Donna Odom and the Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society are working to bring people together and build relationships across ethnic lines.

What began as an organization to celebrate local black heritage, the Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society is now an ongoing source for community healing.

"We began as a black historical society, to add an important and then missing component to local history," explains Donna Odom, Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society founder and executive director. "Today we also work on building relationships across ethnic lines — ethnic lines, because race is really a social construct — that bring people together to share stories and experiences at a deeper level."

SMBHS’s trajectory changed in 2010 when they participated in the Southwest Michigan RACE Exhibit. Participants in that initiative agreed they wanted the community conversations begun there to continue," Odom says. "SMBHS has attempted to grasp the mantle of healing begun through that initiative and carry it forward through its Racial Healing Initiative."

"The Racial Healing Initiative uses an approach called Transforming Historical Harms," Odom explains. "This approach is based on the philosophy that the legacy of slavery left an historical trauma for all of society. Transforming Historical Harms seeks to heal that trauma through a four-faceted approach: facing history, making connections, healing, and taking action."

Because of the support of the Community Foundation, which included $39,000 in grants in 2013, SMBHS has been able to hire a project assistant and provide essential programs addressing those four facets, including racial healing retreats, the Race Initiative Book Club, the Engaging the Wisdom Oral History Project, and the Summit on Racism 2.0: Extending the Dialogue.

SMBHS teamed with the YWCA and other organizations to hold the Summit on Racism to create channels of cooperation and collaboration within the community. Work begun at that Summit will continue with Action Networks addressing the areas of education, health, employment, housing and law enforcement. In this way, the work of each partner is strengthened, assuring greater impact community wide.

Says Bobbe Luce, a community investment officer at the Community Foundation, "We worked with the Black Heritage Society to help increase their capacity to reach more community members — youth through adults — with their approachable, multi-forum racial healing programming as part of our support of the continuum of racial equity outreach in our county."

"The aim is to change perceptions, broaden understanding and encourage participants to explore the differences — and similarities — between races and ethnicities," Odom says. "Our participants always ask for more. They are clearly hungry for this shared experience of healing."