Community conversation: Gayle leads town hall meeting on diversity

Roxana Pop | Staff Photographer
Helene Gayle (front left), Joan Brown Campbell and Dwight Andrews listen to an audience member’s question during the Interfaith Lecture Friday in Hall of Philosophy.

The original plan was for Helene Gayle to deliver the final Interfaith Lecture on Week Three’s theme, “Emancipation: Where Do We Go from Here?” Instead, she brought two friends with her to the podium, the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell and the Rev. Dwight Andrews, and they included the audience in a conversation about diversity at Chautauqua Institution.

Gayle is president and CEO of CARE USA, an international humanitarian organization that combats poverty by influencing policy decisions, delivering relief in emergency situations and equipping women to be leaders in their communities.

Campbell is the director of Chautauqua Institution’s Department of Religion. She has a long history as a leader in the Institution’s interfaith movement, as well as in the civil rights movement — she worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. Andrews is a musician and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ in Atlanta, where Gayle attends services.

The proposed building of the Martin Luther King Jr. House was a focus of the conversation. Gayle described it as a center for promoting diversity, inclusion and social justice, as well as a place that would help bring people with diverse backgrounds to Chautauqua.

In their comments and questions, many of the audience members showed support for building the Martin Luther King Jr. House, though they didn’t hold back from being critical.

“I think we need to know what the goal is,” one audience member said. “To my mind, the goal is not to have more black people here; it is to have more black and white people interface.”

One man commented that the responsibility for promoting diversity should not fall solely on Chautauqua’s leadership. He recommended that visitors to the Institution bring diversity themselves by inviting friends and colleagues.

Another audience member didn’t like the proposed name for the house.

“To me, ‘[Martin Luther King House]’ implies ‘black,’ ” he said. “That’s not diversity. … Would it not be better to name the house ‘Diversity House?’ ”

In response, Andrews said, “In 2013, it would really be a great tragedy if we think of the ‘Martin Luther King House’ as being the ‘Black House.’ … We still keep Martin Luther King in a box. That’s what race does; you’re keeping him in a box. And in fact, the profundity of his message was, ‘Let’s get rid of the box,’ that we might understand one another better.”

Other comments were made by Sydney Maltese, the Christian coordinator for Chautauqua’s Abrahamic Program for Young Adults, and Jawanza Colvin, a pastor at Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland.

Maltese recommended that there be diversity training for both the Institution staff and interested visitors.

After noting that a dialogue on diversity is also taking place in black communities, Colvin challenged Chautauquans.

“[Chautauqua] is one of the few places where this high level of nuanced, in-depth, complex conversation can take place,” he said, “so I really challenge this community to continue to do that because I think … we need something more than what we see on television and cable news.”

While there was not enough time for the panelists to respond to every audience member, Gayle said that all the comments and questions would be recorded and taken into account in later meetings.

Gayle gave the last word at the lecture-turned-town-hall-meeting.

“This is beyond a house,” Gayle said. “Whether it’s called MLK House or whether it’s called the house for social justice, we want to have something that can unite us for these kinds of discussions.”