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Christian Union
December 30, 2015

Panel Discussion Features Princeton Alumni, Civic Leaders

by Catherine Elvy, Staff Writer

Rhinold Ponder is using his skills as an attorney, talk show host, and artist to advance dialogues about race in Princeton, New Jersey.

"My major focus is how we talk to each other to facilitate the conversation," said Ponder, Princeton '81. "We have a difficult time speaking to each other about race because we don't have a public language we all understand."

On September 20, Ponder appeared in a panel discussion entitled Getting Beyond Racism on behalf of the Princeton Community Democratic Organization inside the Suzanne Patterson Center.

PRIN.-PonderOnRaceMore than a dozen Princeton University students attended the crowded event, which also featured panelist Janet Adelola, Princeton '17, a leader with Christian Union's ministry at Princeton. Michelle Tuck-Ponder (Penn Law '83), associate director of Princeton University's Career Services and former Princeton Township mayor, served as moderator.

As for her husband, Rhinold Ponder, the native of Chicago's Southside noted that individuals from an array of ethnic backgrounds often do not relate to each other because of experiential gaps.

"The biggest hurdle to understanding each other is the racial experience gap. We simply don't understand each other's racial experience," said Ponder.

Along those lines, communication issues frequently surface in racial dialogues. "We can easily use the same words and mean different things. Unfortunately, the words we use are so broad that they leave themselves open to wide interpretation," said Ponder, also the host of the television program Know Your Rights New Jersey.

"We also, as a nation, do not know how to have difficult conversations in a public forum."

As importantly, Americans need to extend compassion in their efforts to achieve racial reconciliation. "We need to try to bring together empathy and care for others," Ponder said.

Ponder is quick to note that spirituality is central to racial accord and also played a key role in the Civil Rights Movement.

"Faith can be used to help us know how to communicate with one another and bring healing to the table," he said. "Faith has always played a central role in how we address issues of race."

Hitting closer to home, Ponder would like to see Princeton University devote more resources to assisting students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. "One of the biggest problems for students of color is there is no institutional connection for alumni of color and students of color," Ponder said.

As such, minority students miss out on some resources involving mentoring and networking: "These are relationships that many white students on campus have through eating clubs that have an alumni presence."

In 2014, Ponder used his artistic talents to advance conversations about race when he displayed an exhibit entitled The Rise and Fail of the N-Word: Beyond Black and White in the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding.

Ponder said the show was meant to offer a safe place for "difficult and honest discussions" about race.

As a result of the exhibit, Ponder created a Facebook page, Beyond Black and White, for ongoing dialogue. "Social media allows us to have expansive conversations across geographic boundaries in real time," he said.

No stranger to public discourse, Ponder and Michele Tuck-Ponder also penned a duo of books capturing historic and contemporary sermons from leading African-American ministers. In 1996, the couple wrote Wisdom of the Word Faith: Great African-American Sermons, and in 1997, they authored a follow-up, Wisdom of the Word Love: Great African-American Sermons.

Many of those sermons remain relevant, especially to current racial challenges. "In our upbringing, love and faith were extremely important," Ponder said. "Our dialogue does not emphasize love enough in how we treat another."

As for the Princeton Community Democratic Organization's recent discussion, other panelists included: Deborah Blanks, retired Princeton University associate dean of Religious Life and the Chapel; Carlton Branscomb, pastor of First Baptist Church of Princeton; Shirley Satterfield, a former Princeton High School guidance counselor and local historian; Calvin Reed, a staffer to U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson-Coleman; Leticia Fraga, vice chair of the Princeton Human Services Commission; and Donald Brash, an associate professor of historical theology at Palmer Theological Seminary.

The moderator, Tucker-Ponder, has extensive professional credentials, including a stint as Princeton University's manager of the Center for African American Studies. As well, she previously served as assistant counsel to Gov. Jim Florio and as an aide to former U.S. Rep. Louis Stokes and to former U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, Columbia '49.

In addition, the mother of two children is the former chief executive officer and director of the Girl Scouts of Delaware-Raritan, Inc.

Ultimately, for the Ponder family, empathy and understanding remain at the heart of racial reconciliation.

"Probably the most important thing about the teachings of Christ is the openness to all types of people, the willingness to help those who are less fortunate and the willingness to embrace faith and love," Ponder said.
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