Local group leaders advocate for bridging racial division with hope

January 7, 2021 chris
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Pictured above, Be the Bridge founder Latasha Morrison, sits in front with fellow BTB members. Pictured from left on the back row: Teresa Crowder, Brandie Johnson, Deborah Beverly, Sue Johnson, Jeigh Carstarphen, Mandy Lindsey, Jennifer Strawn and Diann Cylar.

By Katie Bohannon, News Editor

In the midst of nationwide division, one group commits itself to unity.

Etowah County residents and Be the Bridge group leaders Diann Cylar and Brandie Johnson are striving towards a future enriched with hope, enlightening perspectives and advocating for change within the community they call home.

Johnson was first introduced to Be the Bridge via the Christian women’s conference IF: Gathering, which invited Be the Bridge founder and president Latasha Morrison to speak. At that time, Be the Bridge provided a free, downloadable discussion guide to aid people within the church to have conversations about race, acknowledging the church’s segregated history. The guide offered an outline of topics and questions to spark discussion among Christians from different backgrounds. 

Johnson worked with a woman who attended the same church as Cylar. The pair began speaking on how to bring the two groups of women together to implement discussions on diversity into their lives. Johnson expressed that she and Cylar instantly connected. While Johnson and Cylar both understood the difficulty of broaching certain topics, following the tragic death of Eric Garner in 2014, they knew the time to come together was long overdue.

Be the Bridge’s local chapter originated as women sitting down at a table with one another and sharing conversations. Throughout the years, the discussion groups have evolved and sprouted new members, but the core purpose remains the same: to share differences in a trustworthy environment, to listen for understanding and to strive towards an ongoing goal of unity and mutual respect for every culture.

Both Cylar’s and Johnson’s differences in background and culture introduce alternative perspectives that can prove insightful and beneficial for the group’s facilitation. Despite their contrasting pasts, Cylar and Johnson emerge unified in their passionate commitment to nurturing an appreciation for diversity and growth within themselves and their community.

“That’s why we make such a good team,” said Johnson. “That’s why it’s designed that the facilitators of these groups be from different races.”

Involved in the Civil Rights Movement during her early teenage years, then serving during her adulthood on two separate race relations committees in Gadsden, Cylar’s contributions to racial equality have proved lifelong.

“I always had this desire to want unity and to come together,” said Cylar. “It’s always been my heart that if you treat people right, they’ll treat you right. I had to learn it wasn’t that easy. I thought I was paving the way so that things would be better for my younger siblings, neighbors and friends. A lot of years go by, and we’re still in the same space. Something had to happen to make some changes.”

Growing up surrounded with sameness, Johnson felt an ever-present longing for more diversity in her life – diversity of thought and people alike. As Johnson attend primarily white schools and church services, she discovered that lack in her personal life did not coincide with the message of unity she heard preached. The concept of unity, Johnson noted, proves easier to adopt when everyone already holds the same perspective. When differences are introduced and biases are exposed, unity becomes a murkier concept to achieve.

A decade ago, Johnson prayed and sought God for an answer – a path illuminating diversified unity.

Little did she know at the time that Cylar did the same.

“In John 17, Jesus prays for the future of believers,” said Johnson. “Part of that prayer is that they would be one, so that the world would know that God sent him. I thought, if it’s that important for us to be one, it’s worth pursuing. I didn’t know how it would work, but I’ve always known that I can live in a world surrounded by sameness and go throughout my life not knowing that I’m missing out. It’s really something I’m thankful the Lord showed me early on – that I’m missing out on part of the world He designed…the kingdom of God. [Without diversity] my life is less than what it could be, if I only surround myself with people that look like me. Diversity has always been something I’ve desired and I knew that it was really part of how God designed us. When I heard about Be the Bridge, it connected for something I’d been praying about for some years.”

During their meetings, Cylar and Johnson foster countless topics of discussion, all relevant to individuals maneuvering throughout society today. The groups address subjects like systemic racism, white privilege and proximity through a spiritual lens, examining deep-rooted issues via a Christian perspective. Yet while Cylar and Johnson facilitate conversations surrounding major matters, the women create a safe space where participants feel comfortable to share their own personal stories and emotions.

“One of the things I wanted to express (in one of the meetings Brandie and I participated in) was to really see me,” said Cylar. “Not to look at the color of my skin and say, ‘I don’t see color.’ No, I want you to see me and see who I am and know my worth – to listen to my story. We found that conversations are so important, but it’s hard work. It’s not an easy work, and you have to be willing to do the work. You have to have a posture of humility to humble yourselves before each other and really listen to what the other person is saying, so that you can feel what they have gone through and the things that have happened in their lives.”

While the ‘I don’t see color’ mantra of years past emerged as an opposing philosophy to racism, Cylar and Johnson both addressed that acknowledging race and valuing a person’s difference in experiences and culture is the best way to learn and grow. Johnson noted that one crucial result of these discussions is the change that develops in individuals. She herself expressed the importance of proximity, or a closeness in relationship, to individuals who differ from herself.

Johnson’s own friendships with people of color furthered her motivation to emerge as an ally and encourage the work to continue. She shared the change she witnessed within herself, just regarding systemic racism within healthcare in relation to COVID-19. As she watches statistics scrolling on her television screen, those percentages are not meaningless to her anymore – each number represents a person she loves.

“When you hear stories of people you know and love and care about, and they express their feelings about something or their experience with it, it just becomes more real,” said Johnson.

“That’s a part of our [white] privilege, that so many of us don’t know what people of color have to deal with,” said Johnson. “We can choose whether to think about it or talk about it, and that’s a privilege that people of color don’t get to choose. They have to consider race every day, where I could easily walk away from the conversation. As a white person, you don’t have to if you don’t want to. When I think about that, and I’ve heard so many stories from my friends of color, I just think about how exhausting that has to be and how weary that has to get – just having that extra emotional labor of always having to consider your race.”

Be the Bridge provides an introductory course for beginners desiring to join the discussion. While Johnson encourages white people interested in participating to listen openly to complete Be the Bridge’s curriculum first, she also offers some insight into implanting more diversity in individuals’ lives. She expressed that the best way to get started is to choose to elevate voices of color through friendships, literature and podcasts.

Cylar noted that both their roles have evolved throughout the years, transforming into natural leadership positions. As Johnson acclimates white participants to difficult discussions, Cylar prepares people of color to join the conversation, welcoming them to a protected environment where their voices will be heard and respected.

Although Cylar and Johnson have learned countless and priceless lessons throughout their years of partnership, the pair shared a few key points that stood out in their minds.

“I remember initially when one of the ladies of color shared something, one of the white members might respond with, ‘Maybe it wasn’t about your race, maybe it was this or that,’” said Johnson. “The first couple of times it happened, I was scared to address it because I didn’t want to push that person away. I wanted it to be a place where both people could wrestle that out and talk that out. I tiptoed a little carefully around feelings, wanting to make sure I didn’t hurt anyone. My goal has changed throughout the process. Even though I want to be kind and graceful, I’m going to do anything I can to protect it being a safe space for the people of color to come in and share their life and their story with us. For somebody of color to give me feedback on something I’m saying or doing is a gift – it’s emotional labor and energy they do not have to spend on me. [I strive] to just be open, but also willing to protect that space on behalf of the people of color in the group.”

“In our groups, we have learned with those we have been involved with, that we could trust talking with each other and not feel condemnation about what we’re saying and how we’re feeling,” said Cylar. “It’s a learning process continually, that we can use our voices and not feel that we can’t express how we feel. You realize that if you would just step out and go ahead and try some things, do some things and talk to some people, you get past that fear of starting a conversation and you can at least try. Then maybe, if that person is not willing [to converse], then you’ve planted a good seed. There’s a lot we can do if we will just listen to each other and be able to accept how the other person feels – even if it’s not the right thing – until you can come to understand.”

Through their continual efforts, Cylar and Johnson lay a foundation for a better future. As they both dedicate themselves to the strenuous labor of sparking effective and positive change, their partnership represents two individuals whose unwavering diligence influences others to follow in their footsteps and strives toward an ultimate goal of spreading God’s righteousness, oneness and love wherever they walk. Cylar and Johnson envision a community void of division, with residents who treasure their neighbors and uplift each other to raise their voices for good – creating unity and peace one bridge built at a time.

“I would love to be a part of a city where every voice is heard and appreciated and valued and elevated,” said Johnson. “That we are not content with saying, ‘I’m not racist because I’m nice to my neighbor,’ but really pursue being anti-racist. I want to point out racism and get rid of it anywhere I see it, whether that’s in myself or other people. I want to pursue that as the goal of letting this be a safe space where every person can grow and flourish and live the life they want to live. It almost sounds like a dream, but we can make strides to that. I already see pockets of that starting to happen in our community and across the nation. I hope that will continue growing and expanding where everyone is seen, heard and valued.”

“My personal hope is that we do come together as a community,” said Cylar. “I hope that people will hear about how to become bridge builders and start to treat each other differently, that our white friends and families that surround us will star using their voices to become anti-racist. Those are my hopes and desires, that if we do that, our children are going to have better lives. There are some things that are going to have to change all over the country, and Gadsden is a part of that. I want to be a part of that change. It’s going to have to come through conversations and education and people really listening. I think this is an open door, if we will walk through it, and participate and truly desire the change…things can be better. I’m very hopeful that we can have a good outcome if we’ll do the work.”