'Just Say Hello' campaign aims to bridge divisions of race, culture through conversations

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Saying hello to a stranger can feel awkward or out of the ordinary.

"I was shocked at the number of people who looked at me as if I didn't exist," said Kerman Maddox, founder of the Just Say Hello campaign. "They ignored me."

Through experiences such as the one he described, the public relations consultant was inspired to launch the campaign, enlisting the help of other local leaders in Southern California.

"We're a terribly divided nation, and California is no exception," Maddox said. "We noticed after the murder of George Floyd, there was a lot of tension here in Southern California."

The last year has amplified deep-seated injustice, bias, and racism across the country.

"Acknowledging someone; that breaks down barriers, that allows us to come into a oneness with each other's humanity. This is so important in America today," said Pastor William Smart, president and CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California.

The campaign stresses that big actions and small ones are needed to achieve racial equity.

ABC7 reached out to Dr. Erlanger Turner, associate professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, where he teaches courses on issues of race and culture.

"We know from decades of research, when individuals experience racism that it does impact relationships in terms of how much contact we have with others that are different from us," Turner said. He explained that seemingly small actions can have deep impact. For example, microagressions.

"An eye roll or even sort of unwelcoming body language towards others, that those small types of racist behaviors can be impactful in terms of relationships and the research shows that when people engage in these subtle forms of racism that it does impact people's mood and how they feel about each other," he said.

Flipping the script may have the opposite effect.

"Saying hello might help a little bit to reduce some of the tension and then people can maybe begin to do some of the deeper work," he said.

That is the key.

"The small gestures can be helpful but it's not going to solve the issues around racism and reducing the racial injustice," Turner said. "It's going to require us to continue to do much deeper work and to change these systems and to change policies and to make sure that people are actually engaged in these long-lasting behaviors that are actually going to change relationships."
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