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Peacemaker goes from one challenge to another

Last Friday was supposed to be Roy Kaplan's last day as executive director of the National Conference for Community and Justice.

At 60, Kaplan decided to retire from the post he had held since 1989. It was time for a new challenge.

Sunday, though, saw him temporarily back on the job, spreading his message of understanding and tolerance at an Episcopal church in Tampa and sharing a lunch of East Indian specialties in Clearwater with a Unitarian Universalist minister and an advocate for the separation of church and state.

In his role with the conference, an organization that fights bias, bigotry and racism, Kaplan could be counted on to voice an opinion about sectarian prayer at public gatherings, racist symbols at area schools, hate crimes against gays and intolerance among religious groups.

As Kaplan explains it, his retirement from the conference doesn't end his mission. This week he began a new job as visiting associate professor in Africana studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa. He will teach Racism in American Society and coordinate a doctoral program on diasporas and health inequalities. He also will conduct research and write.

For Kaplan, who has a doctorate in sociology, the new position allows him to resume a career in academia. Before heading the Tampa Bay chapter of the conference, he was a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Florida Atlantic University and the Florida Institute of Technology.

It was time for a change, he said.

"I turned 60 last March. I felt I needed to take a deep breath. I wanted to do more teaching and research. A nonprofit job is all-consuming. Many days, it was seven days and nights.

"I have unfinished work that I put down for the last 15 years. I bought a boat a few months ago. I've yet to put it in the water."

In the past year, he became a grandfather. He also published a new book, Failing Grades: How Schools Breed Frustration, Anger and Violence, and How to Prevent It.

Reviewing his 15 years with the conference, Kaplan noted the Tampa Bay chapter's accomplishments.

"I think we've made great progress in working with the education programs here," he said, pointing, for instance, to the Camp Anytown programs for high school students that strive to fight racism and bigotry. The conference also introduced workshops for faculty and administrators to promote multicultural education and corporate diversity, he said.

"I know that our programs have made a difference. One of my misgivings is that I didn't have all of the resources to meet all the needs. We increased the staff dramatically, and we still couldn't provide everything. I'm deeply grateful to the fine people I've worked with, staff and volunteers, who are greatly committed to the mission," he said.

Working for tolerance and respect has not been easy, he said. "I've been uncomfortable a lot."

Over the years, Kaplan has helped calm emotions in schools and among religious groups. He organized discussions after the 1996 racial disturbances in St. Petersburg. He has stood up to hate groups that deny the Holocaust.

"One thing I've learned about these hate groups, it's a business for them. They get donations, and they sell literature and music. It's a hate industry. I came to terms with it," he said.

Strides have been made to improve relationships among diverse groups in the Tampa Bay area, Kaplan said, but work still needs to be done.

"While we've become more diverse, our words are not always matched by our deeds. So we still have to go further in creating an environment that's comfortable for everybody."

The conference will conduct a national search for Kaplan's replacement. Gerri Gundle-Bradley will serve as executive director until a permanent appointment is made early next year.

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