Fostering Racial and Ethnic Understanding

Two women look over breakfast menus at a west-side diner. After ordering, they turn to a conversation about race, including the shooting of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, S.C., by a white man.

On one side of the booth is Stephanie Waterman, a 50ish college professor, member of the Onondaga Nation and mother of two children. Across from her is Kathleen Whelehan, 65, bank president, Irish Catholic, and mother of seven. Under normal circumstances, the academic and banker might never have met. 

As participants in the first year of the Person2Person initiative, though, they formed one of 47 pairs of people crossing racial differences to begin dialogues that could spark one in the larger community.  

The new program was launched in Fall 2014 with a $133,500 discretionary grant from the Community Foundation (and a second-year grant of $100,000) and run by the YWCA of Rochester and Monroe County.

Person2Person was modeled after Rochester Institute of Technology’s Partnerships in Plurality program for faculty and staff. With a decade of experience forging campus dialogues on diversity, RIT’s Mike D’Arcangelo and Sandra Whitmore designed the YWCA program. Like the RIT initiative, Person2Person began with a select group of leaders but is more narrowly focused on race. Both programs match people from different backgrounds who, ideally, have never met before. 

During the inaugural year, pairs were asked to meet about twice a month and attend cluster meetings every six to eight weeks with a handful of other pairs.

“If you feel you can talk freely — respectfully, but freely — you can get a lot out of this,” Whelehan says. “I joke about the Irish being narrow-minded and proud of it, but ethnicity tends to be narrowing.” 
Native American history is rife with oppression and genocide, but Waterman says Person2Person has provided “some reassurance that there are real good people in the world.”

A perspective on identity Waterman offered in an early meeting created an “aha” moment for William J. Ferguson II, who was trying to bring the cluster group under a single umbrella.

Ferguson, 54, who teaches and wears many hats at Garth Fagan Dance, told the group, “I think we should all see ourselves as Americans.” The son of a career military man, Ferguson spent much of his formative years abroad where he was seen not as an African American, but an American.

But Waterman couldn’t adopt that simple definition, as she is a member of a sovereign nation within the boundaries of the United States. “If we’re going to learn anything about each other, I had to bring it up. Not just for me, but for the group,” she said.

Ferguson appreciated Waterman’s point. “That opened my eyes to the realities inherent in our society,” he says. “We need to be more inclusive of a range of possibilities of people who live in our society.” 

Ferguson and his Person2Person partner, Marc J. Natale, executive director of the American Heart Association, meet about twice a month at a coffee shop. Though Natale is Italian American, has lived all of his life in the Rochester area, and is 15 years younger than Ferguson, the two men found commonalities. “We’re pretty similar people,” Natale says. “I think that we share values. We’re fathers. We have the same issues. We have lives and jobs.”

Both men say they could talk with each other for hours if they had the time. “I hope something comes from this that can be translated to the community,” Natale said.

Organizers do, too. Whitmore says the ongoing RIT program has shown “it really does build trust and credibility among our employees.” 

Mary Lou McCloud, the YWCA staff member directing Person2Person, believes it may be up to an alumni group from the first-year pairs to develop a future action plan for the community-based initiative. For now, building trust despite racial differences is a good start.

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PHONE 585.271.4100 | FAX 585.271.4292 |
500 East Avenue, Rochester, NY 14607


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