Decatur’s Anti-Racism Speaker Series: Responding to the Call to Speak

Back to Winter 2023: Volume 111, Number 4

By Ed Lee III

There are moments when we are called to speak, even when we don’t know what to say. The exigency of those moments prods us to utter something, anything, even when we fear that the misinterpretation of our words is inevitable and our overtures to build community across our differences will go unanswered. 2020 presented such a moment for many of us.

On May 26, 2020, a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on the neck of George Floyd for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. The history of racism collided with pandemic-induced anxieties to produce a fiery urgency for social change as people subsequently watched the video footage of George Floyd calling out to his deceased mother while gasping for his last breaths of life. Those eight minutes and forty-six seconds and the disparate impacts of the global pandemic again revealed that social inequities often continue to be distributed along the color line. Moreover, they ignited a global awareness that our prior ethical and economic disinvestment from historically underserved communities forms the foundation for our contemporary values and interactions. More importantly, the events of 2020 produced a moment that made it untenable to argue that our governing systems valued people equally and responded to communal needs equitably.

Many in the city of Decatur were left pondering: What is our role in making right what many before us made wrong? My colleagues on The Better Together Advisory Board, a group of community members working to transform Decatur into an exemplary model of inclusion and racial justice, were among those questioning how to move forward. Those eight minutes and forty-six seconds encouraged the board to reassess how we worked with city officials to create more welcoming, inclusive, and responsive governmental policies and practices while cultivating highly participatory and just communities. Better Together and our partners on the Decatur City Commission concluded we needed spaces for more meaningful and thought-provoking gatherings during a time when so many of our neighbors were motivated to converse and speak out. Yet, a global pandemic made it increasingly difficult for them to be heard.

Better Together saw an opportunity for city-wide engagement through a series of structured dialogues probing race and racism’s impact on educational attainment, housing affordability, and policing. The primary objective was to create opportunities to interrogate how racism and the maldistribution of opportunities impact our everyday local lived experiences. Better Together and the City Commission knew that we could not effectively respond to the myriad of injustices and inequities that creep into governing practices and norms without ongoing conversations with community members and experts focused on studying and resolving how racism informs the implementation of governmental policies.

In the Summer of 2020, Better Together created the “Anti-Racism Speaker Series” to invite scholars, educators, activists, and artists to engage the city in open conversations focused on inculcating antiracism in our everyday exchanges and governmental policies. These rich and meaningful discussions encouraged our community to rethink our past manifestations of racial inequity while reimagining a future as a more just and inclusive community. We created an online space for diversity, equity, and inclusion experts to share knowledge and stories that we hoped would captivate community members and inspire ideas for policy reforms imbued with a sense of togetherness and inclusivity.

Better Together believes that convening people for engaging and humble conversations is a necessary, if not sufficient, act to build more equitable communities and generate a greater sense of belonging. While each story might be narrow and incomplete, finding the space and time to share differing viewpoints can serve as the connective tissue needed to bind diverse communities in a web of mutuality and reciprocity. Additionally, we are confident that communities that consciously and consistently encourage their members to listen humbly across their differences can patch their knowledge gaps in ways that provide a fuller understanding of our problems and potential solutions. The “Anti-Racism Speaker Series” was informed by our commitment to aid those working, worshipping, and learning in the city of Decatur as they build connections across their differences, develop a deeper appreciation of their commonalities, and adopt impactful and inclusive organizational practices.

Each event consisted of a short welcome to audience members who joined us “digitally,” a thirty-minute presentation by our guest expert(s) and concluded with a forty-five-minute moderated conversation with the presenter that featured questions from the audience members. We attempted to steer the Q&A part of the program toward answering the question that galvanized the creation of the speaker series: What is our role in making right what many before us made wrong? Additionally, we were interested in the speaker’s thoughts about the policies, practices, and procedures that the City of Decatur could adopt to become more antiracist.

I remain surprised by the quality of the guests who participated in the first year of the speaker series. Serving as the program’s moderator remains one of the highlights of my life. I left each conversation inspired by the nationwide work being done to challenge racism in educational systems, election laws, and housing policies. The inaugural guest presenter was Jane Elliot, an internationally renowned teacher and diversity trainer who created the “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes Exercise.” Her powerful presentation was followed by a soulful conversation with Catherine Meeks, Executive Director of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing, that explored strategies for building racial healing into our everyday interactions. Dr. Andra Gillespie, Director of Emory University’s James Weldon Johnson Institute for Race and Difference, provided one of the more dynamic presentations I have seen on the interplay of race and electoral politics. We concluded the first year’s series by engaging Tim Wise, a tour de force antiracism activist and prolific author. I remain thankful that Decatur’s City Commission supported our recommendation to record each event and make them available on the City of Decatur’s website. Finding a more engaging collection of presentations on antiracism will be challenging.

While the second year of the Anti-Racism Speaker Series remained online, the conversations became less policy-oriented and focused on trust-building across our racial differences. This series began with a conversation with Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal, local authors of I’m Not Dying with You Tonight, a nationally renowned young adult book that affirmed the need for teenagers to share their stories about prejudice and racial tension. We were particularly interested in how Jones and Segal established trusting relationships considering their racial and ethnic differences. The highlight was an engaging and enlightening conversation with Robin Rue Simmons, a former municipal representative in Evanston, Illinois, and current Executive Director of FirstRepair. Simmons played a significant role in developing the strategy that facilitated Evanston’s adoption of reparations for Black residents harmed by the city’s past discriminatory housing policies. She shared many lessons learned regarding coalition building, community engagement, and establishing trusting relationships as she ushered through the passage of the historic reparations bill.

While we remain committed to the Anti-Racism Speaker Series, the rollout of the City of Decatur’s latest strategic plan provided an opportunity to evaluate and rethink how we engage in the critical work of convening community members to discuss how we can become a more antiracist city. We look forward to its continuation shortly.

I continue to have the honor of serving as the project lead, moderator, and government liaison for these rich and meaningful discussions that support our efforts to rethink our past manifestations of racial inequity while reimagining our future as a more just and inclusive community. It seems fitting that I conclude this piece with a little bit of insight I gleaned from this journey and subsequent conversations with people who participated and some who remain dubious about the effort.

  1. Listening is the gateway to persuasion and conversion – Fear of condemnation is the enemy of individual development and social progress. People do not make radical transformations without first feeling listened to and their interests accounted for in the conversation. Becoming a more antiracist city requires opportunities to listen to and honor the fears and vulnerabilities of those who remain leery of strategies to institutionalize a more egalitarian mode of politics. Progress can’t be made in a maelstrom of zero-sum, tit-for-tat partisan politics. You might not be the right person to engage and listen to the “opposition.” However, someone must be.
  2. Make space for wide-eyed dreamers and their radical ideas – While George Floyd’s death galvanized a global movement to challenge structural and institutional forms of racism, it is vitally important that we don’t allow that moment of sorrow to cement into nihilistic hopelessness. Validating the dreamers and their efforts to bring their visions for a more just and inclusive society to fruition serves as a counterweight to those so mired in short-term misery that they can’t see the long arc of justice paved by those who dared to see and work for a better world.
  3. Don’t make “perfect” the enemy of the “good” – Emanuel Levinas, a French philosopher who studied existentialism, argued that we become aware of our ethical responsibilities to others by looking into their eyes. I have long taken this observation as a reason to be concerned about social media encounters and as a defense of small group in-person deliberations. The speaker series survey results indicate that the online event attendees were engaged and impacted. We should continue to find ways to meet people where they are. Sometimes that is a zoom room while they are cooking the evening meal.
  4. Governmental participation is invaluable – Governments have the resources and influence to amplify voices and speed up social transformations. These efforts are best when governments willingly partner with community members. With the antiracism speaker series, the support of Decatur’s governmental officials was invaluable. They provide communications support, online hosting for the recordings, and honorariums for the participants. Better Together decided on the guests, topics, and format. This effort would have been almost impossible without the support of city government. It should serve as a model for government officials effectively partnering with community members.

I am proud of the partnership between the Better Together Advisory Board and City Commission that produced the Anti-Racism Speaker Series. The moment called for us to speak and act. While we did so imperfectly, we responded to the community’s yearning for a space to mourn, deliberate, and growth. We understood that we could not remain silent and preserve a peaceful coexistence. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran theologian executed by the Third Reich for plotting to assassinate Adolf Hitler, argued: “silence in the face of evil is itself evil.” The dissident, known for his vocal and steadfast resistance to Nazi rule, concluded that silence in the face of injustice speaks volumes. Like Bonhoeffer, we understood that silence in the face of the events of 2020 would not protect us from the ravages of racial animus.

So I ask:

How are you going to use your immense talents and skills to make right what so many others before you made wrong?

Are you willing to use your gifts to advocate for changing the policies, practices, and procedures in your community that propagate a maldistribution of wealth and opportunity?

Are you willing to speak even when your words are likely to be misinterpreted, and our overtures to build community across our differences might go unrequited?

Ed Lee III is the Senior Director of Inclusivity in Emory University’s College of Arts and Sciences. His work explores the interplay between communication, culture, and diversity in creating more innovative and responsive policies and practices. Ed is the co-chair of Decatur, GA’s Better Together Advisory Board. He is the owner and principal creative for ConverseLee, LLC. ConverseLee supports organizations working to cultivate their collective genius through improved communication and collaboration strategies.  

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