Second Time’s A Charm For Chamber Civic Leaders Try To Right Past Wrong With Forum On Diversity, Understanding

It was quite an apology.

Several years ago, few would have noticed the insensitivity at last month’s Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce meeting. People didn’t talk about racial tolerance then, said the Rev. Lonnie Mitchell. Most didn’t even know about diversity.

Now, it will be difficult to forget.

After offending dozens of people at its 100th annual meeting, the chamber tried to recover Wednesday by holding a luncheon at the Ag Trade Center. For two hours, about 500 people talked about diversity issues and listened to chamber leaders say they are sorry.

“This luncheon is beautiful, but still the bad taste is in my mouth,” said Chris Mastin, an African American student attending Whitworth College. “We can’t make up for what’s happened. … I don’t want my (sons) to be embarrassed and insulted as I was at the last luncheon.”

Mastin and others were outraged when the chamber showed more than 1,200 guests a video depicting Spokane’s future leaders. All were white.

But it wasn’t just the video. At the end of the program, students picked to walk through a symbolic “Door of Opportunity” also all were white.

“We all make mistakes,” said Mitchell, pastor of a mostly black congregation. “We are looking back and hoping that it was just a mistake. … “Diversity is powerful. Let’s use it for the good of Spokane.”

Some people immediately expressed their anger and disappointment after last month’s meeting. In response, the chamber sent more than 1,000 letters of apology, met with its diversity work force team and made plans to hold a second luncheon.

“We made a big mistake, and we feel terrible about it,” said chamber chairman Dave Broom at Wednesday’s luncheon. “I want to apologize to everyone. … It’s not going to happen again. We’re a whole lot more sensitive now than we were three weeks ago.”

Wednesday’s luncheon was similar to a quick diversity training session. As people ate their sandwiches, they were asked to learn more about those around them. Each was given a work sheet that said: “Please turn to the people next to you and find out how you are different and alike.” Topics of conversation included ethnicity, politics and favorite foods and restaurants.

Participants also were encouraged to talk about last month’s event, how it affected them and what Spokane could do to improve community diversity.

The first chamber meeting was the result of tunnel vision, said Terry Frazier of Spokane. It wasn’t intentional, he told the group of people at his table, but it hurt.

Some were still trying to make sense of the problem. “I don’t exactly understand what happened,” one man said to Frazier. “Who are you scared of?”

After the quick discussions, representatives from some of the groups gave their ideas. While most were general, about becoming “more open as a community” or “getting out of our comfort zones,” others were specific: The chamber should include recruitment information in foreign languages, host more ethnic celebrations and multicultural fairs, encourage women and minority-owned businesses to come to Spokane. Start a junior Chamber of Commerce.

Some of the suggestions will be included in the chamber’s upcoming plans, Broom said.

Never before has Spokane been so united about diversity, many people said after Wednesday’s event. The letters of apology and luncheon were unprecedented.

“It’s beginning to improve,” said Bishop Walton Mize of Lighthouse Tabernacle Church. “There’s more awareness, and everything’s changing. It’s not where it ought to be, but it’s getting there.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

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