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ANCHORAGE - Like the proverbial lemon that became lemonade, a racial insult aired on an Anchorage radio station has been embraced as a teaching tool, in an Alaska Native effort to heal the hurt and work toward healthier racial relations.
"We're going in the right direction," said Liz Medicine Crow, vice president of First Alaskans Institute, who presided over a news conference Wednesday to talk about progress in resolving an initially ugly incident.
"It's the Native way of trying to work forward," Medicine Crow said. "It's so easy to go negative. We're going in the right direction."
"We feel we are making news, doing something fabulous and wonderful," said Rochene Rowan-Hellen, a Tlingit woman who heard the racist comments on the radio while driving in Anchorage on May 26.
Startled and concerned about what she heard, Rowan-Hellen sent an e-mail that day to media and community leaders.
It read "This morning on the Bob and Mark show some guys called in they wanted to listen to something funny they had played before. When they put it on the air it was faux commercial advertising 'cash for Tlingits.' It went something like this: 'Are you out of cash? Do you need to make some quick money? Do you have an old Native lying around? Well, we will give you cash for Tlingits.'"
"It went on with a supposed Native man talking about how his grandson turned him in for cash. I literally almost drove off the road I was so shocked and offended," she wrote.
"These two are known for their racist shows and commentaries so I am not surprised," she added.
Things appear to have changed now, with First Alaskans Institute and many others, including staff and management of the offending radio station, determined to improve race relations in Alaska.
"When I was asked what I would like to see done, I wanted to see if we could work out a way to communicate - not in anger - so we can present a positive image for Alaska Native people," said Rowan-Hellen, who holds a master's degree in psychology and works as a counselor in the Anchorage public school system.
Rowan-Hellen is the daughter of Irene Rowan, former president of Klukwan, Inc.
Bob Lester and Mark Colavecchio of KWHL, which is owned by Morris Communications, based in Augusta, Ga., participated in a series of meetings over the summer to help them better understand Native culture.
The meetings are expected to continue.
They've included representatives from the Native community as well as others, such as Bridge Builders and Healing Racism, groups that strive to promote better race relations.
Medicine Crow said the meetings began with a large circle, "to speak to each other as human beings about where we wanted to go.
"From the meeting we convened a working group. Our job was to take pro-active issues and put them into a plan. To get on the same page," she said.
At the press conference, the disc jockeys spoke about how the meetings have changed their attitude.
"I've never written a comedy bit with the intent of hurting anyone," Lester said.
"I was so ashamed of the hurt of this girl I'd never met before. It has really changed my brand of humor," he said. "We've done so many good things over the years. The shame and hurt (from this incident) took all that away from me."
Lester said he was overwhelmed by the feeling of forgiveness he got from the Alaska Native community working with KWHL on using the issue to teach racial tolerance.
"It's been fulfilling to work together as a team," he said. "I feel so blessed that this opportunity has happened."
"Everything I've heard in the last three months has made me a better human being," said Colavecchio. "The opportunities ... are incredible."
Their efforts were applauded by Malcolm and Cindy Roberts, of Bridge Builders, an Anchorage group.
"You are pioneering a whole new approach to this," said Malcolm Roberts. "This is a human nature thing. You've made a tremendous start."
Healing Racism has announced a series of events in September that aims to promote the healing process. More information is at www.anchorage healingracism.org.