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Home to a county with changing demographics, the College of Southern Maryland steps in to facilitate discussions surrounding race and class.

For a suburban area of Washington, D.C., Southern Maryland has remained unusually “Southern.” Its rolling tobacco fields, former slave quarters and lonesome two-lane roads through piney woods seem more reminiscent of the Deep South than the nation’s capital. So, too, have its attitudes on race.

That became evident on Dec. 6, 2004, when five men set fires to 27 homes under construction, destroying 12 of them. All were in a Charles County subdivision favored by upscale African-Americans moving to the area from other parts of metropolitan Washington for its peace and affordable homes.

Stunned, county leaders bristled over the county’s negative reputation in the national media. The situation worsened later when some White high school students scrawled graffiti such as “KKK” on the doors and sign of a predominantly Black Baptist church to protest the infl ux of minority families. The Black population grew 25 percent from 2000 to 2003.

“This sent the wrong signal about the kind of community we had in Charles County,” says Thomas “Mac” Middleton, a state senator from the area who talked with a trustee at the College of Southern Maryland about what to do.

The community college ended up taking the lead in a countywide effort that included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and law enforcement agencies to turn the situation around.

“We put together a working group to talk about what happened, Figure out what we could do and what we can do,” says Dr. Bradley M. Gottfried, the college president who arrived from New Jersey in 2006.

Middleton says the community college seemed like a logical focal point since it’s respected and its four campuses are spread out through much of the region. It plays a strong role as Southern Maryland transforms from a sleepy rural place to one with an expanding military presence and bedroom communities for sophisticated new commuters.

The first step Gottfried and others took was holding a “Unity in the Community” meeting in January 2007 that was attended by 350 people, including African-Americans, members of the county Sheriff’s Department, educators and business owners.

Speakers delved into sensitive issues such as race and class. College officials knew they were making progress when individuals broke off for their own discussions.

“I saw a Sons of Confederate Veterans member engaged in a lively and serious talk with an African-American,” says Karen Smith Hupp, director of the college’s community relations.

Efforts at dialogue among disparate groups continued. The “Unity” event was repeated several times and a special “Blue Ribbon Commission on Diversity and Intergroup Relations” was organized to take conversations on race and diversity to the next level.

The College of Southern Maryland is retooling its curriculum to meet the region’s growing needs for technical blue- and white-collar jobs. The most recent federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) session has boosted the area by expanding activities at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, a St. Mary’s County facility that is home to the Navy’s test pilot program. More than 20,000 now work at the base since the latest BRAC recommendations moved several Navy operations there from the Pentagon area.

The college has also boosted its training in the area of “energetics” or explosivesmaking, Gottfried says. The Navy operates Two major ordnance facilities and test sites at Indian Head and at Dahlgren, just across the Potomac River in Virginia, and needs skilled workers.

The student body makeup refl ects the community college’s efforts at spotlighting diversity. In 2000, the number of African- Americans taking courses for credit was about 15.7 percent of the total. Last fall, they were 21.2 percent. Hispanics rose from 2 percent to 3.2 percent for the period and Asians rose from 2.3 percent to

3. 9 percent. The school has 6,400 for-credit students. Overall, for-credit and noncredit students, minority enrollment has increased 19 percent over the past five years.

The total student body is 22,543 students.

Anacamila Figueroa, a third-year student of Chilean descent, says she’s noticed the change.

“On campus, it’s very diverse,” says the 20-year-old journalism and communications student, who is working on three associate degrees. “Most people call community college the 13th grade, but I don’t think so.” The college has won other distinctions.

Last year, it was honored with the 2008 Equity Award for the Northeast Region by the Association of Community College Trustees.

Gottfried says the next step for the community college is to form an institute at the school to study diversity issues, offer courses, interact with community groups such as churches and act as a “go-to” place For problems. At the moment, finding funding of up to $200,000 for the institute is difficult given the recession. But Gottfried says the school might be eligible for some stimulus funds from the Obama administration.

For now, it seems that Southern Maryland has passed its “teachable moment” as President Barack Obama describes finding a positive outcome from racial confl ict.

“Any time we have unique needs, the College of Southern Maryland is the first place we turn to,” says Middleton. “We have been extremely pleased about how this has worked out.”

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