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A packed sanctuary listens to Rev. Alex Gee's speech at the "Justified Anger, State of Emergency" town hall meeting held in February at Fountain of Life Covenant Church. 

A discussion among community leaders this week aims to open up a candid dialogue about race relations in Madison. But it's far from the first effort to move the community forward in that arena.

On Thursday, a group of eight panelists will discuss the social divide in the Madison area in "Together Apart: Talking Across the Social Divide," a panel hosted by the Cap Times and Wisconsin Public Radio.

They'll talk about the things that keep people of different races apart, and what can bring us together to take on issues in education, housing, crime and the economy.

Award-winning journalist Keith Woods, NPR's vice president for diversity, will moderate the panel, which is free and open to the public. It begins at 7 p.m. at First Unitarian Society, 900 University Bay Drive.

It's part of the Cap Times’ larger effort to address the profound quality-of-life disparities between races made evident in the recent “Race to Equity” report and which are at the heart of the Rev. Alex Gee’s Justified Anger movement. The panel will focus primarily on the social divide between Madison's African-American and white communities. 

While not a new problem, it is a persistent one. The Madison community has long sought to broach the subject of race relations with candor and purpose. 

In 1998, the Wisconsin State Journal published candid questions and answers submitted during a forum about racial and cultural issues called "Can We Talk?" in an effort to launch a statewide discussion about race.

The late 1990s also brought people together for the "Building Bridges" program, offered first to youth and then expanded for adults. The privately run sessions sought to offer an unencumbered dialogue about race, escaping the confines of political correctness and digging into real-life implications. 

At that time, the city struggled with its own recommendations for improving race relations in Madison. A mayoral task force floated ideas including building swimming pools to bring children of different backgrounds together and developing "study circles" to foster productive discussions about race.

Founded in the early 2000s during Sue Bauman's mayoral tenure, the study circles were a city-led effort to bring together diverse groups of people to discuss race relations. The administration of the program was eventually called into question, and upon his election, Mayor Dave Cieslewicz phased out its public funding

A UW study suggested that the study circles program only had a slight effect on race relations, and participants had mixed reactions about the discussions. The program eventually disappeared entirely.

In 2002, jazz musician and UW professor Richard Davis founded the privately run Institute for the Healing of Racism, and YWCA Madison launched a series of workshops that discussed race issues.

"I think Madison has a really big illusion about who we are, about being a group of really good white people, but not owning history, and not really understanding or being willing to delve in to what race means in our community," YWCA CEO Rachel Krinsky told the Cap Times in 2012, discussing the organization's Racial Justice Workshops, which offer training in better communication across cultures, among other topics.

YWCA Madison also holds a yearly Racial Justice Summit focusing on institutional racism, with discussions on how to eliminate barriers that foster racism in Madison.

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More recently, under Mayor Paul Soglin's leadership, the city launched a Racial Equity and Social Justice Initiative last summer, a plan to review city policies and initiatives to identify whether they are equitable in practice.

Lucia Nunez, director of the city’s Department of Civil Rights, was director of Centro Hispano, a local nonprofit serving the Latino community, during the study circle initiative of the previous decade.

Comparing the new initiative to the study circles, she told the Cap Times in February: "They were good conversations. But it was people talking at the individual level about the implicit and explicit bias we carry. We can’t just stay there. We have to go deeper. That’s what this does."

The Urban League of Greater Madison in 2008 released the "State of Black Madison" report, which highlighted the challenges African-Americans face as a result of racial disparity in the Madison community. It was followed by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families' "Race to Equity" report in October 2013.

In December 2013, the Rev. Alex Gee launched a movement in the Madison community after the publication of his personal essay, "Justified Anger," in the Cap Times. The essay, which urged the Madison area to do better by its African-American community, sparked widespread discussion within the community and throughout the country. Gee later founded the Justified Anger coalition to address racial disparities in Madison and Dane County.

Inspired by Gee's essay, Boys & Girls Club of Dane County CEO Michael Johnson also shared a personal essay, "Driven to Act," in the Cap Times. It detailed a racial hazing incident in Minnesota, and discussed how he moved beyond it. In sharing his experience, Johnson also outlined steps to help Madison move forward as a community on race relations.

The essay provoked discussion in Madison and beyond, and sparked the idea for a community potluck dinner to discuss race relations. The dinner is at Memorial High School on Sunday.

Gee and Johnson will both participate in the "Together Apart" panel on Thursday. Read more about the event, and the other panelists who will join the discussion, here.

Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.