I was very happy to see so many people from different parts of town interested in engaging in meaningful dialogue to promote that education,” he said.

The event opened with an introduction by Elliott and board member Ash Hartwell, who is a professor at the Center for International Education at UMass, and a performance by the Amherst Area Gospel Choir. Participants were then asked to hold a moment of silence in tribute to Nelson Mandela, whom Hartwell referred to as a “giant of race amity.”

Hartwell also introduced Jean Denton-Thompson, who was arrested in Jackson, Miss., in 1961 as a member of the Freedom Riders, who challenged racial segregation by riding integrated buses into Southern states. Denton-Thompson, who has been an Amherst resident since 1976, was greeted with a round of applause. In an interview after the dialogue, she said she felt the event gave those in attendance a chance to get to know each other “as people.”

Also in attendance was state Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst, who read a statement from Gov. Deval Patrick in support of Black History Month. After reading the statement, Story added, “I never thought in my lifetime that I would live to see a black governor and a black president.”

During the discussion, Love directed participants to form small groups and asked them to discuss their visions of racial amity and how they think they could be made possible. She encouraged them to think outside the box, noting that, at a talk she led on ending classicism, someone shared the idea of placing trailer parks next to mansions.

Mount Holyoke College student Sojourner Gleeson suggested that schools need to take racial integration a step further. She said that while desegregation is often perceived as a “victory,” minorities are still asked to “whitewash” their cultures in an effort not to make the majorities uncomfortable.

“Every culture needs to be given the chance to thrive,” Gleeson said.

Martha Faison, who has been an Amherst resident since 1970, suggested that churches in town need to be better integrated.

“The churches are more segregated in this town,” she said. “What we are doing today, I think, all churches should strive to do.”

Love noted that in working toward a goal like ending racism, it is inevitable that mistakes will happen. “Being careful and safe is not going to create racial amity,” she said.

After the dialogue, Love said she was pleased with the responsiveness of those in attendance.

“Amherst is one place where it’s possible for this to happen,” said Love, a resident of the town for 45 years.

The next event sponsored by Citizens for Racial Amity Now, “Neighborhood Race Amity: Multifaith Devotions and Dialogues,” is March 29 from 1 to 4 p.m. in the Amherst Room at the Jones Library, 43 Amity St.

For more information on Citizens for Racial Amity Now, Elliott can be contacted by phone at 253-9842 or by e-mail at rayandmaryelliott@gmail.com.

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