To see what "putting down roots" looks like, look no further than McKinley L. Price, the Daily Press 2005 Citizen of the Year. What you will see is a network of roots that reaches wide, delivering nourishment and support to many corners of the local area and beyond. You'll see a taproot that drills down deep, one focused on a fight against prejudice and divisiveness. You'll see the difference one man's commitment can make -- in a stronger community, in organizations and individuals that are better off for the service that Price has devoted to Newport News.
And you'll see new roots branching out as he embarks on new projects, roots that promise to bear fruit in areas vital to the long-term health of this community.
Somewhere between demolition man and builder lies the best descriptor of Price's intentions. Through his civic work and the example he makes of his own life, what he hopes to accomplish is breaking down -- stereotypes and prejudice -- and building up -- bridges that bring a community closer together.
Calmly, incrementally, resolutely, Price has pursued this goal, relying equally on process and person.
That taproot, dominant among Price's commitments to the community, has to do with issues of prejudice and acceptance, diversity and unity. It has taken the shape of leadership in two groups, People to People and the National Conference for Community and Justice.
People to People was formed in 1992 when a group of Newport News movers and shakers became alarmed at several decisions made in quick succession by an all-white City Council. Those decisions were troubling at a time when racial tensions nationally were heightened in the wake of the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers accused of beating a black man, Rodney King. Local leaders turned to one of their own, Price, for insight and assistance.
The crisis passed, but the organization is still going strong and still headed up by the original duo of Price and Herbert V. Kelly Sr., elder statesman of the Newport News law world -- with a lot of good help.
What People to People does is facilitate the face-to-face dialogue and connections that are the best hope of closing what Price refers to as the "racial divide" in the community.
People to People's goal, says Price, isn't to solve the community's problems, but to bring them up and provide a mechanism and an environment in which people on all sides of an issue can discuss it and come up with ways to solve it themselves. It tackles topics important to the city, cutting across education, economics, race relations and, most recently, gangs.
The ultimate mark of People to People's success, Price observes, would be if it were no longer needed. To hasten that day, it makes a concerted effort to involve young people and address issues that shape their future. That's where, says Price, "We get the most bang for the buck"
Nowhere is that more evident than in a powerful program called Unitown that Price was instrumental in bringing to Newport News five years ago. Twice each year, a group of 50 students, along with staff, from a Newport News high school retreats for four days to a camp on the Eastern Shore or the James River to tackle issues such as acceptance, exclusion and community. Schools rotate, taking turns. Under the guidance of trained facilitators, students and staff come face to face with themselves and each other, and are transformed by the process. When they return, says Price, they can transform the culture of a school.
Unitown is a program of the National Conference for Community and Justice, a group formerly known as the National Conference of Christians and Jews. The old name reveals its origins in promoting respect across religious boundaries. The new one better fits its aim of reaching more broadly in its campaign against bias and bigotry.
His role as board member (and former chairman) of the local NCCJ chapter is the second front of Price's efforts to foster understanding, eradicate intolerance and strengthen the communal core that is the heart of community.
BIRTHING BIG IDEAS
Asked which of his activities would leave the greatest mark on him, Price was quick to answer: An Achievable Dream. When he first became involved, this was a summer tennis and enrichment program for fourth-graders. It's grown in the 13 intervening years, and seeing Dreamers come back from college and share their success is deeply gratifying to Price. He can relate to young people who surpass the expectations of their origins, and is proud to be part of an organization that gives them chances they wouldn't otherwise have. We'll see more of these kids, he predicts, and the mark they'll make.
Citing An Achievable Dream as personally meaningful reveals much about Price's style and what he hopes to contribute. He views his role as something like a midwife, assisting at the birth of great things, or a nurseryman, cultivating the seeds of change. Take An Achievable Dream: Price sees his contribution as being on the School Board when Walter Segaloff came forward with the idea, and in a position to help move it forward. He still serves as vice chairman of An Achievable Dream's board.
"I'm not a 'follow me over the hill' kind of leader," says Price, but a leader by example. His role is to do what he does best: listen well and be patient. Recognize problems, use his contacts to argue for an issue, help find solutions and negotiate compromises. Facilitate. Encourage people that, "If you participate, this can happen."
He has helped give birth to civic organizations and nurtured them through critical times. He was one of the founding members of the local chapter of 100 Black Men of America, which provides mentors and models for young people. He's pitched in at the Boys and Girls Club and bank boards and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel Commission. These days he's busy with the board of Riverside Health System and chairs the board of the Riverside Health System Foundation, which makes grants to community organizations. The list goes on and on.