Reflections from the Birthplace of Flight

“Why spend the day talking about trust?” asks Walter Rice, a senior U.S. District Court judge in Dayton, Ohio. “Because nothing less than the future viability of this community – economically, socially, and politically is at stake.”

I’ve just spent thirty-six hours consulting with a remarkable group of leaders in this Midwestern city who have sustained a Hope in the Cities dialogue on race relations for a decade. More than 3000 people have taken part.

Judge Rice, who is European American, and Judge Adele Riley, who is African American, are the co-chairs of the Dayton Dialogue on Race Relations. Their team includes the president/CEO of United Way, senior staff from two universities and a community college, business people, pastors, and community organizers.

My colleague Cricket White and I led a workshop to explore the role of trust in tackling key community issues. The sheriff, representatives of the housing and transport authorities, and health care providers were among the participants. The exchanges were frank but there was much careful listening.

Particularly revealing was a historical time line which identified events and public policy decisions since 1970 that have helped to build or to undermine trust.

Dayton, home to the Wright brothers, the pioneers of flight, has long been a birthplace of inventions: the parachute, cash register, movie projector, and microfiche to name but a few.  But in recent years it has seen a dramatic loss of its industrial base and a declining population. It is also deeply divided by race. In 1975, Dr. Charles Glatt, a school desegregation expert, was gunned down at the federal courthouse while working on a desegregation plan for the city’s schools.

Like many U.S. cities, Dayton is experiencing daunting challenges in the face of greatly reduced revenues. “We are a community with about thirty different government structures, little jurisdictions fighting over a finite number of jobs,” says Rice. “What we need is a community-wide dialogue on the best form of government for the twenty-first century, otherwise the marketplace will make the decisions for us. But we can’t begin to discuss this unless there is an element of trust.”

Rice and his colleagues are planning the next steps, including the use of a dialogue curriculum on race, economics, and jurisdiction developed by Hope in the Cities.  But what struck me most about Rice and his colleagues was the evident bonds of friendship and commitment that have sustained this diverse leadership group over many years. There is affection as well as honesty. I came away with the distinct feeling that this courageous and persistent team might come up with an approach to regional challenges that could be a model for other cities.