Sunday, May 27, 2001

Can you spare three minutes?




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        All they want is three minutes of our time. Director Charlene Ventura says the YWCA has been sending out letters and e-mails and faxes like crazy since May 18, asking for three minutes of silence at noon Wednesday. A public expression of grief, she says, in the wake of racial tension. Church bells and the massive Peace Bell in Newport will peal.

        At first, I wondered what three minutes can possibly accomplish after three days of rioting and at least as many decades of mistrust.

        But multiply those minutes by, say, a thousand schoolchildren. Add another couple thousand Procter & Gamble employees and 90 people who work at Corporex. Plus the congregations of Knox Presbyterian, Indian Hill Episcopal-Presbyterian and New Jerusalem Baptist churches. Throw in Hillel Jewish Center and the Junior League and Links.

        So far, more than 100 organizations have agreed to participate. To figuratively join hands.

        That adds up to a lot of peace. A lot of shared grief. An impressive symbol of unity. And the YWCA knows the value of symbols.

        Its building is a concrete sign of commitment to the inner city. At the corner of Ninth and Walnut streets since 1928, it is easily available to people who don't have cars, easily accessible to the poor. Wealthier members troll the surrounding streets for parking without complaint.

Diversity a habit

        When you push open those heavy bronze doors, you enter a place where diversity is a habit. It was not just discovered in a courtroom or an employee manual. It is completely voluntary. And absolutely natural.

        Men and women sweat companionably in the fitness center in the basement. You might be on a treadmill next to a CEO or a somebody working on a GED. Fat and skinny. Young and old. And black and white.

        This did not happen overnight.

        The YWCA here opened Cincinnati's first integrated cafeteria in 1950, the only place in the city where blacks and whites could eat and meet together. And talk. In 1975, the YWCA pushed for Ohio's recognition of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as a state holiday.

        A habit.

        We don't just wake up one morning and understand how somebody else feels. You have to think about it, maybe study it. Work at it, if you think it's important. Certainly it helps to talk, ask questions. Argue.

Lively disagreement

        I have been at plenty of gatherings at the YWCA over the years. Sometimes discussions get pretty lively. People speak up and disagree with abandon. But I have never seen women there divide along racial lines. Never.

        So, this group, which has a lifetime of experience in these matters, is asking the community to make a gesture. Symbolic. A visible sign of something invisible.

        “We mourn the gaps that exist when we identify the depth and causes of our grief — the gaps between black and white, wealthy and wanting, city and suburban, blindly secure and sorely afraid,” said a statement from the Y's Racial Justice Committee.

        “If we can grieve together,” according to committee member Barbara Smitherman, “hold hands together and really be sorrowful together, we can finally move forward together to establish trust and find better solutions to our problems.”

        Three minutes of silence. Then maybe we can start talking.

        E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/pulfer.

       



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