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A Savvy Peacemaker Building across Missouri's Race Lines

A Savvy Peacemaker Building across Missouri's Race Lines

From city council meetings to street corners, Lorenzo Lawson is shaping a more just Columbia, Missouri.

"One problem in the social service environment is that the people providing the service have never experienced what the clients are going through," Lawson said. "If you don't have an idea of the ailment and the symptoms, then it's hard to come up with the proper medication."

Making Peace During Crisis

Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath gave Lawson a first-rate opportunity to practice peacemaking, as many evacuees sought shelter in Columbia. Clients pouring into local nonprofits were mostly African Americans from New Orleans, whereas the social service workers trying to help were mostly white mid-Missourians.

"People had been traumatized and were trying to figure out where to go, what to do," Linda Green, former executive director of the Boone County Community Partnership, said. "In those situations, the cross-cultural issues are heightened. People felt they were being talked down to or asked personal questions, or they had never asked for assistance before and now they had to, so it was humiliating."

In response, Green appointed Lawson to coordinate disaster relief efforts under the nonprofit.

But not everyone welcomed his leadership. Some social-service workers felt that their efforts were being criticized, Green said. Shortly after Lawson was selected, a local nonprofit leader interrupted Lawson at a community meeting. He pointed at Lawson, Green recalls, and said, "You don't know anything about this. Who do you think you are?"

Lawson didn't lose his calm, Green recalls. "I'm a person who cares and a member of this community, and I know something needs to be done," he said.

As the group moved forward, Lawson continued working to diffuse tensions. The social service agencies worked together daily at the Disaster Recovery Center, headed by Lawson, but many of the leaders were still angry at each other. In response, Lawson brought in several black pastors to pray with the group every morning, which Green said helped remind the group why they were there.

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Rory Tyer

February 24, 2012  7:06pm

This is such an encouraging story. Excellent choice for a feature.

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