By Kelli Bennett, Director of Communications
“I’ve been struck by the call that it is not enough to be non-racist, but we need to be anti-racist,” said LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton in an op-ed in the LaGrange Daily News in response to the unjust treatment of people of color.
“We don’t want to have overt racism on display. I think everyone agrees with that. But that is not enough if you really want to be proactive and root out the causes of racism. You must step back and you have to make intentional efforts,” Thornton later explained his statement in an interview with GMA. “Being anti-racist is an intentional decision. It’s more than being a good person and trying to make right decisions, but actually looking for opportunities to change behavior.”
For the mayor, this belief has been the backdrop for his leadership toward equity and inclusion in the city of LaGrange and the motivation behind the recent list of initiatives he presented to his city council. Thornton presented a nondiscrimination ordinance, a local hate crimes ordinance and the passage of a civil penalty for small marijuana possession, which “even in LaGrange disproportionately affects Black people and creates criminal records and prevents employment down the road,” he said.
The mayor also recommended placing signage on Confederate monuments that explains its origin and that the monument is not a current reflection of the city’s values in 2020. It’s Thornton’s hope that these initiatives will enhance the city’s existing community trust building efforts.
Thornton credited Georgia’s cities across the state, including Sandy Springs and Decatur, for making valiant strides to oppose racism, acts of injustice and intolerance, and to create equitable opportunities for their residents— regardless of their race, religion or beliefs.
In 2017, the city of Thomasville held a large community meeting called “Let’s Discuss…Inclusiveness.” Over 100 citizens participated in the session, which birthed another meeting in 2019. This two-day workshop trained 15 stakeholders in the Thomasville community to use the Reflective Structured Dialog (RSD) method.
According to the J.W. Fanning Institute of Training and Development, RSD builds the capacity of communities and organizations to engage, live and thrive despite their differences. By enabling people to have new conversations about the issues that matter deeply to them and remain in relationship, the approach creates a foundation for trust, resiliency and collaborative action.
“Our goal was that the participants would then use the skills gained from this session in their workplace and in other community groups in which they participate,” said Sherri Nix, public outreach manager for the city of Thomasville. “In return, we asked that they participate as a facilitator in future inclusiveness sessions.”
Nix also shared more on the city’s internal diversity and inclusion team of 20 city staff who have brainstormed methods to embrace all staff. Post the COVID-19 pandemic, the city plans to offer more “Let’s Discuss…Inclusiveness” sessions using community leaders who have already completed training.
Leaders in the city of Powder Springs have engaged the city’s 4P (Principals, Pastors, Parks and Police) program to spark community trust and engagement.
“The 4P program evolved from what started as a Bridge the Gap initiative to help build stronger relation- ships and trust between our community and our police department,” said Powder Springs Mayor Al Thurman, who served as a councilmember for 13 years before running for mayor. “That need clearly continues today and the group’s existence provides a strong foundation to help us make a change in our current environment.”
According to the mayor, this engagement program has grown to emphasize connections with the city’s youth and young adult populations. In addition, all pastors of our local churches and school administrators are invited to the program’s weekly meetings and encouraged to provide feedback from their spheres of influence and solutions to remedy community issues. The committee is planning a community forum, an agenda for embracing diversity and a sustainable plan to move forward.
“We cannot respond effectively and responsibly as leaders without understanding our community, actively listening to our community and taking deliberate steps to be inclusive,” Thurman said. “Distrust, hatred and intolerance affect our long-term sustainability and success. So, we must become aware of and acknowledge different cultures and demonstrate empathy. Without including all, we will be unable to thrive as a community.”
As the first Black mayor in Cobb County, Thurman has experienced the importance of the diversity and inclusion that the city’s 4P program seeks to address.
“The historical significance of my election is encouraging to many, and importantly demonstrates to anyone who aspires to be an elected official that integrity, hard work and perseverance do indeed provide us with the opportunity to bridge our diversity through common goals and shared values,” he said, while stressing that he was “elected by the people to serve everyone, and this service extends beyond any racial distinction.”
While these city officials are tackling social injustice and embracing diversity by using different methods, they all agree on the importance of open, genuine conversation with active listening, and encouraging residents and fellow leaders to remember that though some actions are uncomfortable, they are necessary for change.
“Don’t be reluctant to engage in this conversation,” Thornton said. “If we as mayors and city council members can lead and facilitate this dialog, it will spill out into the community and others will engage in those same conversations.”
“I think that both Black and White leaders sometimes have a reluctance to talk about these issues because we don’t know all the right language,” Thornton said, recounting times where he’s asked his peers for forgive- ness in advance when he may say the wrong words or not articulate as well, and to under- stand that he is coming to the racial equity conversation in good faith.
“In addition to people skills, the best leaders unify competing interests through effective listening, communication and compromise based on trust,” Thurman explained. “All leaders must have a ‘steady hand on the tiller.’ When waves crash the helm, as they will do, the community looks to us for confidence, composure, direction and strength to right the ship. We must rise to that challenge.”
Thurman also encouraged people of color to participate on more community boards and commissions.
“Be ready to commit to make change and do the hard work,” he said. “Come out and just be a part of the city. Sometimes it’s just a question of making yourself available. As with elected roles, diversity on local boards and commissions can bring a wealth of good ideas and solutions.”