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Future bright for OCCI

Monday, April 30, 2007

Two years after surviving the collapse of its parent organization, the future looks bright for the Tulsa-based Oklahoma Conference for Community and Justice.

Membership and giving are up, young professional people are getting involved and the human relations organization is finally fully independent. On April 1, OCCJ was legally incorporated as a 501c3 nonprofit in Oklahoma.

"I really think the future of OCCJ is very, very bright, and it relates to what's going on in the world today," said President-elect Jim Langdon, who will lead the organization for two years beginning in December.

Man's inhumanity toward his fellow man is dominating the news, he said, whether the war in Iraq, or immigration issues, or racial or gender issues.

"There just seems to be so much turmoil in the world today that people are more open than ever to the mission and work of OCCJ, advocating the importance of respecting people, celebrating the differences we share and promoting understanding among all of us.

"I think the mission and work of OCCJ resonates more loudly than at any other time in the 70-plus year history of the organization."

He also said OCCJ is on solid ground financially,with leadership in place that is dedicated to the mission.

For 71 years, the organization now known as OCCJ was a chapter of NCCJ, most recently called the National Conference for Community and Justice, a human rights organization which in its heyday had some 70 regions, or chapters, nationwide.

NCCJ was formed in 1927 in New York City as the National Conference of Christians and Jews to fight bias, bigotry and racism in America. It has undergone two name changes.

The old NCCJ held the purse strings for the local chapters. Money raised locally went to the national office, which distributed it to the chapters to fund their services.

In 2004, it became apparent that NCCJ was in financial trouble.

The Tulsa chapter was notified in November 2004 that it was on a list of 24 chapters to be closed.

"We knew time was limited," said then-President Oliver Howard.

"We had to put our financial house in order. . . . There was a lot of soul-searching and hand ringing."

Tulsa leaders raised more than $600,000 in three months to become independent, and reached an amicable agreement to sever ties with NCCJ. That agreement included the right to use the NCCJ name, altered to Oklahoma Conference for Community and Justice.

On May 1, 2005, Tulsa became the first chapter to successfully sever ties with NCCJ.

Since then, chapters around the nation have looked to Tulsa for guidance.

"We got phone calls. I went to meetings -- two in Kansas City, one in St. Louis, one in Chicago," said Nancy Day, who has been executive director of the Tulsa chapter for 25 years.

"We did certainly share our story, and our success, and we sent documents out to folks.

"But because we started so much earlier, our story was very much different from the others," Day said.

Some chapters that left were sued by NCCJ, primarily for using the NCCJ name, Howard said.

Ginny Creveling was president during the transition and masterminded the creation of OCCJ as an independent organization.

She was named Tulsan of the Year by Tulsa People Magazine and also was named to the Oklahoma Women's Hall of Fame in part for her work to save OCCJ.

Creveling said she is excited about the future of OCCJ.

She is particularly encouraged that young professionals are getting involved.

"They came to us; we didn't go to them," she said. "They seem to recognize the importance of this mission."

Among the fresh faces at OCCJ is Sanjay Meshri, 37, managing director of Advance Research Chemicals and on both the board and executive committee of OCCJ.

"I feel like this is a very, very good cause, especially in these times," said Meshri, who was born and raised in Oklahoma by parents from India.

"It's the only human relations organization that really focuses on bringing together different religions and cultures."

Adrienne Watt, 30, an attorney for Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma, was inspired to get involved with NCCJ when she attended Anytown Oklahoma, an NCCJ program for high-school students. She also is on the OCCJ board and executive committee.

Watt said she believes the younger generation is making progress, but "there are still diversity issues to be worked on. And by that I mean every aspect of diversity -- race, gender, age, sexual orientation, nationality, disability, religion, socio-economic.

"We're becoming an increasingly multiracial population," she said.

As NCCJ has diminished to only a few chapters, 16 of its former members have formed a loose-knit alliance called the National Federation for Just Communities.

OCCJ officially joined the federation last month. Creveling is OCCJ's representative on the federation board.

Day said through the tumult of the last two years, OCCJ has continued all its programs, and has not lost sight of its mission.

"Our mission has not changed in 70 years, but it has broadened," she said.

OCCJ sponsors a variety of programs to foster understanding between people of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds.

Among them are: Anytown, Oklahoma, a week-long human relations camp for teenagers; Different and the Same, an early elementary school program to help students identify, talk about and prevent prejudice; Youth Interfaith Tour, in which young people tour diverse places of worship; Interfaith Trialogue Series, consisting of lectures from various faith traditions; and the Interfaith Awards Luncheon.

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