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Tyrone Forman: The scholar

Emory professor and James Weldon Johnson Institute director opens up the conversations about race and difference

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Emory University's Tyrone Forman has a rare perspective and keen understanding about race in "the city too busy to hate."

As an associate professor of sociology for more than a decade, he has studied the attitudes between different racial and ethnic groups. Last year, he was tapped as the new director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute (JWJI), an Emory organization that tries to build awareness about the modern civil rights movement on both the academic and public levels.

As he takes the institute's reins, Forman wants to change the dialogue about race and other forms of "difference" such as class, gender, religion, and sexuality throughout metro Atlanta. In particular, he wants to find a way for people to have a more nuanced conversation about these issues.

"We don't always have a language or capacity to talk about these things," Forman says. "How do we say, 'let's talk about race, but let's talk about it in a way that's very different than we have in the past?'"

After arriving at Emory from the University of Illinois-Chicago in 2008, Forman immersed himself in the school's Race and Difference Initiative, a campus-wide effort intended to make the university a top destination for "courageous inquiry" into areas such as race.

Forman soon became the Race and Difference Initiative's co-director and helped further its mission during his first four years at the university. Shortly after the cash-strapped group merged with the JWJI in fall 2011, institute founder and distinguished African-American scholar Rudolph R. Byrd passed away. One year later, Forman was appointed as the new director. Although the Bronx native is still getting his bearings on the job, he's excited about the institute's future.

"One of the things I'm excited about with the new institute is leveraging the resources of the university in the larger metropolitan area," he says. "It seems to me that, particularly in this area around race and difference, that there are important lessons to be learned around the social and cultural transformations that are occurring in Atlanta."

Forman doesn't just want the JWJI to study the metro area for academics' sake. He wants to form a mutually beneficial relationship between Emory and Atlanta residents, where the university can help address issues in which race and differences are notably at play.

At the moment, Forman is working with CNN to set up a new series of the network's "CNN Dialogues," honest, "public square"-style discussions focused on race and ethnicity across a variety of issues. Several of those summits are scheduled to occur in 2013 and will tackle things such as public education, civil rights, and eradicating food deserts.

"A lot of the time, the difficult dialogues don't get discussed," Forman says. "We facilitate a larger conversation in Atlanta around questions of civil rights, human rights, race and difference. How do we get a CEO of a given company along with a person who may be suffering from an issue being discussed?"

The JWJI has also teamed up with the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, which is set to open near Centennial Olympic Park in May 2014, to possibly curate and display some of the important papers held in Emory's Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library. Among them: documents from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker and James Weldon Johnson.

He also wants to use Emory's "intellectual hub" as an impetus for change, which he thinks could potentially help the Atlanta City Council and local community groups make informed policy decisions with race and difference in mind.

"We want to be seen as a resource as policy changes in Atlanta are implemented," Forman says. "We want to be a part of those important conversations."

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