Uncomfortable but necessary conversations about race
at Brookins AME Church in Oakland
By Lou Fancher
There were no easy answers this week at a community conversation about race led by U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee at Brookins Community African Methodist Episcopal Church in East Oakland.
After two hours of talk that included adoring accolades, angry accusations and ongoing expressions of anguish directed at Lee, Oakland City Councilwoman Desley Brooks, moderator and civil rights attorney Julie Nelson, and three youth panelists, one thing was clear: Oakland and Bay Area residents recognize that "outing" institutionalized racism is their No. 1 priority.
Action, organization, agitation and uncomfortableness were the night's buzzwords.
"In this conversation, it's the uncomfortable we have to push for," Brooks said, encouraging people to push their agendas instead of relying on semi-passive complaints to initiate change. "When you stand up to make sure your voices are heard, that's when we make people see the change that we need to see in our community."
Brooks encouraged activism among the audience members, packed to overflowing in the church sanctuary Tuesday, by reminding them of civil rights actions taken in the 1950s and '60s.
"When you see someone do something that isn't what you perceive to be politically incorrect, remember there was someone who sat in a diner, there was someone who refused to give up a seat," she said.
Brooks introduced and won approval from the Oakland City Council in June for a new Department of Race and Equity that she said will address racism in all city departments, make sure residents have an opportunity to thrive, and ensure equitable distribution of resources.
Lee said young people are leading today's civil rights movement.
"What I see happening gives me hope," Lee said. "As I talk to members of Congress, they want to do (in their districts) what we are doing here. So it's important we get it right. We have to talk about public policies and funding structures that include racism as a factor."
"Getting it right," Lee and the other presenters suggested, is largely a matter of adults listening to the voices of young people in America.
However, there was little time allotted to youth panelists Adeniji Asabi-Shakir, Alomar Burdick and Jose Alejandre in a night dominated by adults during a 60-minute Q&A, and a 15-minute video compilation of the eulogy President Barack Obama delivered after the June shooting deaths of nine parishioners at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Even so, the teen panelists established distinct individual perspectives. Asabi-Shakir asked if a post-racial society was really the goal and encouraged people to "thrive and succeed despite our identifiers" and "speak with pride without jeopardizing opportunity."
Repeatedly advocating for education, Burdick said brilliant minds can contribute to world peace, and speaking up is essential.
"Comfortable silence has gotten us nowhere," he said.
And self-described activist Alejandre earned applause with a rousing call to African-Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, immigrants, indigent peoples and essentially everyone to "step out into uncomfortableness," "shake while you talk" and "cause a ruckus."
Although no concrete initiatives emerged from the conversation, early alliances may have formed. Panelists shared information about local youth organizations, including Young, Gifted and Black; Youth Together; Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center; and others. Brooks and Lee mentioned Community Land Trust, Oakland Housing Authority and other departments and agencies in local and federal government that actively support civil and human rights.
Audience members exchanged and asked for advice about making their voices heard.
"Tonight should be a rallying point," Brooks said. "Whatever you do, do it more, and do it loudly. Make sure that they hear you because the injustices that take place in this nation on a daily basis are something we can no longer afford to let slide."
Lee said the event was "just the first of these conversations that are going to lead to action" and intends to hold similar conversations throughout the 13th Congressional District, which she represents.