Joyce and Rev. Nelson Johnson
Join Leadership for a Changing World on Friday, October 21 for a live, online interview with Joyce and Rev. Nelson Johnson of the Beloved Community Center in Greensboro, NC, and 2005 Leadership for a Changing World award recipients. In addition to answering your questions, the Johnsons will discuss their efforts to use a Truth and Reconciliation Commission model to address a tragic event in the city's history, and move forward as a community strengthened by greater trust and unity.
The Johnsons and other community activists founded the Beloved Community Center (BCC) in Greensboro in 1991, in part to consolidate their work with the poor and disenfranchised in the city. BCC's success in a labor dispute between Kmart and its workers illustrates the group's inclusive approach. The disagreement centered on 500 employees, 61 percent of whom were African American, who accused the company of unfairness in pay and treatment. BCC organized a coalition - business leaders, workers, clergy, neighborhood leaders, union officials, and members of Asian and Latino communities. By reframing the issue from one of labor versus management to one of community justice, they were able to secure $6 million in pay increases and other benefits. In addition, the campaign spurred a town meeting with city leadership, grassroots leaders, the Chamber of Commerce, the mayor, and clergy to discuss how to ensure a living wage for Greensboro workers.
The Johnsons' most ambitious project is also their most challenging. In 1979, as a march for racial justice was about to begin in Greensboro, five marchers were killed and another 10 wounded. Two criminal cases failed to yield convictions, but a federal civil suit found Klan members, Nazis and Greensboro police liable for one death. Decades later, many prefer not to discuss the deaths, whose legacy has never been fully acknowledged or addressed. Nelson Johnson was a leader of the gathering, and was vilified by some as a march organizer. Searching for a way to discuss that long-buried episode and reach reconciliation, the Johnsons decided to use South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a model to reflect on the tragedy and learn its lessons. Though the process has not been easy, a diverse committee that includes representatives of the mayor, local churches, political parties, six colleges, and neighborhood groups continues to meet. The group conferred with South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and "committed to engage perhaps the most unpleasant memories and most difficult issues related to social justice this city has ever faced," the Johnsons write. "We are excited that this effort holds the promise of making something of a breakthrough in both the substance of human relations and in creating a method that can be applied in other cities in the nation."
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