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Prof. Alicia Alvarez 

Prof. Alicia Alvarez is recipient of Leadership Detroit Alumni Award

By John Masson
Oct. 15, 2012

Michigan Law professor Alicia Alvarez and several other people were honored this month with Leadership Detroit Alumni Awards for their work advancing a frank, regional dialogue about race.

The awards recognized nine members of a recent class from the Detroit Regional Chamber's leadership program. Now known as the Leadership Detroit XXXII Race and Reconciliation Committee, the group continued to meet even after its members graduated from the leadership program, hoping to stimulate a productive discussion about race and ethnicity in what remains one of the country's most segregated areas.

Prof. Alvarez said the discussions grew out of a simple Leadership Detroit classroom assignment. Leadership Detroit is a training program for emerging civic and business leaders in the city and region; one day a facilitator had the class split up into groups to talk about thorny social issues. Prof. Alvarez's group tackled race.

"The assignment was to have a discussion based on topics that had been rated as important in the region," said Prof. Alvarez, who leads Michigan Law's Community and Economic Development Clinic, which does much of its work in Detroit. "Then, after graduation, we just kept on meeting amongst ourselves, monthly or so, to come up with a strategy to continue this conversation. We wanted to create a ripple effect."

Instrumental in the continuation of the discussion, Prof. Alvarez said, was Leadership Detroit classmate and 1982 Michigan Law graduate Mary Jo Larson, a partner at Warner Norcross & Judd.

"Mary Jo is the one who keeps us moving," Prof. Alvarez said. "She's really been the leader in making sure we continue meeting and having this conversation."

The idea they arrived at: a series of get-togethers among small groups—anywhere from 20 to 50 people per event, subdivided into even smaller groups—about race and ethnicity. The gatherings would be held at regular intervals at churches and other venues around the region.

The goal, she said, was to encourage frank discussion of a sensitive topic. The first public session was held at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in midtown Detroit. The next session is scheduled this month in a Unitarian church in upscale, suburban Birmingham.

"Our hope is to start a movement really at two levels: at the grassroots, and also among leaders in the community across race and ethnicity," Prof. Alvarez said. "The folks in our group would say, 'My friends, the people I socialize with, are the same as me,' or, 'My workplace is integrated, but once I leave work, my neighborhood's not, my circle of friends is not.' So first we had to try to change some of that for ourselves."

Prof. Alvarez added that there are plenty of disagreements among participants. But ground rules require respect and civility, even though there's a wide range of opinion.

"I think while we're not all of the same mind, people who come are truly interested in engaging in conversation," Prof. Alvarez said. "People don't always agree, but people come at it from a sense of wanting to learn, and wanting to expand their own horizons."

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