Columbus educators, civic leaders and college students gathered Wednesday to address issues of race and class in the community.
In all, about 150 people participated in the Third Annual Diversity Conference titled The Dream Lives: A Wake-up Call Perpetuating the Dream in a Climate of Haves and Have Nots.
The daylong event was organized by Columbus State University and the Mayor's Commission on Unity, Diversity and Prosperity. Presenters included Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, Muscogee County School District Superintendent David Lewis and Rothschild Middle School principal Michael Forte. Francys Johnson, state president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, gave the keynote address.
Topics included classism vs. racism: smearing the lines that divide; classism and poverty in America's schools; and arrest and adjudication of the poor. After each presentation, participants discussed practical solutions to the community's problems.
Lewis, who grew up the son of a brick mason and a homemaker, told the audience he was the first in his family to graduate from college. He then presented a plan to help break the cycle of poverty in Muscogee County, where the rate is about 19 percent. The plan includes working with community organizations to give more children access to pre-school and putting an early warning system in place to detect behavior and academic problems before they escalate. He also stressed the importance of quality teachers, a robust curriculum and extracurricular programs like music and art. He said the community also has to get involved.
"The school can't do it alone," he said. "Most parents I know love and want to help their children, they just don't know how."
While most of the speakers focused on the issue of classism and poverty, Johnson said racism still exists and should not be overlooked.
Since being elected president of the Georgia NAACP in October, he said he's seen a resurgence in membership among those who want to finally eradicate institutional inequalities.
"There are folks who tell us that the work is already complete," he said. "They assert that the election and re-election of President (Barack) Obama means that we are in a post-racial America, as if America has completely overcome the racial discriminatory practices that have endured long past the work of what we call the Civil Rights Movement and what I call the second Reconstruction."
Johnson said Obama's election is a sign of progress, but it would be naive to think America is in a post-racial society in light of incidents like the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis.
Trayvon was shot by a neighborhood watch member volunteer as he walked home late at night. Jordan was shot during a confrontation over loud music in a convenience store parking lot.
Both incidents occurred in Florida.
Johnson said there are thousands of organizations that deliver social services and he supports them, but the NAACP is one of the few still fighting against racism.
He encouraged others to join the struggle.
He said people ask him why the NAACP doesn't focus on social services like tutoring.
"I say, 'We have a tutoring program, it's called the Muscogee County Board of Education, and the citizens in this community pay $7,500 on average per pupil to educate the students in this county," Johnson said.
But at least one black participant said she was uncomfortable with Johnson's remarks. During the panel discussion, Lakeya Dodoo told Johnson that she is member of the Mayor's Commission on Unity, Diversity and Prosperity and thinks the focus should be on unity not racial divisions.
"My thing is, what profit will it gain us to argue and debate this issue?" she said of Johnson's comments about racism. "I cannot really try to figure out this issue and don't think that it's really worth my time to try because I don't think it's going to help me in the long run."