By Tony E. Windsor

Volunteers from a cross-section of the town of Laurel are continuing efforts to build a coalition that takes a proactive approach to averting cultural divisions within the community.

William McGowan, Ed.D, who is a community development specialist with the Institute for Public Administration at the University of Delaware, and an independent consultant, has taken point on the project known as “One Laurel.”

McGowan said the foundational purpose of the One Laurel movement is to allow the people who represent the community to have active involvement in determining “who we are as a community.” The goal, he said, is not to accomplish “big things,” but more a series of small things that will contribute to a positive change in the community. This is about working together on small, doable projects that focus on our community. In doing so we learn about each other and build relationships and trust, critical pieces of vital communities. These things together can promote big change for the better in Laurel.

The “One Laurel” mission statement addresses awareness on several community fronts and describes an ambitious agenda. According to information published by the group, “Our mission is to grow equality and racial awareness in the town of Laurel through: cultural awareness, community revitalization and the creation of opportunities for economic empowerment. Additionally, our focus is to construct new relationships, by, promoting equality and diversity. We hope to end racism and galvanize the residents of town of Laurel into action.”

Recently members of the “One Laurel” steering committee attended a regional virtual workshop sponsored by the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. The workshop is one of five held nationwide and led by Rich Harwood, President and Founder of The Harwood Institute and author of the book, “Stepping Forward.”

The book and workshop address how communities can work together across racial and cultural divides to promote positive change. “The global pandemic and the injustices of systemic racism are forcing many to ask how we can make the change we’re seeing in communities permanent, not just a fleeting response to the current moment,” according to the Harwood. The author feels that the inability to see cohesiveness within a diverse community creates frustration for many.

“Many of us are frustrated by the divisive nature of our public discourse, mistrust and broken promises,” he said. “We lack hope that we can bridge our divides, come together and get things done. We do not have to accept the divisions, gridlock and negativity happening in our country. We need to channel our frustrations, energies, and aspirations to get on a more hopeful path.”

McGowan said the workshop allowed the “One Laurel” representatives to share the project with other communities and the outcome was positive. “I think all of us came away with the idea that we may have something going on here. The only way communities really move forward is through themselves,” he said.

Laurel Town Manager Jamie Smith, who also attended the workshop, said the feedback from other communities about the “One Laurel” project was very beneficial. “We had the opportunity to share our project with people from other communities and they were very impressed,” she said. “Most everyone there said that Laurel is ahead of other communities in the country when it comes to proactively addressing the issues that are creating division. It is uplifting to see other communities who are interested in doing what we are doing. We are fortunate to have such a diverse group of citizens who are coming together to help Laurel work together to be the best we can be. They are volunteering and working hard and we know good things are coming for our town.”

Smith said about 40 people joined in to take an active role in carrying out the goals of “One Laurel.” This includes groups working together to host small community events that can be brought into fruition quickly.

McGowan said the small events are by design. “The idea is to develop four small, doable projects that can build relationships and trust, and begin to develop a foundation for further work,” he said. “We are starting small. Big initiatives that attempt to solve everything at once usually crash and burn and we do not need that.” 

McGowan said the “One Laurel” Steering Committee meets twice a month to compare notes and learn from each other.

During the Monday, Sept. 21 meeting of Laurel Mayor and Council, Town Manager Smith, who is a member of the One Laurel steering committee, said events are being scheduled including one being coordinated by Council President Chris Calio, involving one at the Paul Laurence Dunbar Community Center on Oct. 10, beginning at 1 p.m. The event will feature a cookout with the community invited to participate. Calio said the group welcomes any food donations that can be prepared for the event. Anyone interested in helping can contact Alexis Oliphant at Laurel Town Hall.

An “Open Mic Night” was recently held at Roger C. Fisher Park to support the One Laurel initiative. The event attracted local singers, rappers, poetry artists and other entertainers. RogJenea Fisher, daughter of Councilwoman Robin Fisher-Cornish who is also a steering committee member, sponsored this event. On Saturday, Oct 10, beginning at 1 p.m., at the Paul Laurence Dunbar Community Center, a community barbecue will be featured. Food will be made available via drive through. Other One Laurel events will be scheduled in the coming weeks.