The Near Northwest Neighborhood in South Bend, Indiana, would be a familiar place to many in rust-belt cities. It’s a diverse community that was built and thrived during an industrial boom that lasted 60 years. Over the 50 years since that boom time ended, the neighborhood has seen a major loss of population, significant amounts of blight, deteriorated and run-down homes, and increases in poverty, crime and overall economic distress. Yet, the neighborhood has been working to faithfully “turn the tide” and celebrates the strong and diverse community that resides here.
However, this celebration of diversity often stops at the surface of the deep and historic impacts of racism in the community. The neighborhood also struggles to speak gently, authentically and freely across race lines about the impacts of racism.
Setting in motion an environment for growth
Founded in 1974, the not-for-profit Near Northwest Neighborhood, Inc., is behind an effort to spark healing, compassion and understanding. In a challenge to the community’s ongoing divide, eight neighborhood leaders, including Sister Mary Turgi, CSC, came together in the summer of 2020. They envisioned creating a space for relationship building and frank dialogue about race relations. These conversations were made possible, in part, by the Ministry With the Poor Fund. The planning itself opened wounds of past tensions and traumas, but the goal was clear to all:
Sharing stories of our experiences with race and racism in the neighborhood, and hoping to increase understanding, build relationships, and set in motion an environment for growth and, ultimately, change.
At that time, the national community was reeling from the murder of George Floyd, and the local community was also still freshly wounded by the killing of a Black man, Eric Logan, by a white police officer.
The planning group set forth a trial run for an online gathering. Some members shared their nervousness and fear that tensions would run too high among neighbors in a discussion about race. However, the planning group chose to follow the model for restorative justice circles as a guide and method for holding the conversations. The focus would be on listening and equal access to talking space.
Fruits of Holy Cross
Every month, Fruits of Holy Cross shares the good news of the ministries of the Sisters of the Holy Cross. Our “fruits” are nourished not just by the sisters’ labors or the seed of faith planted by our founder Blessed Basil Anthony Moreau, they are watered by our many prayer partners, donors and benefactors—by you.
Seven-session series launched
The trial run was a success. Of the approximately 30 participants, many expressed eagerness to continue the effort. With this encouragement and a better understanding of the process, the planning group created a more ambitious seven-session series focused on conversations on race in the neighborhood. The series was open to anyone in the neighborhood.
Again, some planning group members from the Near Northwest Neighborhood expressed fear about political divides, racial divides and strong personalities potentially having undue influence on the sessions’ outcomes. About 50 neighbors indicated interest in the series; ultimately, 25–28 participants attended each session. Meeting online, the participants spent most of the time in small groups of about seven persons each. While the conversations often got personal and emotional, the circle process was a highly effective method for speaking with openness and authenticity, and for sharing one’s own truths. The planning group received a great amount of positive feedback to continue the gatherings and to explore how to build upon them. The support of the Ministry With the Poor fund and the ongoing community organizing leadership of Sister Mary allowed the neighborhood to plan more conversations that would help grow relationships from a place of deep woundedness.
Creating a safe space
“We have been greatly encouraged by the results of this work,” said Sister Mary. “While outcomes are always important, so too are the relationships that are encouraged to grow. With this seven-part series of community conversations, we are using the same circle process, shifting the focus to include conversations about how we see that racism has shaped our city, schools and current events. We are gaining confidence in the process, to know that the process itself creates a safe space for difficult emotions and stories to be expressed, heard and valued.”
The importance of dialogue with one another, even when there are sincere differences, was modeled by this initiative and suggests a path forward for communities struggling to overcome deep divisions.
Please consider a gift to Ministry With the Poor to help us continue the life-affirming work of addressing and healing issues of racism. Donate Now and select Ministry With the Poor in the “My gift is for” section. Thank you!