By Ralph Heibutzki
October 12, 2009
Now marking 10 years since its founding, the Race Relations Council of
Southwest Michigan remains committed to changing racial attitudes – one
conversation at a time.

That decade has certainly seen its highs and lows – from the Benton
Harbor Arts District’s creation to the 2003 riots that rocked the Twin
Cities, council member Larry Feldman recalls.

"Businesses who might have been interested in investing in Benton
Harbor were put off by that (event). But I think we’re far enough away
now, that the mood is more upbeat," he said.

Longtime member Lisa Peeples-Hurst, who also serves on the Michigan
Civil Rights Commission, agrees that the council’s collaborative ethic
is its best calling card.


"We recognized that we were a smaller group, and knew we were going to have to find a vehicle for all of our energy," she said.

Council members have certainly learned much about each other, as
well as the area, said retired Andrews University chemistry professor
Bill Mutch. He and his wife, Pat, will end their council involvement
when they move to California in a few months.

"One of the things in our discussions was how often we thought very
similarly, which was a little surprising, because I probably had my
view, and they would have theirs," he said.

Getting people from different backgrounds to acknowledge each other
is only half the battle, said Pat Mutch, a former Andrews University
administrator and professor.

"One of the problems that I see in race relations is that people
don’t understand the different cultures, and where people may be coming
from," she said.

The council’s most talked-about project came in 1999, when it
joined the Woodstock Institute, of Chicago, to study lending patterns
within the Twin Cities, based on data that lenders must submit to the
federal government, Feldman said.

"We heard a lot of homeowners in Benton Harbor complain that they
wanted to fix their houses up but couldn’t get a loan from the bank to
do it," he said.

Current Council President Angelique Joseph-Burnside felt the
results confirmed a long-held saying: "What happens in urban America
eventually bleeds out into suburban America."

Surprisingly little changed between the 1999 survey and a 2003
follow-up effort, which showed that Benton Harbor residents had more
trouble getting loans than their St. Joseph peers, Feldman said. The
survey also found subprime loans being marketed more aggressively in
Benton Harbor, he said.

Feldman can’t pin down the reasons for the apparent lack of
progress between both studies, although the council discussed the 1999
results with local bankers, he said.

However, Feldman believes the current climate may be more hopeful,
given all the development occurring in Benton Harbor. "The mood is
different today – I would hope, if we were to do this again, we would
find greater lending," he said.

Peeples-Hurst would like to revisit the lending issue, which fell off the radar for practical reasons, she said.

"Just like any grassroots organization, once you start getting
busy, those folks fall off, or they may send an official,"
Peeples-Hurst said. "It’s not the flavor of the moment, if you will."

There’s another side to that story, however, according to
Peeples-Hurst’s aunt, Gladys Peeples-Burks, who also serves on the

As a former Chemical Bank board member, Peeples-Burks served on its
loan application review committee, "and I was well aware of the efforts
that banks were making," she said.

In Peeples-Burks’s view, the credit boom’s collapse played out no differently here than elsewhere.

"We all want the neat little house with the picket fence, but,
realistically, if you don’t have the work history, if you don’t have
savings, you’re not grounded enough to realize what it (owning a home)
takes," she said.

The children lead

Members agree that the All God’s Children Community Choir –
directed by Larry Feldman and his wife, Sandy – is the most enduring
symbol of the council’s work.

"The most important thing about All God’s Children is that (it) is a multiracial, multicultural children’s choir," he said.

"Where children come together, parents will follow, and that was
the premise behind putting the choir together," Joseph-Burnside agrees.

The choir began in 2001, during the third year of an annual awards
program designed to recognize "people that weren’t really out there,
but were quietly making a difference," Peeples-Hurst said.

The awards also support two $500 scholarships at Lake Michigan
College. The money goes to students who show interest in promoting more
positive race relations or who actively work to do so, Feldman said.

Anniversaries inevitably prompt talk of what happens next, but Race
Relations Council members say they’re happy to work out their direction
one meeting at a time.

Joseph-Burnside believes that improved race relations and a
commitment to education are intertwined. Otherwise, "we cannot bring
industries that will allow us to gain equal employment," she said.

Peeples-Burks stresses the importance of putting the area’s best
foot forward, especially when it’s competing with neighbors such as
Saugatuck or South Haven.

"We certainly have what those areas have, and more so. But we need
to polish this part of that apple and make sure that people will want
to come here," she said.

Easing frustrations with the criminal justice system plays a part in that effort, Peeples-Burks said.

"Officers need to be very sensitive to the background that many of
these youngsters come from. I don’t mean necessarily cutting them
slack, so to speak, but certainly understanding cultural norms," she

Peeples-Hurst, on the other hand, feels that a comprehensive
approach is needed to rebuild Benton Harbor residents’ confidence in
its police department.

"You have to start with the system itself – it’s not one
individual, it’s not one case," Peeples-Hurst said. "We’re really
talking about a systematic change on some procedures and how things are

The Race Relations Council of Southwest Michigan meets at 6:30 p.m.
on the fourth Wednesday of every month at the Citadel Dance & Music
Center, 91 Hinkley St., Benton Harbor.

There is no application process, and anyone is welcome to join. For more information, visit or call Joseph-Burnside (269) 849-3803. For information about the choir, call the Feldmans at 469-0539.

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