Bringing the Races Together

Jun 15, 2009

Our Project Milwaukee: Black and White series continues this morning, with a report on a program that brings together professionals of different races. The idea is to increase understanding among the races, in hopes they'll influence their workplace and the larger community. However, some claim the program only scratches the surface. WUWM's Ann-Elise Henzl has more.

It's not uncommon to see white and black co-workers joining each other for lunch in downtown Milwaukee, such as at the Zeidler Square farmers market.

Ann-Elise Henzl: "In your workplace, is it pretty integrated?"

First woman: "Yes, yes it is."

Henzl: "Do you agree?"

Second woman: "Yes."

Women together: "We have seminars every now and then, we have diversity training -- they're really good with that."

While these women are friends outside of work, Genyne Edwards claims many workplace relationships between blacks and whites are superficial. Edwards hopes the program she runs, called Mosaic, helps form real friendships and trust.

Mosaic brings together business executives, community leaders and others in Milwaukee. After they fill out a survey, they're put in pairs -- usually someone who's white with someone who's black.

"We laugh and joke, it's kind of like or eHarmony," Edwards says.

Edwards says the survey helps pair participants, based on the things they're passionate about.

"It asks a lot of questions about background, about interests, about religious affiliation, hobbies, and from that information people are then paired with someone that is similarly situated," Edwards says.

The Mosaic pairs are asked to meet once a month, for nine months. It's hoped they go beyond networking -- and actually learn to trust each other, or even become friends. In addition, all the participants get together in a larger group, to talk frankly about issues of race and prejudice.

Edwards says when people complete the program, it's hoped they incorporate a fresh perspective on race into their lives. She says there have been success stories.

"We had several organizations who decided to take on a new policy for their board of directors where they will increase diversity by a certain percentage. People who are looking at their hiring decisions and saying, 'Hey -- our workforce is not reflective of the community and we need to start to look at how we might be able to make some changes over time,'" Edwards says.

The Greater Milwaukee Foundation started the Mosaic program three years ago, after it held conversations on race. Private donations pay for the program, which runs from September through May.

Deborah Fugenschuh is one of 500 people who've completed Mosaic.

"I was paired with a woman, someone I knew professionally, but it was fun to get to know her as an individual, to get to know about her family, to share my family. We went to events together, we continued to have breakfasts and lunch on an ongoing basis," Fugenschuh says.

Fugenschuh, who's white, is president and CEO of the Donors Forum of Wisconsin. She believes Mosaic can help break down the racial barriers that she says endure in Milwaukee.

Not everyone who enrolled in the program is as positive. Ruben Hopkins dropped out after just a few meetings.

"I just thought it was like square dancing, kind of hokey," Hopkins says.

Hopkins, who is black, is president and CEO of the Wisconsin Black Chamber of Commerce. He says he appreciates the effort behind Mosaic, but he doesn't believe it will change basic underlying issues, such as a lack of business opportunities for African Americans -- something Hopkins blames on racism.

"It was so that we would be less suspicious of each other but it wasn't so that the white guy who I was talking to would give me a job, or I would get him a job if I had been in that position. It was just an opportunity for us to do some cross-culture interaction, and beyond that I'm not sure how effective it is," Hopkins says.

Hopkins says minorities don't need conversation -- they need things like more political clout, and access to capital, to start their own businesses.

Genyne Edwards of the Mosaic program acknowledges it's not a panacea.

"We were very clear about this in the very beginning that Mosaic was not going to solve all the problems of Milwaukee. It's not large enough and that was not the goal of the program," Edwards says.

But Edwards says the program is part of a growing conversation about ending racism -- and the problems that follow on its heels. In fact, several other organizations have followed Mosaic's lead, and are bringing together blacks and whites to talk about race relations.