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    Leaders meet to focus on better race relations

    By ALICIA CALDWELL, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 15, 2002

    ELLENTON -- About 70 community leaders from the Tampa Bay area gathered at a conference center in Ellenton on Thursday for what organizers hoped would be a frank discussion on race relations.

    The event was conducted by the National Conference for Community and Justice, which also was a sponsor along with the St. Petersburg Times and Time Warner Communications. The daylong conference was designed to bring together decision makers to talk about racism and come up with ways to tackle the problem.

    "We have prominent people in corporations, foundations and education," said Roy Kaplan, executive director of the National Conference for Community and Justice, based in St. Petersburg. "We want to create an environment where people feel safe and comfortable and can share."

    The chief judge for the Pinellas-Pasco circuit, David Demers, said he chose to attend to hear what others had to say about issues he always has considered important.

    "I hope I'll learn some things that will help me be more effective in making others aware," Demers said. "I may find out some things about the judiciary that I didn't know. And they may be things I should know as chief judge."

    Darlene Kalada, executive director of the Housing Finance Authority of Pinellas County, said she also hoped to come away with ideas of how she might spread the knowledge she would gain.

    "There's a void right now in understanding different cultures," she said.

    The conference, held at the DaySpring Episcopal Conference Center, featured an approximately three-hour documentary called The Color of Fear, made by Lee Mun Wah, a filmmaker from Oakland, Calif.

    Mun Wah said he was hopeful that the documentary, which follows eight people as they discuss racial beliefs and stereotypes, would prompt those attending to be similarly forthright.

    "I'd like them to get into the colors of their fears -- to talk about it," he said. "I'd like them to talk about their stereotypes, their prejudices. Where do we get these? They don't just come out of the air."

    By the end of the day, attendees were to come up with something Kaplan was calling a "personal action plan," a confidential letter written to one's self.

    Attendees were to state the problem they want to address and tell how they'd fix it. Participants would receive their own letter in the mail six weeks later so they could compare their intentions with what had transpired.

    The trouble with the conference, said Perkins Shelton, a longtime civil rights activist from St. Petersburg and an organizer of the retreat, is that the people who are most likely to attend are those who least need such an exercise.

    "I've been to many of these symposiums and meetings over the years," Shelton said. "There are lots of people who I don't see who should be here."

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