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Race relations expert: Ask tough questions

Thursday, October 29, 2009  
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By Corina Curry
Posted Oct 29, 2009 @ 08:25 PM
Last update Oct 29, 2009 @ 11:47 PM

ROCKFORD — The YWCA National Conversation on Race seminar at Rockford College kicked off Thursday with a brief introduction by guest facilitator Lee Mun Wah and the showing of his documentary film “Last Chance for Eden.”

Attendance for the seminar, which continues today, has topped 300 people. Both the Rockford School District and city of Rockford are sending administrative leaders as well as educators and representatives of the police and fire departments.

“I’m not the founder of racism, but I must be part of the cure,” Mun Wah said to seminar attendees. Mun Wah shared personal experiences of coming to America as a young boy, what it was like trying to adjust to a foreign culture and how his parents changed his name from Lee Mun Wah, which means “he who runs,” to Gary so he wouldn’t get picked on.

All of that, Mun Wah said, is part of his story. Also part of his story is how a black man broke into his mother’s home in 1985 and shot and killed her. Devastated over the loss of his mother and his guilt for not being with her at the time to save her, Mun Wah said he went into therapy. That was when Mun Wah came face to face with the stereotypes he was taught and picked up throughout his life.

“I’m not casually here,” Mun Wah said. “It’s taken me many years to get to this room.” 

Taking the time to listen to each other’s stories, Mun Wah said, “to listen without labeling and having compassion for what other people are going through” is part of the solution.

Throughout the day today, Mun Wah will lead seminar participants through a series of conversation and exercises to help people see and hear themselves and others in a different light when it comes to race and race relations. The key, Mun Wah said, is asking the difficult questions and listening to the answers.

The goal of the seminar is to teach area leaders how to bring similar discussions and exercises to their organizations and workplaces so the conversation spreads throughout the community.

Race has become a leading topic of debate in recent months in Rockford.

A number of community leaders have said that the fatal police shooting of a black man who ran and hid from police officers in the basement of a predominantly black church in August opened a wound in the city. It caused a number of issues involving race, that were quietly brewing under the surface, to loudly boil over in town hall-style meetings, protests, rallies and marches.

Luz Ramirez, Rockford School District special assistant to the superintendent, said the seminar, planned before the shooting, has taken on a special meaning for community leaders “in light of the mood in Rockford today, and it’s in our schools, too.”

“Diversity is an issue,” Ramirez said. “It’s an issue for the district. We see it in our schools and our test scores. I’m hoping that we can all achieve some greater sensitivity and some greater knowledge of diversity so we can encourage that throughout the district.”

Reach staff writer Corina Curry at or 815-987-1371.

This story appeared at on October 29, 2009.

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