Dialogue, paired with an understanding of the history behind an issue, is necessary in moving forward, said Craig Williams, president and chief executive of Pride Enterprises Inc. Williams wrote The Olympian: An American Triumph, a novel based on the life of Philadelphia's John Baxter Taylor Jr., the first African American Olympic gold medalist.
"People like to talk about a lot of facets of these kinds of situations, but very rarely are people able to get their arms all the way around the issue," Williams said before the event.
This year, two facilitators broke the crowd into groups of four or more and had them hash things out.
Overcoming challenges by sharing personal experiences is exactly what facilitator Eric Brunner, assistant vice president of learning and development for human relations at Temple University, wanted.
"If we see each other's humanness," Brunner said, "it's more difficult to be in contention."
There was little combativeness in a group tasked with discussing the George Zimmerman trial, where pretty much everyone spoke against what they called the racism and history of prejudice surrounding Martin's death.
Nonetheless, some more personal moments of understanding broke through.
Michele Lockman and Frances Conwell had never met before Tuesday night. Lockman, a tutor from Montgomery County and a white woman, found a sense of unity with Conwell, an African American woman from Wynnefield who quilts for a cause at Sisters Interacting Through Stitches.
Conwell said she understands that society has different expectations of her because she is an African American woman. That was something Lockman never considered before.
"Every day I walk out of my house and I'm a black woman," Conwell said. "I've never been uncomfortable" with discussions on race. "I deal with this every day."
Even after two hours of group discussion, the two women sat together in a corner of the room, eager to continue talking.
Contact Summer Ballentine at 215-854-2771 or SBallentine@philly.com. Follow her on Twitter @esballentine.