Talking Tough


Frank discussion, honest answers highlight Black-White Dialogues Thirty people, black and white, asked questions about problems facing youth in Omaha and listened to Douglas County Juvenile Court judges Wadie Thomas and Doug Johnson answer them candidly as part of the Black-White Dialogue series Sept. 21 at the First Central Congregational Church. “If you put money in the playpen you won’t have to put them in the state pen,” said Johnson, who is white, about the value of youth outreach programs like the Boys and Girls Club and the Urban League of Nebraska. But mentoring won’t take the place of a good parent, Thomas said. “It starts at home, and a lot of times we feel like we come in a day late and a dollar short,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we give up.” Thomas, who is black, can back up the talk. He adopted his niece and nephew after his sister died in a drug-related incident in Alabama. Both children went on to graduate from college. It was the type of honest admission that has come to highlight the Black-White Dialogues. No topic was off limits as the judges answered questions about the perception of black-versus-white schools, how much parents should pry into new technology and the difficult decision to remove a child from parents. Sparked by an experience at an abortion debate in the mid-1990s, Elaine Wells waited 15 years for her idea for a racially conscious series to find a public forum. “It was a rational discussion, but I came away thinking, ‘I never want to go to a debate again,’” she said. “People couldn’t hear each other through all the arguing.” As a marriage counselor, she knew small group discussion could help mend idealogical divides. Her focus shifted over the years from abortion to the continuing racial tension she saw in her own city. And with help from Nebraskans for Peace, Progressive Omaha and the Urban League, she organized the first Black-White Dialogues series in fall 2009. Attendance has nearly doubled since those first few sessions at Omaha North High School, but spots remain for the two remaining talks in the current series. Wells’ goal is to bring 30 black and 30 white participants together for each forum. The goal of the talks is to “eliminate racism in Omaha from the grassroots up through education, one-to-one dialogue, group discussion and community action.” “It’s a lofty goal,” Wells said, “but we’re working at it.” She said the same thoughtful, mature dialogue witnessed in the talk with Thomas and Johnson has occurred at every event. Malcolm X Memorial Foundation President Sharif Liwaru was the first speaker in the series this fall. He came away a little envious of the frank discussion he witnessed. “Talking about Malcolm X can be divisive. He’s someone people still feel a little uncomfortable about,” he said. “The difficulty comes in walking in there.” Liwaru told the group these forums are the place where tough questions should be asked. “I’d like to see that honesty extend to an environment where people’s defenses are up,” he said. City Sprouts Community Organizer and former gang member Leo Louis II presents “Understanding Gangs and Former Gang Members” on Oct. 5; and Omaha Public Schools Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator Harris Payne and City Councilman Ben Gray wrap up the six-week series with “Making Invisible Histories Visible” on Oct. 12. The talks begin at 7 p.m. at the First Central Congregational Church, 421 S. 36th St. For more information visit black-white-dialogues.org, or contact Wells at 573.1702.


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