How my ‘inflammatory’ posters sparked real dia...

How my ‘inflammatory’ posters sparked real dialogue between black and white neighbors in Detroit

By Rhonda J. Smith: Neighbors even reported the event to officials -- but the people who actually came left with mutual respect, not outrage.

If Bedelia Brown had her way, the public discussion about shifting racial demographics in my neighborhood would never have happened. On Nov. 12, I brought four panelists to the Dexter Grinds coffeehouse for “White Integration in Russell Woods-Sullivan Area: A Community Conversation about Whites Moving Into a Black Neighborhood.”

I hosted this event to discuss how blacks and whites could live well together in my neighborhood, one that increasingly has become home to white residents, to the chagrin of some blacks and concern of some whites whom I have spoken to. I was tired of hearing the same narrative about white gentrifiers and black victims. As a Detour Detroit fellow responsible for covering news in my neighborhood, I wanted to see if there were different stories, ones that could help us all.

‘White integration’ flyers spark outrage

But Brown, a neighbor who is black, said we didn’t need this conversation — at least not the one she thought I was going to have. She thought I was a racist, leading the charge to strategize how we could keep whites from moving into our neighborhood. She reported me to our state Rep. and to the police. She wasn’t the only one who questioned my motives.

Concerned neighbors reached out to me; two reporters called me; and the lawmaker scolded me, all based on the flyer. Yes, it was evocative, “inflammatory” even, as one of my neighbors said, but I wanted to spark thought beyond the surface, which we so often don’t do. Reactions to the flyer proved that.

Rep. Cynthia A. Johnson and Neighborhood Police Officer Donald Parker came to the meeting at Dexter Grinds, and Brown was there, too. They wanted to see for themselves what this conversation would be all about. With a disdaining scowl, Brown told me she came “just for a little while.”

Dialogue between neighbors moves beyond controversy

However, she ended up staying as panelists — black and white, young, middle-aged and old, male and female — talked about the challenges and triumphs of navigating mixed racial spaces; audience members shared the desire to build rapport and the need to truly see and respect others’ point of view; and many residents said they wanted to have another gathering soon. 

I ended the conversation with a list of action items we can do to help us live well with our neighbors (see below).

“We all, though, live beyond black and white. We operate in grey spaces.”

–Rhonda J. Smith

“I’m glad I stayed until the end,” Brown eventually said. I thanked her for not only braving the cold, but braving her heart to come. And it is bravery that propels us to go beyond ourselves into spaces that we seem pretty sure about. 

Brown was sure that this conversation would disrupt her world, one that has been stable for years with good neighbors, black and white, who look out for each other and live as family. But Brown’s world doesn’t seem to be the norm, at least not from news reports we hear of whites reporting blacks for just living and blacks automatically labeling whites gentrifiers for moving into a mostly black urban area.

We all, though, live beyond black and white. We operate in grey spaces. Sometimes we may just be afraid to admit that, to allow someone else to see our humanity and that we care for those that society has said we should hate. Sometimes we need a conversation to allow us to be who we were meant to be.

Discussion panelists and host: Clete Bontrager, Abbey Waterman, Rhonda J. Smith, Anne Bradley and James Boyer, residents of Russell Woods-Sullivan Area and community advocates. Credit: Ken Coleman.
Panelists and host of the “White Integration in Russell Woods Sullivan Area” discussion gather outside the Dexter Grinds coffeehouse in Detroit, Nov. 12, 2019. L to R: Clete Bontrager, Abbey Waterman, Rhonda J. Smith, Anne Bradley and James Boyer, residents of Russell Woods-Sullivan Area and community advocates. Credit: Ken Coleman.

An invitation to come together

“Come now, let us reason together,” declares the Lord to His chosen people in the Biblical book of Isaiah. This is one of my favorite scriptures, one I seek to live by when I have conflict with others, and it was the guiding sentiment when I hosted the community conversation. In Isaiah, God invited His chosen people to engage Him in a dispute about their behavior. They had rebelled against Him, following their desires by oppressing the weak and doing whatever evil came to mind, but they still sought to worship Him as if they were righteous followers of God.

But God didn’t condemn them. He pointed out their wrongs, told them to do what was right and welcomed them into His presence, even declaring their new standing before they said anything or did anything different.

“[T]hough your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” The change of heart began with an invitation to a conversation—a dispute—with the goal of doing what is right, so all benefit from what the land has to offer.

The invitation includes so much possibility to welcome others on the opposite side and to come together and be declared new. I think some of this happened at Dexter Grinds, and I look forward to all of us receiving the benefits of living well together in the Russell Woods-Sullivan Area.

White Integration in Russell Woods-Sullivan Area Community Conversation Suggested Action Items

Pray: Engage in soliciting help from God for supernatural help.

Purpose: Make a commitment to do something good.

Practice: Do something good.

  • Stand in the other person’s shoes (rather than only doing what you would do based on who you are now, base your actions and attitude on who they are and what they have experienced).
  • Know that a lifetime of conditioning may take some time to change. This is not a declaration for the other party to wait, but it is a plea to be patient with the other as he or she is actively seeking to change.
  • Ask yourself, “What is my commitment to working toward blacks and whites living well together in my community?”
  • Commit to one thing you can do to help you live better with your neighbors.

Rhonda J. Smith headshot

By Rhonda J. Smith, Detour Detroit Emerging Voices fellow and the initiator, organizer and mediator for the White Integration in Russell Woods-Sullivan Area Community Conversation held Nov. 12, 2019. Smith is a fellow in the inaugural cohort of Detour Detroit’s Emerging Voices program, designed to tell the story of Detroit’s present and future in the voice of its residents.

She is a lifelong Detroiter who resides in the Russell Woods-Sullivan area, where she has served on the neighborhood association board, written for its newsletter, organized activities in its parks and provided residents with tax foreclosure prevention information. With a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in communication, she has been a writer and editor for more than 25 years.