After a presidential campaign season fraught with polarizing discussions about race, Montgomery County residents gathered Saturday morning for the county’s fifth annual Dialogue on Race.
More than 100 people attended the winter summit at the CrossPointe Foursquare Conference Center in Christiansburg to discuss race-related advocacy undertaken by issue groups throughout the year.
Dr. Wornie Reed, director of Virginia Tech’s Race and Social Policy Center, began the conference with a brief history of race issues in Montgomery County.
From slavery to the difficulties of integrating schools in the region, Reed reminded the audience that the discussions would be focusing on the impact racism continues to have on the lives of black residents in Montgomery County.
“And so, we are not talking about niceties, what a person thinks or feels, we are talking about life or death,” Reed said.
Among other community leaders, Montgomery County Sheriff Hank Patin, Blacksburg Police Chief Anthony Wilson and Christiansburg Police Chief Mark Sisson were in attendance.
After Reed’s opening remarks, issue groups presented reports on their progress since the last summit.
Each group works on one of the following issues: law enforcement, education, jobs and employment, income gap, white privilege and Jim Crow orientations, and the limited presence of African Americans on local boards and commissions.
Wilson presented an update for the law enforcement issue group, highlighting a new scholarship program called “Books to Badges” which local law enforcement is starting in order to increase recruitment of minority officers.
“We decided to look very closely at barriers to becoming a police officer in Montgomery County,” Wilson said, adding that he believes the scholarship will help increase the number of black law enforcement offers in the county in order to better reflect the county’s demographics.
The program will cover two years of tuition costs at New River Community College and connect participants with a mentor on a local law enforcement team. During the two years, participants must complete 80 hours of community service per year.
If participants choose to pursue a career in law enforcement after the first two years, Wilson said the scholarship will cover the additional cost of attending a police academy.
Dr. Mark Miear, the Montgomery County Public Schools superintendent, reviewed progress and challenges for the education issue group.
Miear said that graduation rates for black students and minority employee hires are both increasing, while disciplinary action taken against black students has fallen over the past couple years. However, Miear noted that there are still gaps between black and white student achievement.
Miear said he gained valuable experience improving student outcomes while he was a principal at Heritage High School in Lynchburg, which had a 53 percent graduation rate among its black students when he became principal. Within five years, however, Miear said the graduation rate increased to over 80 percent.
“The only way you can get better is by being intentional,” Miear said. “We’ve got to be intentional.”
This was a sentiment echoed by audience members during lunch and the issue group action planning session that followed.
“Race is something we deal with everyday, but to talk about it, it doesn’t happen unless you make it happen,” said Penny Franklin, a MCPS board member.
Craig Arthur, a member of the New River Valley’s Showing Up for Racial Justice chapter, agreed that it can be difficult to broach the subject of race.
“Sometimes there’s a chilling effect when you’re talking about diversity issues with white people,” Arthur said.
Bringing people from different backgrounds together to address race, however, is one of the goals of the summit.
“It takes all of us to move things forward in a positive way,” Franklin said.