Unification News for May 1996


Tampa WFWP Hosts First Women's Interracial Friendship Conference

By Donna Fusco Howell-Tampa, FL

On April 13 the Tampa, Florida chapter of the WFWP sponsored the first Women's Interracial Friendship Conference in the nation. For us it was an idea whose time had come, and we felt strongly that it was the right thing to do and the right time to do it. It wasn't until we were two weeks into the planning stage that we learned from Nora Spurgin that we would be the first city to host a Sisterhood Conference between black women and white women. Somehow, learning the historical significance of our event made us even more determined to make it successful.

Although we were patterning our conference after the Japanese/American Sisterhood Conferences, there were several changes we knew we would have to make in order for this event to truly reflect healing between the races. The first adaptation we made was to have two guest speakers, one black and one white.

As our white speaker we asked Rev. Tanya Beck, one of the first women in the world ordained as an Episcopal minister. She's a local priest with a very outgoing, bright spirit, who had given the invocation at a previous WFWP event last year. She likes our WFWP members and is not concerned about the connection with Rev. Moon. We knew she would be a great speaker, and our excitement about the conference escalated when she said she would be happy to speak for us, gratis. However, one week later she called to say that her bishop was sending her out of town on the day of the conference and she wouldn't be able to participate. My heart sunk, and we scrambled to find a new speaker. It was then that we realized that Murphy's Law might take over this conference and our only defense was prayer. We started a prayer condition for both the internal and external success of the conference, with a special emphasis on trying to achieve the quality of heart we had each felt at the Japanese/American conferences. Miraculously, Rev. Beck called me back a few days later saying that her bishop had postponed her trip for two weeks, so she would once again be available as a speaker for our conference.

As our black speaker, we contacted Dr. Babs Phillips, a black minister who used to work with Martin Luther King, Jr. and has done considerable work with the WFWP in Atlanta. She was thrilled at the thought of a black/white conference and agreed to speak without a fee, provided we paid her expenses to come to Tampa. We readily agreed to that arrangement.

It was very important for us to get speakers who both knew something about what we were trying to communicate with the Sisterhood ceremony and who would also speak out of their enthusiasm for the project, since the money for this conference was coming out of our own pockets and therefore quite limited.

We were grateful that both keynote speakers conveyed the essence of the WFWP message in their addresses at the conference. We even had them participate in the conference as the first pair to cross the bridge and as the representative pair leading the Sisterhood pledge. This helped both the speakers and the participants feel more connected to each other and to the spirit of the Sisterhood ceremony.

Another adaptation we made was to shorten the whole program to four hours and have only one meal. We decided the best way to present the program was to start in the morning, conclude the regular program by lunch and serve a banquet lunch that would last for an hour and a half to give the participants time to get to know each other. We scheduled the conference for a Saturday morning beginning at 10:00 and concluding at 2:00 p.m. This schedule worked very well and we were able to keep to it even though we had all participants crossing the bridge. By having lunch instead of dinner we were also able to lower the cost but not the quality of the meal.

By sheer luck and perseverance, I was able to find a hotel that was very nice but reasonably priced, owing to the fact that the hotel had recently switched management and was eager for new business.

Because of the relatively low cost of the meeting room and meals (about $10 per person), we decided to charge only $15 per participant. We thought, naively, that we would break even at that price. As it turned out, the conference really cost about $25 per person and if it were not for the donations of the members, we would have been in a financial hole if we relied solely on registrations to pay for the event. However, the plus side of having it cost more than we were charging was that many participants recognized this immediately, and were impressed that we were so committed to the project, we were willing to lose money to make it work.

What we did not fully realize going into this project was all of the little things that had to be done so that it would be both beautiful and tasteful. The first hurdle to get over was designing an invitation which would adequately explain the concept of the Sisterhood Conference. Fortunately for us we didn't have to reinvent the wheel. Only a few days after I told Nora Spurgin about the project, I got a call from the Boston WFWP telling me that Nora had conveyed to them our plans, and that they, too, were planning a similar conference for the week after ours. They had already designed an invitational pamphlet and chosen a name for their conference - Beyond the Dream. We thought the name was terrific and with Boston's permission used the same name and duplicated most of the material that was in their pamphlet. This saved us a lot of time and energy, so we were able to begin sending invitations a good six weeks prior to the conference.

My computer was not idle for a moment during the preparation for this event. There were cover letters and press releases to write, public service announcements to put on the radio and TV, my MC remarks to coordinate, a WFWP informational pamphlet to design, and all of the program flyers, brochures and name tags to create. Fortunately my husband runs his engineering business out of our house, so I had a fully-equipped home office at my disposal, saving us a lot of time and money. While I was busy taking care of much of the external conference coordination, our sisters, Robin Debacker, Jan Breslin and Evelyne Drake were busy on the phone contacting and recontacting people who had been sent invitations. We were especially lucky that Robin loved the phone and kept thinking of new people to contact and new ways to contact them. While phoning she even found two singers to entertain at the conference. This phoning effort was very helpful in getting the pre-registrations to come in and reminding people of the event.

Altogether we invited about 3,000 people in hopes of getting 100. We thought those were good odds, but in the end we accomplished only 2/3 of our goal, bringing 64 participants. We were amazed and grateful, however, that we had an even number of blacks and whites (except for one black woman who came very late who was happy to get a Japanese sister, and another who showed up just before lunch who shared that time with another pair and had a great time.)

The Monday before the event, we only had 21 pre-registrations and I was beginning to panic. That day, however, something significant happened. The Tampa Tribune, which is the largest daily paper in the area, printed an article about the conference on the front page of their "Tampa Bay Life" section. Since the paper printed both Robin's and my phone number, we resolved that one of us would always be by the phone to take the calls which were coming in regularly as a result of the article. That article generated a lot of interest and I estimate at least 30 participants came as a result of it. The article also prompted several radio stations to announce the event, and one television network station to inquire about the conference. We never did learn the full extent of the media coverage, since news organizations don't tell you when they print a press release or make an announcement. We do know that besides the Tribune article, both minority newspapers in the area printed the press release, some smaller locals printed announcements, one radio station broadcast an interview with Robin, and several more made public service announcements.

On the day of the event, we were well-prepared, having eaten, drunk and slept this conference for six weeks. We added as many special touches to the conference as we could; having young blessed children act as usherettes, providing every participant with a rose to exchange with her sister, putting a flowered arch on the bridge for the pairs to walk through, placing roses on each lunch table and corsages and flower arrangements everywhere. We even had a pottery display of Robin's hand-made ceramics which were on sale as a WFWP fund-raiser. And Nora had given me the idea to provide a photographer with a Polaroid camera to take pictures of the pairs. (Fifty people took advantage of the Polaroid snapshots even though we charged for the snapshots, and Robin sold several of her pottery pieces.)

These little touches gave everyone the feeling that they were being treated as special guests at a special event. To further set the tone, we showed the film "Bridges of Peace" (about the Japanese/American conferences) right after the orientation. We felt strongly that the film would open people's hearts and prepare the way for everything that was to follow. We were right. After the film several people were wiping their eyes. By the time we started the Sisterhood Ceremony, the women were ready for it. One woman remarked that we should have provided Kleenex boxes around the room for all the tears that were flowing.

At first we only had the first two rows participate in the bridge crossing. We then said the pledge and had the sisters exchange pictures and information sheets. While this was going on, several women approached me and requested that everyone be allowed to cross the bridge. Since we were ahead of schedule and were a small enough group, I immediately responded and announced that we would have a second bridge crossing. Those who had not crossed previously, jumped out of their seats and began lining themselves up on the appropriate sides of the bridge, without any further direction from us. This second crossing was even more moving than the first, since each woman had been anxiously awaiting her turn.

After the second crossing, our keynote speakers addressed the group. Both moved the hearts of the audience, and as I looked around the room, I saw many people again wiping their eyes. What struck me, too, was that every speaker that day mentioned God several times, and people united with that spirit. Dr. Phillips had even mentioned that God had pre-ordained this day and that this was a historical event that we should never forget. Many participants remarked that they felt the historicity of that day.

Over lunch the atmosphere was further heightened when our two singers, one black and one white, gave their rendition of "Love Can Build A Bridge." As they were finishing the song our keynote speakers pulled everyone at our table to their feet and soon the entire room was linked arm in arm singing that love can build a bridge. It was a spontaneous action which left everyone feeling connected to each other.

The one question that almost everyone posed to me during lunch was, "Where do you go from here. What's next." I realized that we would have to do this again. Our goal now is to do two more conferences before the end of the year. Now that we have a group of people who have experienced the Sisterhood ceremony, we can turn to them to help us plan the next two. Two of the attendees are administrators at the University of South Florida and offered the University as a staging ground for another conference. Both pledged that they could bring hundreds of participants from the University. One woman said that this conference was so significant we should have filled the largest ballroom in Hillsborough County, and if we did it again, by God she would help us fill it. With that kind of enthusiasm, we are sure that this is only the beginning.

Donna Howell is the Tampa Chairperson for the WFWP, and a seminarian from the Class of 1983. She has lived for eight years in Holiday, Florida with her husband Lloyd, and their three children. The Howells are expecting their fourth child in May, and are grateful that Donna did not go into early labor during the conference.


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