With the ascension of President Barack Obama to the most powerful political office in the world, along with unprecedented numbers of African Americans joining the ranks of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, many have declared America to be in the midst of a post-racial society. Yet, the annual findings and discussion points of the National Urban League’s State of Black America reports and the Tavis Smiley-led State of the Black Union conferences suggest otherwise. Recently, a State of Black Houston Now town hall meeting was held to focus the discussion on African Americans in the Bayou City.
“The Town Hall was organized by Texas Southern University’s Earl Carl Institute for Legal and Social Policy and its Mickey Leland Center on World Hunger and Peace, along with the Houston Area Urban League and the NAACP,” stated Jew Don Boney, director of the Leland Center. “In putting this event together we wanted to model collaboration, and thus asked the Urban League and the NAACP to come on board, which they did.”
According to Boney, the purpose of the Town Hall was to wake people up to the plight of Houston’s African Americans by presenting the facts.
“We operated under the premise that if the Black community and Black leadership knew how bad we were really doing they’d be doing something different. For example, Yates, Jones and Ryan Middle School are some of the lowest performing schools in all of HISD, as well as in all of Texas. Regarding the criminal justice system, Blacks are incarcerated at five times the rate of whites in Texas. Regarding voter turnout and participation, during the historic 2008 presidential election 81percent of the registered Black voters in Houston did not vote. Eighty-one percent! That means in Harris County, 19 percent of the registered Black voters actually voted compared to 66 percent Black voter participation nationally. And in Houston our numbers were at 14 percent for the mayoral election,” added Boney.
As an example of voter apathy, Boney mentioned that the Cuney Homes community located across the street from TSU has over 1,100 residents and a polling location on site, yet has only 115 registered voters.
“Regardless of where you look, voter turnout, health care, or median income where we trail Hispanics, whites, Asians, everybody, we’re at the bottom with no sense of urgency or programmatic solutions to change these realities. Our thinking was we have access to some of the best minds right here at TSU. What can we do about this? Let’s get the facts and present them to civic minded folk who will them be moved to initiate change,” said Boney.
According to Boney and Dr. Marcia Johnson, founding director of the Earl Carl Institute, the Town Hall was just one part of a four-part initiative aimed at enlightening Houstonians and inspiring them to action.
Step two will be an all-day conference scheduled for February 19, 2011 when issues that were discussed at the Town Hall, focusing on five areas—family, education, economics, politics and criminal justice—will be further reviewed with an eye on specific solutions to specific problems. Steps three and four involve extensive polling and surveys of Houston’s African American community regarding their experiences with the issues raised at the Town Hall, and publications featuring articles by authors, intellectuals and community advocates from across the country detailing best practices regarding solutions to problems raised.
“These issues will be addressed by a brain trust of local and national experts, community activists and concerned citizens during the February conference,” stated Johnson. “It’s important that we frame our own debates and come up with the solutions to the problems of our communities ourselves. The Earl Carl Institute is glad to act as a catalyst for this kind of change. But we recognize that we can’t do it all ourselves.”
Johnson graded the Town Hall as a success because it met its intended mission of providing participants with statistical data pertaining to the five focus areas. This information was disseminated during Town Hall presentations by invited speakers as well as via 62-page publication entitled The State of Black Houston Now.
In addition, Johnson viewed the Town Hall as a success for other reasons.
“It was fascinating to see how many new faces and new people were brought to the table by these discussions. It was also important that the individuals and groups who are traditionally part of such undertakings were there, but it was especially good to see so many students and young people—the technocrats bringing their issues and go-forwards suggestions,” said Johnson.
Johnson also mentioned seeing small groups gathering in the hallways between and after presentations, engaging in further conversation.
“There was so much energy and spontaneous dialogue between people anxious to share their views that we at the Earl Carl Institute dedicated to set up a blog on our website (www.earlcarlinstitute.org) to facilitate ongoing discussion,” said Johnson.
Cleveland Gite, one of the committee members responsible for organizing the event, concurred with Johnson.
“The panelists gave compelling information and got the audience aroused to ask questions,” stated Gite. “At the Town Hall I saw movement folk, students, business folk, SHAPE, the Urban League, the NAACP, Civicus, a new advocacy group aimed at assisting the community to develop its own agenda. And that’s needed—different types together to interact.”
Like Boney and Johnson, Gite emphasized that the Town Hall was just the first step in an ongoing process.
“From an organizers standpoint it was beautiful to see an idea from initial discussions actually blossom into an event that was really positive. Now, other steps are necessary to develop a full blown community agenda because the current political structure really only involves politicians. We need community people involved making decisions that can impact their lives,” shared Gite.
The next step, according to organizers and participants in the Town Hall, is the 2011 conference.
“We want to follow up the Town Hall Meeting with a February conference where we can discuss best practices for bringing solutions to issues, bringing in experts from across the country. For example, with the issue of incarceration, when these men and women get out they can’t live in public housing, can’t get a job, can’t vote. They can’t do the things necessary to turn their lives around. Yet, in Baltimore they have a successful re-entry program. Why can’t we do that in Houston? That’s why we will have ongoing conferences on public school education, on the justice system, and other issues, primarily looking at public policy. What we hope to accomplish by this process is to create an enlightened and informed community. We can’t work our way out of this without an enlightened community. We have to ask ourselves the question, where will we be in 10 years from now if we keep doing what we’re doing?” said Boney.