Fighting back in 2017 requires crafting a “black agenda” or an “American agenda” — two different approaches suggested in a passionate community discussion held Tuesday night in Newhallville.
The event, the third in a monthly post-election series of “community conversations” hosted by the New Haven Alumnae Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, was held at ConnCAT in Science Park. It brought to the fore key differences in emphasis and tactics, if not necessarily in goals or good will, among leaders of New Haven’s African-American community present on the panel.
The discussion focused on how best to establish a united local effort to benefit New Haven’s black community at a time of national political anxiety and uncertainty. Around 60 people filled one of ConnCAT’s second-floor workshop rooms to listen in and participate.
Inner City News editor Babz Rawls-Ivy posed a seemingly straightforward question to the group of African-American community leaders sitting in front of her: If the black agenda of the Civil Rights Movement centered on equal rights, and if the black agenda of the late 1960s was Black Power, then what is the black agenda of 2017?
Valerie Shultz-Wilson, president and CEO of the Urban League of Southern Connecticut, disagreed with the premise of the question.
“Why do we need a black agenda?” she replied, earnest and incredulous. “Our agenda is an American agenda. We want jobs. We want education. We want housing. We want criminal justice reform. Why do we need to label it? We cannot allow people to continue to say, ‘That’s a black agenda, so we don’t have to worry about it.’ These are things that every American should want.”
CTCORE’s Camelle Scott-Mujahid, sitting at the other end of the table, jumped in to offer a different perspective.
“When you look historically at how change has happened in this country,” she contended, “whenever we have ignored race, the solutions that have been proposed and that have been accepted have always passed our community by. We need to insist on being seen, because to not have our own agenda is to accept invisibility.”
Shultz-Wilson, Cathy Graves of The Links, and Jim Rawlings of the Greater New Haven NAACP stood proudly as the panel’s established generation of civil rights leaders, advocating for sustained political and civic engagement through a renewed commitment to institutions with proven track records of raising the quality of life for New Haven’s African-American community.
“This year is the 100th anniversary of the NAACP in New Haven,” Rawlings said, reflecting on his branch’s long history of civil rights advocacy, including its recent involvement in the successful push to abolish Connecticut’s death penalty.
“We have the largest branch in all of New England. We are the boldest and the baddest, and we intimidate for a reason: because we have numbers behind us. If we show up with five people, the system is not going to change. But if we show up with a thousand people, we change things. If we walk away from strong organizations, we only make those who want to destroy us stronger.”
Earlier in the conversation, Shultz-Wilson made a similar argument about the importance of the Urban League’s long history of encouraging economic prosperity in minority communities, citing her organization’s sturdy foundation as an invaluable asset in allowing for some requisite agility and flexibility over the next four years.
“Linda McMahon was just nominated to be the head of Trump’s small business administration,” she said, referring to the World Wrestling empire builder and former Republican U.S. senate candidate. “Well, she lives here in southern Connecticut. And she’s one of my donors. I can’t just say, ‘Oh jeez, because she’s working for Donald Trump, she can’t do anything positive for African Americans in the small business community.’
“It is my responsibility to educate her and [HUD nominee] Ben Carson as to the needs of African Americans in this state. I have the data. I have the programs. I have the support. And if they’re not willing to get on board, then it’s my responsibility to shine that light and hold them accountable.”
On the other side of the panel, Scott-Mujahid, Black Lives Matter New Haven co-founder Dawnise Traore, and Valencia Goodridge of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women represented a younger generation of organizers and activists. Scott-Mjahid and Traore spoke of using a direct, grassroots approach to addressing the twin evils of systemic racism and political apathy. Their calls to arms relied less on institutional loyalty or even power in numbers, but instead on raised racial and political consciousness.
“When we talk about policies and things of that nature, sometimes people on Section 8 and people who are not going to school are just not interested,” Traore said, pointing instead towards Black Lives Matter New Haven’s strategy of street-level demonstrations as well as short story competitions that celebrate African history as ways of engaging a broader base in a clear and positive way.
“We want to work at a micro-level to get those people who are stuck on social media, who are stuck on TV, to come out and see what’s really going on in the world.”
Scott-Mujahid, a professional organizer and a training director at CTCORE-Organize Now!, stressed raising the political awareness of New Haven’s black community more broadly in order to help realize its full potential for social and political change. That awareness, Scott-Mujahid insisted, has to come first and foremost from a recognition of the persistence, and pervasiveness, of white supremacy in American society today.
“We need to teach black people in our community that there’s nothing wrong with who they are and that there’s nothing wrong with who their parents are,” she said, working her way towards her own definition of a black agenda for 2017.
“We need to be fearlessly honest. We need to be fearlessly engaged in dismantling systemic racism and calling it out wherever we see it. Because sometimes there is an intense pressure to sugarcoat the truth about what you are seeing and experiencing. And that just cannot happen anymore.”