Sunday, May 11, 2003


Races can be in pain together - or talk together


Ken Wilson calls himself my "go-to black guy," and he is.

I've sought Ken's perspective on everything from Tiger Woods' social conscience to Cincinnati's social fabric, because it's not fair to write about another man's steps without checking out his shoes. At the least.

Every so often, Ken and I eat some lunch and save the world. He is Procter & Gamble's associate director of global diversity.

He heads P&G's ADOPT program - Actively Doing Our Part Together - to help Procter workers heal the racial division that's killing our town.

I'm a sportswriter living in the fantasy lane.

I don't know the answer to making our city work. I don't even know the question.

Two years from the waste of the riots and we're still yelling at one another from across the fence.

Blacks and whites talking at each other, not to each other.

Listening to Ken Wilson doesn't do much about that, in the grand scheme, but as Ken says, "It starts with a conversation."

"Why should I care about downtown?" I ask.

I live in the 'burbs, 25 miles from high crime, high unemployment, high school dropouts and too many people getting high as a way of life.

"From a social perspective, we should care kids aren't getting educated. If these kids drop out, what impact is that going to have on society, on crime?" Ken says.

It costs more to imprison someone for a year than it does to educate him.

"What if Procter & Gamble says, 'We can't get people to move to this city'? What if Procter & Gamble moved out? Good luck selling your house in Loveland.

"What if the Bengals said, 'We can't make it here'? What if Fifth Third said, 'We're closing down all our urban banking centers and moving our headquarters to Chicago.

"We're taking all our jobs and employment taxes with us.' That's the lifeblood of the community. Your heart dies, the body dies with it."

"How does this relate to race?" I ask.

"A lot of the problems are directly attributable to the boycott. Hotels are hurting, retailers are taking loss after loss. Things have gone south exponentially," Ken says.

He supports boycotts, as means to drive negotiation.

To that end, the boycott has not worked. And yet . . .

"This is the perspective of the boycotters: I'm in pain already, and you don't care. If I'm in pain, we both can be in pain. We can be in pain together," Ken says.

"Is that the desired result?" I ask.

"No. But in the absence of good faith, it's better than me being in pain alone. If Damon Lynch's constituency in Over-the-Rhine is in pain and nobody cares, he's going to do whatever he can to help people care."

"At what point do you say, 'Enough?' "

"You don't," says Ken. "Not until there are tumbleweeds rolling down the street."

"You think that's OK?"

"That's not what I would do," Ken says. "But I understand it.'"

"Here's what I think," I say. "People don't burn their own neighborhoods if there isn't a major problem. That's a cry for help. We haven't done a good job listening. But this inflicting pain isn't doing anything but hardening the sides."

"If I lived in Over-the-Rhine and had an alternative to boycotting . . . I don't know what that would be," Ken says.

"So where do we go from here?''

"If I was mayor, I'd sit down with the boycotters. I don't think there's any issue that can't be resolved through conversation.

"Mayor (Charlie) Luken is a reasonable, likeable guy. Reverend Lynch is reasonable. I can't imagine why those folks can't sit down and have a conversation."

Ken Wilson is encouraged by the efforts of individuals, meeting, discussing, tentatively reaching out.

If only the leadership would do the same.

Tell us why saving downtown is important. Tell us why we should care.

"I don't feel the urgency to move us forward," Ken says, "to address the things that caused the riot: hopelessness, lack of economic opportunity, crime, single-parent households. Those are the things that would lead people to say, 'I'm in so much pain, I'm going to burn the city down.' "

It all starts with conversation. Healing has been a candle in the wind, to this point.

It needs to be a candle at midnight. Because we can't go on this way.


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