The Bulloch County Beloved Community Steering Committee is inviting everybody to the kickoff Saturday of a new "Bridging the Gap" series of events aimed at creating understanding and inclusion across differences and "beyond the Blue Mile."
With games designed to get people better acquainted and food for snacking donated by local restaurants, the kickoff is scheduled for 2 p.m. till 4 p.m. in the Honey Bowen Building community room at Fair Road Park. It's free, but organizers ask that anyone planning to attend let them know through the event posting on the group's Facebook page or by emailing BullochBelovedCommunity@gmail.com.
The Beloved Community group recognizes that Statesboro and Bulloch County have a lot of diversity among their people, said Stacy Smallwood, the committee's moderator.
"Sometimes it can be difficult for us to talk across those lines of difference," he said. "And so our goal with Bridging the Gap is to provide spaces for people to come together across these different lines to talk with each other, learn from each other about different lived experiences, have opportunities to reflect on those differences and move forward in a way that helps to promote empathy and people wanting to take action to make our community more inclusive."
The Beloved Community Steering Committee takes its name from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s call "to create a beloved community."
Local volunteers launched their effort in late 2014 with a focus on trust, doubts and perceptions between African-American residents and law enforcement officers. This culminated in an all-day facilitated group listening event in August 2015, where officers and community members voiced their views. In May 2016, the committee released a report on concerns that had been identified, keeping the individual speakers anonymous.
With the so-far less formal Bridging the Gap series, the organizers hope to host a new event on a different topic each month and hope that kickoff participants will return for these. At this point, the committee has not released the topics but plans to announce the first topic and the time and place of the next event during the kickoff.
The committee has identified "fault lines that can exist in any community," again with the goal of building empathy and inclusion to overcome these, Smallwood said.
Blue Mile and beyond
In a July 27 invitation letter to community leaders and influencers, the Beloved Community group invoked the Blue Mile Plan for the revitalization of South Main Street. This plan, developed by a different group of local volunteers, won a $1 million third-place national prize in the corporate funded America's Best Communities Competition for the newly formed Blue Mile Foundation Inc., which is carrying on the work of the Blue Mile Committee.
"Through 'Bridging the Gap,' we invite you to help make living here even better," stated the Beloved Community letter signed by Smallwood. "We hope that our mutual efforts will help us achieve 'unity in vision' - one of the key parts of the Blue Mile's True Blue plan - and that unity will spread beyond Main Street to touch everyone across Bulloch's various communities."
Beloved Community organizers had invited lawyer Bob Mikell, a Blue Mile Committee member and frequent spokesman, to share information about the plan with an emphasis on the affordable housing and neighborhood revitalization components. In turn, they told him about the overall Beloved Community effort and the Bridging the Gap series.
"From its start, the Blue Mile project has been about bringing the community closer together and making stronger connections," Mikell wrote in a reply email to the newspaper. "I am excited that individuals are working to make this community an even better place to live by bringing people together and seeking to Bridge the Gap. This sense of community is one of many reasons that we were selected as a winner in the America's Best Communities Competition."
During Saturday's kickoff, Beloved Community organizers will explain the overall effort and the series, said Suzanne Shurling, a steering committee member assigned to communications.
The event will also include fun activities designed to help participants learn more about each other.
One icebreaker game will be human bingo, where participants interview one another to fill in facts about others present, such as who has the youngest child, has a tattoo or was born in a certain state, Shurling said.
Another planned activity is a "social barometer." This "allows you to see how similar you are to people you may not have expected and maybe how different you are from people you would have thought you were similar to," Shurling said.
Olive Garden and El Jalapeno are donating food, she said.
Smallwood is an assistant professor in the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health at Georgia Southern University. Shurling is a conference and event planner with the university's Continuing Education Division, particularly for the Coastal Georgia Center in Savannah.
But with Beloved Community, they are community volunteers. Other steering committee members named on the recent letter are Kathryn Kaufmann, W.T. Herring, Adrianne McCollar, Janice Cawthon, Jane Page, Dixie Aubrey and Laura Milner. James "Bubba" Revell is the committee's law enforcement liaison, and Laura Agnich is its liaison to the university.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.