Melannie Denise Cunningham talks racial reconciliation
Melannie Cunningham introduces herself as Tacoma’s “Peace Queen.”
When she does, she’s not donning a crown or one of those stuffy hats Elizabeth made iconic. But this year’s Greater Tacoma Peace Prize Laureate wears the self-anointed title with style.
She also acknowledges being humbled by the award.
On Sunday, Tacoma’s Peace Queen will be a long way from the kingdom she calls home. Far from the neighborhood in Lakewood she grew up in, or the Pacific Lutheran University campus where she’s presided for more than a decade, Cunningham, 60, will be in Norway, taking part in the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony at the Oslo City Hall.
The trip, and the invitation, are the spoils of the prestigious local award, which in the past has been bestowed upon the likes of the late Father Bix, the well-known Jesuit priest who made a name protesting social injustices and championing nuclear disarmament, and Thomas Dixon, founder of the Tacoma Urban League and one of the city’s first civil rights leaders.
For Cunningham, the opportunity to make her trip unique and involve her South Sound community — a hallmark of the decades of work that put her in this position — was too good to pass up.
Unlike previous winners of the Greater Tacoma Peace Prize who have made the trip, like Dixon, Cunningham will be flanked by a film crew, capturing the experience for a forthcoming documentary.
It’s a predictable move for a woman who, at her core, describes herself as “an organizer” with an emphasis on community and racial reconciliation.
Cunningham’s resume is long and reflective of decades of service. It includes spearheading Tacoma’s first Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration in the 1980s and making Tacoma the first city to partake in the “Hate Won’t Win” challenge in response to the 2015 massacre of nine African American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina.
More recently, Cunningham launched the annual People’s Gathering at PLU. Marking its third year in April, the daylong event carries the tag line “a revolution of consciousness” and invites attendees to participate in “frank and open conversations about race, equity and inclusion. “
The underlying theme of all that work, Cunningham says, is bringing people together. So it’s fitting that she’d hatch a plan to share the experience, at least via video, in an attempt bring her community to Oslo with her.
“This is special. This is Tacoma,” Cunningham said last week, before she departed.
“We’re going to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony! Dang!” she added, with characteristic flair.
While Cunningham’s work focuses on building community, that’s not to say it’s all group hugs and renditions of Kumbaya. Far from it.
Rather, as the premise of the annual People’s Gathering makes clear, it’s about fostering an atmosphere of togetherness in service of tackling difficult but necessary conversations around race.
It’s something she’s been doing for most of her life.
Currently, Cunningham is director of multicultural outreach and engagement at PLU, through the office of campus ministry. It’s a platform for work she says she was born to do.
“I’ve always been a person that gravitated toward the underdog, or as I got older and more educated, learned that it’s marginalized people or underrepresented folks,” Cunningham says.
“People that are not always treated fairly — that’s been my life’s work. I’m always sticking up for somebody.”
According to Tom Heavey, the founder of the Greater Tacoma Peace Prize and a current board member of the award selection committee, it’s precisely what made Cunningham this year’s winner. The prize, which is modeled after the Nobel Peace Prize and was first awarded in 2005, recognizes community members working for peace, he said.
Specifically, Heavey pointed to Cunningham’s “willingness to bring up race in what is sometimes not polite discussion, or people don’t consider it polite.”
“It’s a discussion that needs to be had,” Heavey says. “Many of us had hoped that under eight years of President Obama, we were going to enter a post-racial era in America, that we could set it aside, or we wouldn’t see those problems that we’ve seen before.
“But once he was out of office, overt racism came roaring back.”
Asked when, exactly, Cunningham knew grappling with and combating all forms of racism would be her calling, she thought back to fifth grade.
At the time, her family lived in Florida. Pursuing what was the “best education being offered,” her parents enrolled her in a local Catholic school.
Because Cunningham is black — and would be one of the first black students at the school — she had to go through an interview process that white students weren’t subjected to.
“I remember wondering, ‘Why does God care what color I am? What is this whole thing about?’” Cunningham says. “That’s kind of when I knew, because then it was just a fire inside of me, and ever since then I’ve just been that girl.”
It’s a calling that hasn’t always been easy, Cunningham says. Sometimes it means being blunt and challenging white fragility. Other times, it means being vulnerable and willing to share her story and life experiences.
But it has been fulfilling — and it always came from a place of love.
Cunningham also has no intention of slowing down.
“I think that we’re reconciling the dehumanization of people,” Cunningham explains of what racial reconciliation means to her and why she presses on.
“We’re trying to come to grips with truth. We have to reconcile truth.”