Columbus has come a long way toward becoming a more welcoming community, but more work is needed to bring people together, a group of panelists said Monday.

A panel discussion considered the topic “Columbus Then and Now: How Far Have We Come, How Far Do We Have to Go?” at the Columbus Learning Center. More than 30 people attended the program, among five events conducted on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in Columbus.

Panelists responded to questions about how they came to Columbus, how long they have lived in the area and whether they felt the city was a welcoming one.

Ric King, a lifelong resident of Columbus, described his life growing up, saying his family was the first of color to move into an all-white neighborhood.

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“Growing up here, it wasn’t very welcoming. It’s been a struggle,” King said. “We’ve come a long way, but we still got a long way to go.”

Another panelist Sondra Bolte, a leader for the local Showing Up For Racial Justice organization, said she once faced challenges as a lesbian woman living in Columbus. Among them include applying to serve on a city commission at a time that she didn’t feel welcomed because of her sexual orientation, she said.

However, things have evolved over time, Bolte said, adding that she’s seen progress made.

Fellow panelist Hanna Omar, a spokesperson for the Islamic Society of Columbus Indiana who moved to Columbus in 2011, said better representation is needed from the area’s elected officials. Her comments were in response to white supremacists marching down Washington Street in downtown Columbus last year.

But bringing people together needs to happen in order to reflect on the differences among individuals, the panelists said.

IUPUC student Joseline Medina, a panelist who moved to Columbus from Mexico City when she was 3, said discussions such as the ones held on Monday were helpful. She is part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which assists people who came into the United States as children with undocumented parents.

Medina, a senior studying criminal justice, said community and education are two things that will help connect the community moving forward. Growing up, the individuals she encountered in Columbus helped her get through life in the United States, she said.

“A lot of things have changed for the better,” Medina said.

More interaction between churches also is needed, said the Rev. Clem Davis, pastor of St. Bartholomew Catholic Church.

He came to Columbus in 1997 and said he decided to participate in the panel because he believes change that Martin Luther King. Jr. championed is still important.

“We just have to continue working,” Davis said.

That sentiment was shared by Ric King, who called on local people to work together and get involved to help improve the quality of life and help others whenever possible.

Bolte also encouraged audience members to interact with individuals around them who may be different.

“I really believe that Columbus is small enough that you can make a difference,” Bolte said.

IUPUC Excellence in Diversity award recipients

Su Casa Columbus, a local non-profit organization serving the Latino community.

Dr. Kevin Jones, associate professor in IUPUC’s Division of Business.

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Matt Kent is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at 812-379-5712 or mkent@therepublic.com