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A Rural County Finds Unity in Diversity

By Donna Chavis on March 4th, 2016

I recently had the opportunity to listen in on a presentation by religious scholar and author Andrew Harvey. In his presentation, he shared a quote that resonated with me. He said, “Light comes through many different colored windows, but it is always the same light.” As I reflected on the role that community context plays in helping communities become healthier, that quote kept coming back to me.

As a child, stained glass was magical to me because of the rainbows I spotted as the light shined through. I wondered whether light flowed through both directions and if so, did the light ever blend? Now, these were the musings of a child who would later go on to understand the physical properties of light and glass and how refraction creates rainbows. Harvey’s statement reminded me of the sense of magic that can still be found within science. And over the four decades that I have worked to support community change, I’ve learned that the change process is a mix of magic and science as well.

When we began the work of the Center for Community Action 35 years ago in Robeson County, NC, there were no local, pre-existing models of change for us to follow. As a historically tri-racial county, multi-racial community work had not been a part of our county’s history. Instead, there was a deep history of division. Robeson County is the largest county in North Carolina and the most racially diverse rural county in the United States (Flora, Flora, Spears, & Swanson, 1992). Unfortunately, it is also one of the most economically and socially distressed. Despite these factors, the Center for Community Action has seen success by seeking to unify this diverse community.

Early in the Center’s work, we were tasked with developing a conceptual model directly out of the field and within that divided context. We framed the model with community needs at the center, which meant taking the time to include community members from the outset and get their input on which issues to address. Our campaign to prevent a toxic waste facility from locating on Robeson County’s Lumber River is one successful example. With a county so large, inclusive meetings were a challenge. But one of the main goals in our work was to make sure that all could participate. The Center’s inclusive process of organizing clusters of groups across the county in order to facilitate engagement resulted in the most highly attended public hearing in our county’s history. Over 3,000 citizens were there, spanning race, class, gender, age and geographic differences. Many of them arrived in a parade led by indigenous drummers and even gathered for a community cookout across the street from the hearing location.

Like light through stained glass windows, our insights have flowed both ways. Community members and our partners shared authentic concern and interest in building a healthier community for all citizens. The social learning that we built up together had to occur in order for the organization and the community to understand each other’s priorities and challenges.

When we look at a rainbow, we focus on all the colors simultaneously. We are amazed by the beauty of the unity that can be found in multi-colored diversity. Yes, there is unity in the beauty of diversity. And there is also diversity in the beauty of our unity—it flows both ways. That is the insight, or light, that we have gained from four decades of community action in one of the most diverse, rural communities in the country. It is our respect for unity that provides the power to respect, honor and wed our refracted diversity.

Donna Chavis

Chair, Active Living By Design Advisory Board

Donna Chavis is a co-founder of the Center for Community Action, a social change nonprofit based in Lumberton, NC.