About 1,200 people who attended Columbia’s diversity breakfast Thursday morning gave standing ovations to NAACP President Mary Ratliff and members of the Minority Men’s Network when they were recognized for promoting diversity in the community.
After that, the crowd at the 14th annual Columbia Values Diversity Celebration watched a musical and theatrical performance, “Many Cultures, One Community ... A Vision of Harmony.”
Coordinated by Tim and Deborah Baldwin, the event featured more than 100 performers and aimed to provide a hopeful vision of the community by “looking at our past, our present and our future,” emcee Monica Naylor said. Performers included the Missouri Contemporary Ballet, the Missouri Symphony Society Children’s Chorus and students who recited poems about diversity.
The climax of the breakfast, held at the Holiday Inn Select Executive Center, was the presentation of the 10th annual Columbia Values Diversity Awards by Mayor Darwin Hindman. The awards each year recognize the contributions of an individual or family and an organization that promotes appreciation for diversity and cultural understanding.
Ratliff, who won the individual award, has served as the president of NAACP of Columbia for nearly 30 years.
“I am very, very proud,” Ratliff said. “I think nothing makes you prouder than to receive an award from your community for which you work. This (award) means to me that Columbia is moving forward, becoming more ready to address some of the ills. We still do have some ills in our community.”
Ratliff has been an outspoken advocate for the rights of black residents and hasn’t shied from taking on such controversial issues as alleged racial profiling by police. She has also called attention to the employment challenges that black Columbians face.
Under Ratliff’s leadership, the NAACP has created a legal redress committee that listens to complaints of racial discrimination and shepherds them through the legal system. The NAACP also holds election forums and meets with school officials to find ways to close the achievement gap. It also has programs such as the “Back-To-School, Stay-In-School” tutoring program for children ages 5 to 17.
Ratliff led a voter registration initiative in 2000 that helped 2,200 people register to vote.
She is president of the NAACP Missouri State Conference, a member of the NAACP national board of directors, a member of Second Missionary Baptist Church and a member of the Women’s Missionary Union.
Martha McCrary nominated Ratliff. She called her a confident woman and in her written nomination said Ratliff “has walked with pride while cultivating the habit of keeping her promise and building bridges of trust.”
The organizational award went to the Minority Men’s Network, a group of Columbia leaders that strives to address issues vital to the minority community. The network has about 75 members.
Eliot Battle, the individual award winner in 1999, co-founded the network with MU professor emeritus Arvarh Strickland. Battle said they formed the group 22 years ago to promote a community environment more tolerant of multiple races.
The group’s biggest contribution has been in the field of education. Jeffrey Williams, who was president of the network from 2003 to 2006 and is a co-chairman of Columbia’s visioning committee, said the network gives scholarships each year to minority students who graduate from Columbia public high schools. The group also helps to fund trips to Europe for minority students and works with public schools on issues such as achievement disparity and mentoring programs.
Williams believes the influence of the network members and the group’s achievements make it worthy of the award.
“Many of our members are involved with not only things that benefit the minority community, but (they) are leaders in general in the community at large as well,” he said.
Network members also serve on various community groups such as the Mayor’s Task Force on Race Relations, the Columbia Chamber of Commerce and the West Boulevard Elementary School improvement project.
Williams said the group works hard to break down barriers between the races and facilitate greater interaction between the white and black communities. The award, he said, is a “recognition for the work we are doing, greater visibility for the efforts that we are making.”
Strickland, who won the individual award in 2005, believes Columbia has made a lot of progress on diversity in the past few years but needs to do more.
“Changing behavior patterns and all kinds of ways of doing things is not easy,” Strickland said. “So it still takes work to get that done.”