Racial trustbuilding in Georgia

I recently returned from visiting a remarkable initiative in LaGrange, a city of about 30,000 in Troup County, an hour’s drive south of Atlanta. For the past six years, a diverse group has been working steadily to heal historical wounds, engage in honest conversation and build partnerships.

Chalton Askew, the executive director of Trustbuilding Inc. Troup County, hosted me for two days of events with community leaders. I first met Chalton when he came to Richmond, VA to take part in the Community Trustbuilding Fellowship (CTF), a five-part leadership formation program of Initiatives of Change. I interviewed him six months ago when he told me how that experience had enabled him to model the quality of life needed to bridge racial divides in LaGrange. In recent years, several hundred people from different sectors have taken part in local trustbuilding workshops organized by Chalton and his colleagues, five of whom also trained in Richmond.

Mayor Jim Thornton (left)

The first event was an informal dinner discussion with the Trustbuilding Board. Mayor Jim Thornton and Police Chief Louis Dekmar, as well as Ernest Ward, the president of the Troup County NAACP, and Paul “Tripp” Penn III, president of the Callaway Foundation, shared some of their work.

Dekmar said when he first heard about the Trustbuilding training he was not interested. “I’d had racial sensitivity training ad nauseum. But when I looked at the list of people who were taking part, I changed my mind.” I was particularly impressed with Chief Dekmar’s description of important reforms he has implemented. LaGrange is one of the first US police forces to adopt a policy that gives officers an option to “shoot to wound, but not kill” in situations where deadly force is necessary.

Chief Louis Dekmar

Dekmar also mentioned common sense approaches to minor offenses. “When we pull someone over for a broken tail light, we hand them a coupon for a new lightbulb instead of a violation ticket.” When they are aware that a student has experienced some domestic trauma or been involved in a late night incident, the police send a “handle with care” message to the school. “That way, if the student falls asleep or in some way misbehaves, it is treated as a mental health, not a discipline issue.”

When Black Lives Matter announced a protest rally in the downtown square, Ernest Ward at the NAACP consulted with Mayor Thornton and Chief Dekmar. Instead of a show of force, the police just sent two officers to hand out water. Dekmar says that all of his supervisors now take part in trustbuilding training. He made national news in January 2017 for his public apology to Ernest Ward for a lynching 77 years earlier when a Black man was dragged from a jail cell by masked white men.

One African American participant at the dinner told how he had returned to LaGrange after many years away. At a community event, he greeted a white man, “Hello, George!” George was surprised. “How do you know my name?” He responded, “I’m Robert. My mother used to work for you, doing yard work and we kids helped her.” George felt bad that he had never noticed Robert as a young man, but the two became the best of friends and are now working on a community project together. A Black leader spoke of his experience with the Trustbuilding team. “I’ve been in the military and in law enforcement. This is the first time I’ve sat with white people on the big issues.”

While in LaGrange I spoke to some 120 people at the monthly Chamber of Commerce breakfast, and facilitated a discussion with the 2021 Troup County Leadership class. Carl Von Epps, a former state legislator who also pastors a church, hosted a community event. Epps is a founder of the Troup County program and was one of the first leaders who came to Richmond to participate in the Fellowship. At all of the events I shared how the Trustbuilding model is taking root across the world, and that the Troup County experiences could be an inspiration for other communities.

Speaking at the Chamber of Commerce breakfast

Troup County Trustbuilding Inc. is entirely supported by local contributions, notably by the Callaway Foundation, a family foundation that has been engaged in philanthropy for decades, area businesses, local governments, and by LaGrange College which offers space for the training sessions. Trainers from Richmond are contracted to lead workshops and to train and mentor a team of local trainers and facilitators. It’s a model of how a community can take ownership of the core principles and practices of Richmond’s CTF and shape it to their specific needs.

The Leadership Troup County class

Ernest Ward of the NAACP, an educator who is running for a seat as a county commissioner, said to me, “Your book Trustbuilding has transformed my life. Whenever we run into difficulties with our program, I say, ‘Go back to the book!'”

La Grange has an increasingly international outlook. A massive Kia assembly plant – the only one in the US – is just down the road. The city website carries the slogan, “City inspired. Globally connected.”