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New Race Relations Talks Set

Election: Sessions are modeled on last fall's Day of Dialogue. They will help avoid tension over anti-affirmative action measure, organizers say.

May 30, 1996|JANE GROSS | TIMES URBAN AFFAIRS WRITER

Concerned that an initiative on the November ballot to eliminate all state affirmative action programs could stoke tensions in Los Angeles, city officials are once again inviting Angelenos to come together at schools, workplaces and houses of worship for some frank discussion of race.

The citywide encounter groups, to be held Friday under the supervision of trained mediators, were organized by the city attorney's office and Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas and modeled on the Day of Dialogue that was hastily organized in October in the wake of the O.J. Simpson verdicts.

But this time around, the gatherings are meant to prevent angry outbursts rather than respond to them, and to provide continuing forums for discussion rather than simply one day of interracial give-and-take.

For Ridley-Thomas, an outspoken opponent of the ballot measure, the new round of discussion groups is an opportunity to tweak Mayor Richard Riordan for his refusal to take a stand on the popular initiative. And skeptics saw crude partisan politics in Wednesday's news conference at Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles, where Ridley-Thomas was flanked by six like-minded council members--Ruth Galanter, Jackie Goldberg, Mike Feuer, Rita Walters, Mike Hernandez and Joel Wachs.

Ridley-Thomas insisted that the gatherings are not intended as political platforms for supporters of affirmative action but rather as opportunities for people to air their feelings, listen to the views of others and thus avoid the misunderstandings that had widened the rift between the races during and after the Simpson trial.

"I am convinced that good things result from constructive communication in a safe, neutral environment," the councilman said. He added that the ballot measure, like the Simpson verdicts, raised "the ominous prospect" of further straining race relations in Los Angeles "unless we intervene in a constructive, proactive way."

Orna Johnson, an instructor of anthropology at UCLA who was training facilitators at the temple Wednesday, said that launching the small civic dialogues, at locations including the Museum of Tolerance, Southwest Community College and the Pacoima Senior Center, would not only help avert racial tension as election day approaches, but provide an infrastructure for dealing with it if it does.

"In case of unrest, we'll be in a position to do something," Johnson said. "There'll be a network of people and places to go so the anger doesn't get out of hand."

The Day of Dialogue concept, which attracted several thousand participants Oct. 24, has been expanded and refined.

Each group on Friday will be asked by its facilitator to reconvene for a total of five two-hour sessions, some about race relations in general and others about the history of affirmative action and conflicting views on its equity and efficacy.

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At Wednesday's daylong training session, volunteer mediators of various races, ethnicities and professions were given a workbook with five sections, each including general topics for discussion, illustrative case studies and role-playing games to stimulate candid exchange. The training last time was a slapdash two-hour affair.

The expanded curriculum was assembled by a consortium of experts. Some came from the city's long-standing dispute resolution program, headed by Avis Ridley-Thomas, the councilman's wife. Some came from the Study Circles Resource Center, a Connecticut-based foundation that has organized similar round tables in cities across the country.

The new material, on affirmative action, was contributed by Carol Peterson, a vice provost at UCLA who teaches a course on the subject. And the Rand Corp. added a role-playing game developed at the Santa Monica think tank, in which participants, armed with pertinent sections of the California initiative and federal civil rights law, brainstorm about how a municipality might ensure a diverse work force if affirmative action was outlawed.

Although all the sites for Friday's discussion have yet to be determined, Ridley-Thomas said he was cheered by the broad geographic reach compared to last year, when just two groups were convened outside the core areas of the city. This time, meetings will be held at sites including a church in Santa Monica, a community center in Canoga Park, a high school in Westchester and a council office in Reseda.

Since the list of participating organizations is growing daily, organizers said anyone interested in attending can get up-to-date information on television Channel 35, on the city's Internet Web site (http://www.ci.la.ca.us) or by telephoning (213) 485-8271.

Ridley-Thomas added that he is in the process of forming an organization, with its own staff, that will convene similar study circles in the future on a range on subjects, such as sexual harassment, domestic violence and welfare reform.

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