Community Forum Tackles Civil Rights at Length

Civil rights forum

With the Black Lives Matter movement holding anti-police brutality protests around the country and activists pushing to make systemic racism a major issue for candidates in the approaching 2016 Presidential election, residents in New Haven convened for a discussion regarding the next steps of what has been regarded as the modern-day civil rights struggle.

That will mean addressing not only the criminal justice system, but education, and poverty-among other issues impacting communities of color-panelists for “A Community Discussion on Civil Rights Issues: Black Lives DO Matter”, an event held last Thursday at the Paul UAME Church on Dwight Street.

The panel-consisting of New Haven students, parents, educators, a local journalist, and an NAACP member and state chapter presidential candidate-wrestled with education disparity, the meaning of the controversial “Black Lives Matter” slogan, and how to use the coming elections as an instrument for change.

The discussion started with a question pertaining to involvement-and how to get it from members of the community. From the perspective of Leroy Williams-a New Haven Public Schools administrator and a member of Mayor Toni Harp’s community policing task force-that starts with the school system and how engaged parents and students are with it.

He and other panelists consider education to be in many ways the movement itself.

“If you think education doesn’t have anything to do with civil rights, think of the struggle with segregation,” said former WYBC journalist Michelle Turner, who moderated the discussion.

But Connecticut’s schools are still segregated-just in practice as opposed to by law, panelists said. They pointed to the state’s test score achievement gap-considered an indictment of an education system that many say is leaving students of color behind as schools in low-income communities struggle with less resources.

“It’s not because they don’t have the same abilities as other students,” said panelist Rashanda McCollum, a New Haven resident and attorney for Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now. “They don’t have the same opportunities. They don’t have the same expectations.”

Williams emphasized the establishment of parent-teacher relationships in order to ensure consistent communication-a sentiment that was echoed by other panelists.

“I think you need to connect with people where they are, and not make it a thing where they have to add a lot to their daily routines,” said panelist Angela Carter, a web producer for The New Haven Register.

Tools such as social media can help, Carter said. She noted an initiative wherein which a line of adults in professional attire greeted students on the first day of New Haven’s school year.

“We need to do more of that,” she said. “That was promoted using Facebook and Twitter.”

To laughter, Turner asked how panelists felt the 2016 elections could impact communities of color.

“Every election cycle affects us,” Carter said. “We really have to pressure everyone running for President on the quality of education, quality of housing, jobs, equal pay, healthcare being affordable, and criminal justice.”

And it extends to local elections as well, McCollum said.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is what are equally important are local elections,” she said. “Those are the folks that directly impact your every single day life.”

Civil rights-minded voters need to keep an eye on initiatives that hold the potential to help impoverished communities, such as President Barack Obama’s College Promise Program-a proposal for two years of community college tuition coverage for “responsible” students-McCullum said.

“There have been a number of initiatives that have impacted communities of color,” she said. “We need someone who will provide or even go beyond the initiatives Obama has put into place.”

Most importantly, voters need to guide candidates on the ‘how’ aspect, as opposed to simply making demands as to ‘what’ the feel should be prioritized, Williams said.

“Don’t just say, ‘we want education-we want jobs’,” he said. “Come up with an agenda and at the right time, approach the candidates.”

For activists within the Black Lives Matter movement, the agenda-echoed recently by Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders-is around combating systemic racism. And that, panelists say, is an all-encompassing task that will touch everything from education, to criminal justice, to housing, to employment.

“Why are more children of color ushered into the prison system?” McCullum said. “Why are people of color having more trouble getting jobs, or loans for houses?”

While a criminal record is widely regarded as a significant barrier to employment and media coverage reported that drug sentencing laws tend to target blacks more than whites, despite the groups having similar rates of drug abuse. Meanwhile, black and Hispanic job applicants without a criminal record are less likely to receive a callback or job interview than a white applicant with a criminal record. 

That, panelists say, is the essence of the controversial Black Lives Matter slogan-one that has drawn the viral social media All Lives Matter response. And of course, the speakers addressed that discussion.

“I do recognize that all lives matter, but we need to address this institutional racism,” McCullum said. “it means my best friend’s son can be pulled over for whatever minor offense it may be, and not be fearful for his life.”

Williams had similar thoughts.

“I understand that all lives matter, but we have to understand that the playing field is not level,” he said.

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