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Meetings before the meeting.
Attending a community forum on Race and Politics in DC last Sunday I was struck by a number of things. One was the fact that it's good to get out from behind the laptop or desktop to meet with the neighbors over a table top. This event was sponsored by DC Women in Politics and hosted by Westminster Presbyterian Church.

I accept that writing and teaching can both represent, in varying degrees depending upon the practitioner and situational context, forms of activism. Having practiced both, I have also found them seductive in that they can allow for greater levels of control over media and messages than, say, showing up for a forum at which most individuals are strangers to me and giving over some of that control to the group and its evolving agenda(s). For example, I wonder if a number of otherwise liberal but anti-religion activists might avoid a community meeting because its host location is a church, even though as a recent diary by Simul Iustus et Peccator suggested, I think accurately, religious and spiritual leaders, organizations and traditions have contributed to progress in human rights for centuries, as much as if not more than, to the abuse of those rights; however, you'd hardly know the former phenomenon even exists via some discussions involving progressives. Among some liberal/progressive individuals or groups there does at times seem to be a dismissive or presumptuously hostile attitude toward genuine contributions to progressive causes by religious or spiritual leaders, religion being to such individuals, of course, based in superstition and subjugation of human thought and free will.

It happens too often that I hear or read the thoughts of someone whom I otherwise admire, when they get into the "religion" thing, and then proceed to rail against religion and spirituality as if it were all religionist or "fundie" propaganda being consumed along with various brain-numbing, eventually self-defeating Right-wing talking points by the duped, superstitious masses. That same person is then liable to casually name-drop the much-esteemed or venerated "Dr. King" and his "legacy" into a conversation or an essay, conveniently (apparently) forgetting that Dr. King was trained and practicing as an evangelical preacher up until his assassination. The irony is not even cringe-worthy anymore, yet I have no doubt that virulently anti-religion stances serve more to divide than unite communities that otherwise have much in common, in terms of their aspirations and what deters achieving them. Whatever my personal biases with various religious traditions (rooted most often in my own experience), it serves me better to set those aside when I venture into events such as this one. There are rewards for this. But I digress.

Even if the forum, format or some of what one might hear at an event such as this causes discomfort and even hurt feelings, I would still recommend going. For me, it was an invitation outside the bubble I sometimes create within my own head. To actually get out from behind the screen and join those who truly are our brothers and sisters, even if we sometimes don't agree on all particulars, releasing control of the ideological sphere to which I allow myself to be exposed (or to which I contribute) can lead to surprises and challenges galore. At this event that certainly was the case.

It starts with prayer, rendered in song, a means to instill purpose and recall tradition.
That's Wallacestine Taliaferro Curtis in the picture above, a minister and president of the H Street Community Development Corporation, who sang her opening prayer. Its message focused on strength and unity based on divine guidance. Aside from the raw beauty and power of a singular human voice a capella, encircling the room as if to signify spiritual embrace of the proceedings, as a remembrance her act echoed precisely what preceded numerous gatherings of Black Americans in churches or homes during the Civil Rights movement. Such meetings started (and ended) with prayer. (Coretta Scott King is one of many who remembers the role of prayer for Black Americans during Civil Rights demonstrations.)
Rev. Brian Hamilton, co-pastor for Westminster, was the first speaker.
When Rev. Brian Hamilton, Westminster's co-pastor, took the floor as the first speaker, he focused more on politics than theology and noted how "urban renewal" in the 1950s and 60s affected both the Southwest, DC, neighborhood and the church he now pastors alongside his wife. Gentrification, he suggested, as it currently progresses both in Southwest, DC, and across the city, is for him the modern incarnation of urban renewal. As a phenomenon the modern version is perhaps even more indifferent to those whose lives it alters so drastically. Aside from the more dispassionate presentations (see ep870-1-67/c-6 or get a PDF here) that one can find covering urban renewal's impact not the working class, mostly African American population in Southwest at the time, Hamilton related personalized stories of generations of families, displaced with promises that they'd be invited to return to improved properties available to them at affordable rates. Many never returned to homes that were not, in fact, affordable.
Anita Bellamy Shelton recited a poem that challenged some to rethink race-based characterizations.

When Anita Bellamy Shelton took the microphone, some might have expected another history-based presentation. She is, after all, a retired former Director of DC's Office of Human Rights and founder of DC Women in Politics. Instead, she recited a poem that began with "some of my best friends are white," and challenged a number of stereotypes directed at white people, encouraging listeners to reconsider racial profiling from several perspectives, that of the object of stereotyping and that of the listener to race-based observations from a person at whom those observations are not being directed. That is, someone "speaking for" members of another race. It was a bit discomforting and, to me, very effective.

Rosa J. Hodge, a retired DC Public School teacher spoke of the crucial place of education in future discussions.
As a retired DC Public School science teacher, Rosa J. Hodge noted that support for continued improvement in public education will remain vital to any effort to combat exploitative political relationships between corporations, elected officials and the community members whom they supposedly represent. Informed voters lead to better and more consistent voters. According to Ms. Hodge, if the community and the nation continue to sell out the nation's youth in the pursuit of greater corporate wealth, we all will lose in the end. We need educated youth, she said, because corporations increasingly control the messengers and the message, and quality education will help young people avoid being manipulated so that they can better pursue their own destinies.
David Garber, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner 6D07 in Southwest, reflects the area's changing demographics.
David Garber's speech was brief but did indicate his desire to learn from men and women constituents representing the area's extremely diverse racial/ethnic, age, religious, and sexual orientation population.
This is Pedro Rubio (no relation to Marco, he emphasized), Board Member/Treasurer, DC Latino Caucus
Another of the more youthful speakers was Pedro Rubio, DC Latino Caucus and Co-Founder of Inter-American Development Fund, who in addition to ensuring that the audience did not connect him with a certain Florida senator,  shared his passionate desire to see strong coalitions built across the community with special emphasis on its most politically and financially vulnerable members.

I find that this is perhaps already going on long enough, so I will end for now. I was tempted to share all I learned about gentrification and its impact on communities in the past and now. Or a conversation at the table at which I sat, in which two African American women said that race in politics is neither bad, nor good, necessarily, as our group discussion guide seemed to suggest. Race in politics "just is." Both women, veteran activists in DC Women in Politics and in other organizations, said the race of the person running for office matters less than her (or his) commitment to the community. Instead of going on into too much detail, I'd rather just show you why I left the meeting feeling better about my community, and my nation, than I felt going into the meeting. I left feeling some old ideals rising up and cynicism withering away. I left thinking to myself, "Let's keep the conversations going. Let's do this again. Let's get to work."

Brenda Jones, of DC Women in Politics, keeps the conversation going with David Garber.
Let's do this again.
Let's get to work.
Peace, my friends.
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