Group's second conference looks to shift from talk to action on inequities

This piece originally appeared on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Marcus F. Walton asked a room of around 100 top African-American CEOs and community leaders to hold hands, close their eyes, and confront whatever discomfort they may feel during the second annual African American Strategic Partnership conference on Tuesday.

“Allow yourself to wander, to think, to be confused,” the conference’s morning keynote speaker said Tuesday. “Notice the voice in your head right now. What is it saying? As you do that, I want to invite your attention back to my voice. Now listen to the silence, and take a deep breath.”

Mr. Walton, director of Racial Equity Initiatives at Borealis Philanthropy, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, instructed the group to think about someone who has encouraged them and helped them to be where they are now. “Call out their name,” he said. “Let yourself feel what’s coming up.”

“I see some tears in the room,” Mr. Walton said in the dimly lit room in the DoubleTree Hotel at the Monroeville Convention Center. “That’s good, that’s OK.”

The exercise, he said, is an ancestral practice that allows for vulnerability — an emotion he said we all need in order to empathize with others.

The African American Strategic Partnership, was founded in 2015 and held its first annual conference last year, focused on conversations about changing the economic trajectory of the African American community in Pittsburgh. This year, the conference was titled “Equity, Race & Community Conversations: Lighting the Torch on Social Justice,” and focused on racial disparities in the juvenile justice system, education, housing and public safety.

“Pittsburgh, like many parts of our nation, has been devastated by senseless violence, rocked by gruesome acts of terrorism and disrupted by daily racial injustice and disparities,” said Sharon McDaniel, the partnership’s president. “These are mighty issues that we face, especially as people of color in this region.”

The partnership aims to unite the African American community and other communities in a search for solutions.

“We are discussing how to move issues to the legislature,” said Peggy Harris, the partnership’s vice president. “So we don’t just have these conversations about what needs to be different, but now we’re going to move them where they can effect change. If we want change, we don’t want to just be having a conversation.”

The organization was founded to collaborate and gauge perspectives from various corporations, foundations and nonprofits on institutional problems that plague black residents in Pittsburgh. These plans include finding ways to help educate legislators and state officials who could bring about change.

Don Cravins Jr., vice president of policy and external affairs for Charter Communications, delivered the afternoon keynote address Tuesday, highlighting the best practices for advocacy at the local, state and federal levels.

Cheryl McAbee, an attorney who has represented juveniles in Pittsburgh, said studies have proven the over-representation of African American youth in the juvenile justice system around the nation. According to a survey by the Justice Policy Institute, which reviewed 46 states, governments pays an average of nearly $150,000 a year to incarcerate a single juvenile.

“The sad thing is, the things my generation used to get detention for, we are now arresting these children for,” she said. “We have to rethink this, because something is wrong.”

John Fiscante, program coordinator with the Community Intensive Supervision Program at the Allegheny County Juvenile Probation Department, said they are working to change the bad reputation the juvenile system now holds.

“We’re still striving to improve and learn. I came out here to listen and learn, and I’ve already heard a lot of things that were deep and I didn’t know about,” he said.

There are deeper issues within the dynamic of the black family, according to Walter Howard Smith Jr., trustee of the Casey Family Programs foundation based in Seattle, and a licensed psychologist. 

His research focuses on understanding the functioning of families, seeing a family as a single interlocking set of relationships, rather than interacting individuals.

“There are a lot of helpers out there, and it’s amazing how much this country invests in helping,” Mr. Smith said. “But the same people end up in the same position despite all of the help they get. It almost makes you wonder, is the help we give really about help, or is it about sustaining, and not really about helping and shifting.”

Mr. Walton highlighted recent tragedies in America, from the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh to the recent shooting death of rapper Nipsey Hussle.

“The wound is the place where light enters you,” Mr. Walton said, quoting the Persian poet, Rumi. “These cycles of violence and cycles of injustice actually provide an opportunity for light to enter and reach us in ways that we are not always looking for.”

This piece originally appeared on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette