|Posted by Elwin Green on June 25, 2016 at 8:40 AM|
Richard Garland (University of PIttsburgh Graduate School of Public Health) and Jack Jackson (Black Panther Party New Jersey chapter) listen as T. Rashad Byrdsong,president and CEO of Community Empowerment Association, addresses the Day of Black Male Solidarity
“Our house is on fire,” Community Empowerment Association Inc. President and CEO Rashad Byrdsong told the audience at the first Day of Black Male Solidarity, on June 22, 2007.
Nine years later, “our house is still on fire,” he says.
In 2007, before hundreds of people who had marched from the City-County Building to Freedom Corner, at Centre and Crawford avenues in the Hill District, Byrdsong pointed out that firefighters do not have to agree about everything, and do not even have to like each other, to work together to fight a fire.
At the most recent Day of Black Male Solidarity at Community Empowerment Association’s Kelly Street headquarters, held on June 18, Byrdsong challenged the men present to unify more strongly against persistent challenges.
“If we don't get anything else from this conversation today, we need you as Black men to make a commitment to, at least once a month, reconvene to talk about the issues that impact the Black family, impact Black women, impact Black children and impact the Black community.
“We're talking about power,” he said. “We can't be afraid of saying that word. We can't be afraid of empowering our people to be able to compete in the broader marketplace — to make sure that we stabilize ourselves, stabilize our families, and that we have access to the same resources that any other human being, any other citizen in this country, has access to.”
He continued at length, speaking about divestment from, and gentrification of, Black neighborhoods; the inequities of the criminal justice system; and the lack of representation in redevelopment, using the Animal Rescue League's move into Homewood as an example. “The nerve of people to steal three to five blocks in our community and we're not even in the discussion.”
That assertion might be challenged, not only by Animal Rescue League, but by some residents who negotiated with the organization to prevent involuntary displacement of residents. But on Saturday, the assertion was met with a “That's right!” from the audience.
He then read, and commented on, a CEA white paper, “Message to Black Leadership: The Unfinished Business of Black Political, Social and Economic Empowerment,” which calls upon Black leadership “to redefine its political interests, then cultivate and advocate these interests in making them relevant to current issues.”
When he finished, it was time for the audience to divide up into breakout groups, devoted to five topics: defining Black leadership; mothers raising Black boys; warrior conflict: the code of the streets; being successful and still being down; and building wealth and black economic unity.
By this time, I'd say there were around 40 people in the audience.
I joined the last group; six men, all but one of whom was Black, discussing questions such as “What does wealth and development mean to you?” Anthony Ogletree, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker, said, “For me, wealth isn't attained until you can help others attain it as well. What good is having a million dollars if everybody else is busted and broke?”
In the cavernous space of the gym-turned-auditorium, the voices from other groups echoed toward us as their discussions grew more spirited. When we reconvened as one audience to hear the groups’ reports on their discussion, we learned why voices might have been raised.
Shawnee Wright, resident advocate for the Glen Hazel Community Resident Management Corporation, reported out from the women's group.
“Part of the problem that we have in our community is us,” she said. “Those of us who want better for our children, who stick our neck out, we don't have the support of people who look like us. How dare you tell us that because I want my son to go to a better school to have a better life, that I have to be that crab in a bucket and stay down here with you? I'm trying to raise you up here with us.”
She continued with a strong call to personal responsibility.
“Some of us parents need to be parented,” she said. “They don't know what they're doing, and it's not their fault. My generation, my mother's generation … we dropped the ball.”
(WARNING: NSFW language)
After the groups all reported, Jack Jackson of the Black Panther Party's New Jersey chapter, spoke about programs to clean up urban neighborhoods block by block, to provide clothing and hygiene products for boys and young men, and to give groceries to families in need.
His from-the-streets, for-the-streets presentation was laced with profanity and frequent interjections of “You know what I'm sayin?” — a style of speaking perfectly suited for the audience he works to reach, “to soften the heart of the homies.”
This account is woefully incomplete. There were enough ideas shared that day to keep a half-dozen committees busy for a year. I'll close by quoting someone who was not scheduled to speak, but who gently challenged us all with something for each of us to do individually.
As the meeting wound down, Byrdsong referred to the concern, or curiosity, that some people have expressed about his succession plan. He called up Minnekeh Thomas, who prefers to be called simply Minnekeh or Brother Minnekeh, and who grew up as a CEA kid, and said, “He's my succession plan.” And he asked him to speak.
And Minnekeh said,
“One of the things that we have to do is we have to forgive one another. And I really mean it. Everybody in this room has something that someone has done that hurt you.”
He went on to state the need, not only to forgive, but to sincerely and deliberately apologize for wrongs we've committed, and to commit to not doing them again.
“Once you do that you will have the courage and the power to step to anybody about anything, anywhere.”
I can think of no better starting point for the monthly meetings that Byrdsong plans to convene as follow-up to the Day of Black Male Solidarity.
Can you imagine what a group of men who forgive, and who know that they are forgiven, can do?
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A print version of this piece appears in the June 23-29 issue of Print, Pittsburgh's East End newspaper. Pick up your copy Friday at Dorsey's Record Shop, 7614 Frankstown Ave., then SUBSCRIBE for more of Homewood Nation and other East End news!