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IN THE NEWS
"O" - OPRAH MAGAZINE
After riots rocked Los Angeles in 1992, Diane Bock set out to build bridges across the color divide, one family at a time
By Betty Cortina July/August, 2000
IN THE MIDDLE OF AN APRIL NIGHT back in 1992, Diane Bock sat in the living room of her San Diego home, nursing her newborn daughter. Struggling to stay awake, she turned on her television. What she saw really opened her eyes.
A local station was airing footage of the Los Angeles riots, which had erupted after an all white jury acquitted four white police officers who were caught on videotape beating black motorist Rodney King. As images of blazing city blocks flashed across her screen, Bock was horrified. "Black people were fighting white people; Koreans were fighting Hispanics," she says. "I thought, how could there be so much hatred? And what can one person do about it?"
Although she was living 8o miles away in an upscale, mostly white community, Bock was haunted by those images for months. Then, an idea came to her, and she sat down and put it in writing. "The best way to break down stereotypes is to promote personal contact among people of different groups," she wrote. She proposed creating a matchmaking program that would bring together families of different races so they could get to know one another and rid themselves of prejudice. Thinking this was the kind of task community agencies would be eager to take on, Bock sent her idea to every organization she could think of, from the United Way to her local school board. She spent the next three months making follow-up calls and visits, trying to convince one of them to implement her plan.
But no one was interested. "I was surprised," says Bock, who had recently left her marketing job to stay home with her baby, Tasha, and older daughter, Quincy, then 3. "My husband finally told me, 'If you really care about this, you're doing to have to do it yourself.' And he was right."
In early 1994, Bock created Community Cousins, a program that pairs up families of different ethnicities. She planned to encourage families, she called them cousins, to get together regularly; over time, she hoped they would build friendships and break down racial barriers. "If you're going to change the way people think and feel about one another," says Bock, now 40, "you have to start by bringing them together."
After her program was given nonprofit status by the government, she recruited some well-known people with clout in her community to be on her board of advisors. At home she typed a brochure and made 1000 copies at her own expense. She left stacks of them at her pediatrician's office and at the library, and she posted them in supermarkets and on church bulletin boards. Sometimes she drove to Hispanic or black neighborhoods. "I'd see a family walking down the street, and I'd just hand them a pamphlet," Bock says. She rarely met resistance, but once, early in her campaign, "a Hispanic woman said she wasn't interested in knowing white people. I went home thinking, What am I doing?"
Still, Bock forged ahead with her plans for the first Community Cousins event: a party for everyone who had signed up. Nearly 40 families showed up and brought everything from wontons to fried chicken to enchiladas. "There was so much to do, so much going on, that it was easy for people to talk to one another," says Katie Spiller, 40, an African-American "cousin" whose husband, Curt, and then 3 -year-old son, Drew, were recruited by Bock one afternoon at a playground. In the five years since that kickoff party, more than 300 families have participated in Community Cousins. The cousins are encouraged (nothing is ever forced) to meet on their own every month or two to go for pizza, have a play date or go to the movies. Every few months, Bock organizes a potluck picnic, a chili cook off or a ball game for all the families. "Once you get to know one another, you begin to empathize," says Bock. "That's how you begin to care about someone who looks different."
Over the years, Bock and her husband, Larry, a 43-year-old venture capitalist, have grown especially close to the Spiller family. "I've learned that we may have different cultural experiences but that as parents we are very, very similar," says Bock. "It's changed the way I see things." For the Spillers, the group has eased some of the isolation they've felt living in a mostly white community. "It's given us a broader range of friends, and that's something I want to pass on to my kids," Katie says. "It's also helped us connect with other black families in the area. For my boys, that means they're not always the only black children in a room." Katie's son Drew, now 8, puts it simply: "I've learned you can never tell what people can do just by looking at them."
Since Bock started the program, she and Larry have bankrolled the majority of its expenses: $27,000, used mostly for printing and postage. But Bock says every penny has been worth it. "Think of all the natural disasters and the diseases in the world," she says. "Racism is something we created. There are things we can do to fight it. That's why I'm doing this; because I can, and because I should."