Last summer William Nordmark was troubled.
He saw a lack of civility in our society, and he was upset by the boiling tensions between police officers and members of the African-American community across the country.
And then the local businessman, former Georgia State basketball player and longtime fixture at the Atlanta Rotary Club, heard a speech from A.D. “Pete” Correll, the former head of Georgia Pacific and chair of the Grady Memorial Hospital board, during the club’s weekly meeting.
In response to a question, Correll, a deeply respected community leader in Atlanta, said he believed race relations represented the most crucial issue before our community.
Nordmark decided he had to do something.
But what can one person do to address such a longstanding and complex societal challenge?
Nordmark, 67, decided he could change the world one person at a time.
And so the Atlanta Friendship Initiative was born.
Nordmark’s plan was simple, as he describes it:
“People of different colors having deep, intentional friendships.”
He just asks people to participate, and he pairs a white person with a person of color.
The pair agree to meet once per quarter, and Nordmark asks that they get their families together once a year.
All Nordmark wants to do is “bring people of different races together as friends. It sends a different message.”
And it’s working, if interest in the initiative is any indication.
Nordmark launched the project on Oct. 1. He’s put together 85 “friendships.” And about 100 people in the program attended a February event to show support for it.
He maintains a web site, www.atlantafriendshipinitiative.com, where people can get more information.
Not one person has turned him down, and he sees that as a craving people have to take personal action to improve their world.
“I’m a good salesman, but I’m not that good,” Nordmark says of his success.
(Full disclosure: I joined up. Nordmark’s a persuasive guy.)
Nordmark, of course, was the first to sign up for a friendship – with John Grant.
Grant, longtime head of the 100 Black Men of Atlanta, is executive director of the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl.
Nordmark and Grant speak of their relationship with obvious pride, and they see the need to set an example for others in the Atlanta Friendship Initiative.
To get things started, Nordmark and Grant arranged to have breakfast. Nordmark explained his idea to Grant, expecting that Grant would want some time to think about whether to commit.
But Grant surprised Nordmark.
“I’m in,” he said.
Nordmark suggested they get together again soon, and talk some more about whether to pursue his idea. But Grant had a sense of urgency.
“What do you not understand about ‘I’m in?’” asked Grant.
And their friendship was born. Now they get together regularly. They talk by phone, impulsively calling each other just to chat. Their wives have also become friends.
They see their one-on-one relationship as part of a much bigger picture.
“The lack of civil discourse in the exchange of ideas reflects a lack of true understanding of the cultural richness which forms the foundation of our nation and our world,” said Grant. “I do this because I believe is it important to be a catalyst for change. The Atlanta Friendship Initiative is the method by which that change will occur.”
Nordmark and Grant have relished watching others getting to know each other to, encouraging participants to learn each other’s stories and histories, just as they have done.
Nordmark believes that people are often acquainted, but don’t really know each other.
For example, he was a polio victim as a boy and is an ardent supporter of efforts to eradicate polio. He often speaks on the matter. But with Grant, he has shared his deeply personal story of the pain of being made fun of as a young boy because his face was partially paralyzed.
And Grant has told him about his difficult youth, when he was one of several African-American kids to integrate the local school.
Nordmark is enthusiastic about what he sees as a period of personal growth.
“It’s changed me,” he said. “It has given me at 67 the opportunity to fulfill my life.”
Nordmark wants his initiative to be “an example of how things should be.”
His idea, he believes, is so compelling that he’s made plans for huge growth.
“People are so grateful and appreciative,” Nordmark said. “My goal is to have it go all around the world.”