The Journal Gazette
 
 
Sunday, January 16, 2022 1:00 am

Anti-bias group eager to celebrate

United Front leaders say effort breaking barriers, but dinner too risky

DEVAN FILCHAK and ASHLEY SLOBODA | The Journal Gazette

More than 8,000 people participated in the year-long United Front cultural awareness program aimed at shared humanity.

United Front officials can't wait to celebrate the progress by its participants – even if the Dinner of Great Conversations has to wait. The event was initially scheduled for Jan. 22, but Iric Headley said officials, in partnership with Parkview Health, decided it was not safe to have it this month because of the COVID-19 surge.

Regardless of how long the event has to be delayed, Headley, director of Fort Wayne United, said it's critical to hold the event in person instead of doing it virtually. United Front is an initiative to help the community have meaningful conversations about race, equity and inclusion. Fort Wayne United's mission is “to answer the call to enhance opportunities, advance youth advocacy and help create a safer city for all, but more specifically for Black men and boys,” according to the city's website.

“When we bring that same population back together and say let's celebrate but also let's confirm our humanity by getting together and breaking bread together, which in every single culture is one of the most amazing ways to do that, that's really what we are after,” he said.

United Front was already altered to keep participants safe. The program hosted keynote speakers to an in-person event once a month, but the other sessions were held virtually. Each month, United Front hosted virtual sessions on six different topics – front line, people leader, education, community, diversity and inclusion leads, and criminal justice.

Gregg Smith-Causey, programs manager for Fort Wayne United, said a crucial part of the shared humanity experience was missing from the virtual sessions – face-to-face conversations.

“That's something that has been missing through COVID and everything that's going on,” Smith-Causey said. “Really, in the state of the world we are living in, a lot of individuals are not dialogging together.”

Developing deeper connections and conversations about race that can be uncomfortable in a safe place is at the core of United Front, Smith-Causey said. An important aspect of the dinner that hundreds planned on attending in January is that no one was going to sit with guests they brought.

People will be assigned seats at the Dinner of Great Conversations so each table has people from different backgrounds to create a diverse conversations and experiences.

“If you attend an event with someone, a significant other, friend or family member, you're more than likely going to sit with them and chat with them,” said Mecca Abdullah-Jordan, United Front programming committee member. “This is going to open you up to having a conversation with other people and learning more than just the person you brought with you.”

David Nicole, program manager of Fort Wayne United, said it is incredible to see metaphorical light bulbs light up above participants' heads by having conversations about race that some people avoid.

Nicole used himself, a white man, and Abdullah-Jordan, a Black woman, as examples. Nicole and Abdullah-Jordan come from different backgrounds and might not understand each other's perspectives at first.

“What we know through United Front is I make assumptions of where Mecca is coming from, and Mecca makes assumptions about where I'm coming from,” Nicole said. “Through United Front and through having intentional dialogue, I can have a conversation with Mecca to truly understand where she's coming from. Those walls get broken down from what we've seen.”

Data reflects what the organizers have seen. United Front asked participants near the end of the program if they feel like they have the knowledge and language needed to take action in a variety of situations.

When it comes to organizations' bias and microaggressions, more than 90% of people said they were “somewhat or very prepared to act” with more than a 50% increase from the beginning of the program.

The more than 8,000 participants included 210 organizations enrolled in the program.

More than 600 people from Fort Wayne Community Schools – mostly those in leadership positions – have participated in United Front. The district was particularly interested in the concepts of shared humanity and inclusion because it's not enough to address diversity, Deputy Superintendent D. Faye Williams-Robbins said.

If people don't work hard to ensure others around the table feel included in the conversation and decision-making process, “then you really haven't done anything but check a box,” she said.

Williams-Robbins speaks from experience. When she started working for FWCS more than 40 years ago, she was the only African American in the building.

“I didn't always feel included,” she said, “but I was there.”

The district wants to improve to ensure its diverse population of students and staff feel included and part of the whole.

It involves talking about what it means to be a human being, peoples' needs and how to support each other in good times and bad.

“That conversation is the most important to us,” Williams-Robbins said.

When asked about general thoughts about the first year of United Front, Williams-Robbins said the greatest thing that happened in FWCS were the conversations that it opened up.

“I was surprised by the transparency of individuals who participated in those breakouts,” she said, “because they realized this is a conversation that's needed.”

dfilchak@jg.net, asloboda@jg.net

At a glance

United Front asked participants near the end of the year-long cultural awareness program if they feel like they have the knowledge and language to take action in a variety of situations.

Below are percentages of participants who said they feel they are “somewhat or very prepared to act,” along with the percentage increase in that number since the beginning of the program.

Situation Prepared to act Increase
Organizational bias 92% 50%
Microaggressions 93% 67%
Stereotype threat 90% 62%
Impostor syndrome 87% 70%
High context dependency 76% 69%
Allyship in shared humanity 82% 52%
Privilege, power and position 79% 42%
Actions of an ally 77% 47%
Facing the fears of open dialogue 73% 50%

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