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Council Corner: Witness to a historic day

Be forewarned: I'm writing this strictly from memory and my experience of the event is totally subjective. For that reason I invite readers who were also present to send me your versions of what happened that day, Saturday, July 2, at 10 a.m. in the Historic Ashland Armory, so we can begin a historical record. Because that day, of all the days of my 16 years in this town, is most worthy of historical note.

The only day like it in my personal experience dates back to July 5, 1975, in the summer heat, in a sprawling ranch house in the Napa Valley, Jane and I all alone witnessing the birth of our daughter into my hands. The quiet, the total focus on the event, the emerging newness are immediately palpable to me as I write.

Three hundred people, seated in a theater-in-the-round arena. Twenty or so speakers in a line, moved one at a time to the podium and spoke with authenticity of their life experience into a sympathetic but sober and objective listening space — make that “compassionate" as well.

Most of the speakers were people of color, many of them African-American, and the truths to which they testified have been needed to be heard in this nation for hundreds of years, especially by us without “color,” which is who most of the audience consisted of.

The quality of speaking and the quality of listening were beautifully matched to each other. I credit Marjorie Trueblood-Gamble for setting the vessel so deliberately, saying "you will hear some things today that make you feel uncomfortable, and that's OK. It's safe here to feel uncomfortable." We listened and believed and opened our souls to what would be said.

Racism is part of our common history in America and racism exists to this day in Ashland itself. Conscious, vile racism as expressed in the vicious taunts of two women from the Shakespeare company that were the spark that ignited this gathering. Acculturated racism, personal, conscious, semi-conscious and unconscious race-based presuppositions about each other — all were in play, out on the table to be witnessed objectively before they could be judged.

I realized in a new way how important it is for us to know who one another is — as Carmen Morgan said to me more than a year ago, "How we stand in the world."

Those of us in the audience saw in a new way, and accepted the existence of, the reality of racism as it expresses itself in our community today in 2016. And those who spoke were finally heard, not in private, but in the most respectful way, in community. It was profound and archetypal. It was the objective admission among all concerned that starts the 12-step path.

Which is not to say there weren't emotions flying around the room, but the room held its focus on the facts until the last speaker had spoken. And then I heard (felt?) everyone exhale together. (Holding your breath for an hour isn't easy.)

After, there was an hour in small groups, brainstorming possible action steps. Later still, on the day after the awful Dallas shootings of police officers, a group of Shakespeare company members, of color, brought flowers to the Ashland Police Department.

Marjorie, Claudia Alick and Jennifer Ware, supported by a large group of helpers, fashioned and produced the event from scratch in 48 hours. The enduring commitment to diversity and inclusion from the festival fed the wisdom and poise that were critical to enabling us to maintain humanity in this moment. But also, Marjorie is from the university, equally committed to these values, and Jennifer is from the Southern Oregon Health Equity Coalition. From everyone, intentions and goodwill crisscrossed each other and wove together throughout the room.

And so now, in this chaotic summer of 2016, there is something new in the air in Ashland. I invite you to breathe it in!

John Stromberg is mayor of Ashland.