- Associated Press - Sunday, February 7, 2016

STAFFORD, Va. (AP) - Allen Goad’s commute home July 3, 2015, left him alarmed and angry.

When he drove past the Stafford County courthouse that Friday, he saw an African-American man among a group of residents confronting another group holding Confederate flags. The man, Roderick Burke, was angry that the flag supporters were holding a rally in front of the Stafford Courthouse not long after the deadly shooting in an African-American church in South Carolina.

In the days leading up to that rally, debate over a Confederate flag flying beside Interstate 95 near the Falmouth exit was revived.

Goad later told the Stafford supervisors that the images he saw that day made him feel as if he was once again in the 1960s.

The Confederate flag and subsequent rally has led to something less divisive: the formation of a multicultural coalition in Stafford. Coalition members hope that residents of such a diverse county can come together and give a voice to those who struggle to be heard.

“We are the voice of the people. We all have different backgrounds,” coalition member and local ministry leader Felicia Allen said. “We don’t want to just be a diverse community that’s separated. We are an inclusive, diverse community where we reach out and touch each other.”

The coalition is unique to the region. Fredericksburg doesn’t have a formal coalition where government staff provides support. There is no formal coalition in Spotsylvania, though there is a minority affairs committee, which has county staff participation and support.

There is a Fredericksburg Area Race Relations Coalition that formed in 2014 out of concern for the events in Ferguson, Mo. But that group doesn’t include city staff support, according to Fredericksburg officials.

Douglas Taylor with the Stafford chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Allen with Agape Fellowship Ministries, Michael Oluwabunmi with Amazing Grace Sanctuary and Catherine Shalaby from Development Consulting Services are all members.

The three county officials advising and supporting the coalition include Sheriff David Decatur, school spokeswoman Valerie Cottongim and M.C. Moncure from the economic development office.

Three of the four members are African-American. The two religious leaders head diverse congregations. Oluwabunmi, for instance, said his congregation includes people with roots in 14 different countries, including Jamaica, Liberia and Ghana.

That diversity extends to the county schools, where Cottongim said there are more than 40 foreign languages represented among students’ families.

The most recent Census estimates indicate that Stafford’s 2014 population of 139,992 was 49.6 percent female, 74 percent white, 18 percent African-American, 11.3 percent Hispanic or Latino, 3.3 percent Asian and 0.7 percent American Indian or Alaska Native.

None of the 14 seats on the two elected boards of Stafford County - the Board of Supervisors and the School Board - are held by an ethnic minority. But this year marked the first time in the county’s 352 years that the majority of local elected positions are held by women.

“Sometimes all people want is an opportunity to be heard. They also want people to attempt to understand their perspective. And the reason we formed this coalition is to proactively allow people’s perspectives to be heard,” Taylor said.

The coalition met for the first time last week. They introduced themselves to Stafford supervisors, who referred the coalition’s request for $25,000 in start-up funds to a committee. Then the coalition members sat down to work on what was to come next.

Every member seemed to agree that the Confederate flag flying over I-95 led them to question what was happening in their community. They asked themselves what that flag says about Stafford, wondered whether the flag would keep businesses from investing in the county and what incoming students at the University of Mary Washington would think when they saw that flag.

None of those affiliated with putting up the Confederate flag are part of the coalition.

“We want to promote Stafford County as an increasingly welcoming place, that is representative and responsive to the needs of citizens,” Taylor said in response a question asking why none of the flag supporters are part of the coalition.

Group members hope to have a couple of events throughout the year, and be a vehicle for citizens of all types to voice their concerns and stories. They also want to explore community-building methods and models.

“No opinion is so small that we won’t take it seriously,” Allen said.

Members said they would have formed the coalition regardless of the national debates and protests on topics such as income and racial inequality. But certain events, such as the racially-motivated shooting in Charleston, did influence their mission.

Taylor contrasted the Charleston community’s reaction to that in Ferguson, Mo., after Michael Brown was killed by white police officer Darren Wilson.

He questioned whether the unrest in Ferguson would have happened had the community there been as connected as the one in Charleston.

Coalition members hope that this kind of cooperation can exist in Stafford, so the county won’t experience the kind of unrest that happened in Ferguson.

“A riot is the language of the unheard,” Taylor said, quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

___

Information from: The Free Lance-Star, http://www.fredericksburg.com/

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