By Michael Yakawich
February 15, 2022, UNITED STATES—After a year of preparation, Global Peace Foundation (GPF) USA launched phase two of the Cross-Community Reconciliation (CCR) project in Billings, Montana. The unique cross-cultural and community-based program utilizes GPF’s international peacebuilding experience to build bridges across racial lines in a diverse region of Montana in the United States.
The CCR pilot project was completed in 2020 amidst a global pandemic. Local stakeholders met once again in January 2022 after a new robust group of facilitators and participants were confirmed for the second phase. The meeting was comprised of an assortment of esteemed companies including representatives from Billings City Council, Native American tribal leaders, a local County Commissioner, teachers, mental health counselors, and pastors.
“Look around this table,” said Commissioner Denis Pitman, “We have almost all races represented here. Who would imagine thirty years ago that this would happen? What we are doing here is all part of this reconciliation.”
Phase 1 of the CCR project focused on two major groups in 2020: Native American and Non-Native. This year in Phase 2, the CCR project is intentionally building deeper understanding and relationships between people who identify as Native, Hispanic, Black, and White or “other.”
Michele Terry, the wife of a pastor and herself a Hispanic leader in the community, commented, “We are more alike than different. We are all part of the human race.”
“We need to go beyond stigma and prejudice on what a culture is or should be,” concurred Mr. Leonard Smith, Director of the Native American Development Corporation.
Cross-Community Reconciliation is a truly collaborative grassroots effort to reduce racial discrimination and increase empathy and understanding. It intentionally draws together people from diverse racial identities as well as a variety of professions and ensures the inclusion of representatives from government, local businesses, universities, law enforcement, and non-profits.
Jim Ronquillo, a Hispanic leader in the Billings community and former City Councilman, attended the launching event as a guest speaker. He shared on the heartbreak he experienced as a young Hispanic member of the community when signs were placed in some businesses that said, “No Mexicans Allowed.”
Mr. Ronquillo was excited to be a part of the CCR project, encouraging the participants to be open-minded and patient.
From what I understand here in this Cross-community Reconciliation project, you will be challenged and given the opportunity to learn from each other’s cultures and races. I want to encourage education as a great stepping stone in learning and working together in addressing discrimination. Education helps us get to learn about other ethnic groups, communicate better with other ethnic groups, and learn of their challenges and success…We need to start someplace. I wish you all can learn from each other, perhaps find ways to work together and I hope you gain some deeper friendships along the way.
The launching event also included a vibrant community mapping exercise where participants were able to visually portray their perception of the local community, compare it with their fellow community members, and leave the table with a new view and understanding.
Participants shared their experience:
“I want to make the community better not just for myself but for my own children. When I walk down the street, I want to say hello to you and you to me. We are not so different from each other and need to treat each other with respect and love… like we are doing here in this project.” —JC Beaumont
“I work with a lot of kids at our Boys and Girls Club. I want them to grow up in a city where we respect all colors, all races, all cultures. I am invested in this project because I see that we can make a difference. This project gives me a lot of hope.” —Tracy Star
“I know my color is different from many here. Yet, I feel welcomed here in this room. I know each of us are of various shades of color. I know we can learn and experience that we are all of one family.” —Isaac Olungura
“You know my accent tells people I am from someplace else. Yet, when we speak with each other and listen, we could say we are from the same place, a home and family. We are not that much different and this is what I have been learning here.” —Yuliya Johnson
Over the next several months, the four racial groups will meet separately to challenge their perceptions, stereotypes, and misunderstandings based on their racial and ethnic backgrounds before coming back together in the “contact stage.” They will engage in difficult conversations and interactive activities to foster deeper relationships aided by a trained group of facilitators.