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How can citizens help reduce racial tension in communities?

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Panelist Lyord Watson, a preacher and philanthropist. (Ariel Worthy, The Birmingham Times)

By Ariel Worthy

The Birmingham Times

Panelist Lyord Watson, a preacher and philanthropist. (Ariel Worthy, The Birmingham Times)
Panelist Lyord Watson, a preacher and philanthropist. (Ariel Worthy, The Birmingham Times)

During the question and answer portion of a roundtable discussion on race at the Junior League of Birmingham an audience member stood and asked, “What can we do individually to make a difference?”

One of the panelists, Joan Witherspoon-Norris, director of social justice at the YWCA, said “start with a conversation. But we also have to look at systems, and how we can influence systems to make them more fair and equitable.”

Marquita Furness Davis, executive director for the Jefferson County Committee for Economic Development (JCCEO), and another member of the panel said, she believes that stepping outside of comfort zones is also key to solving the issue of racism.

“If you’re my friend, then you’ve been to my home,” Davis said. “Don’t just be my friend at the League, be my friend outside of the League.”

Davis said she also believes that there should be an Anytown Alabama for adults. Anytown is a social justice summer camp for teens in the Birmingham metro-area where students develop leadership skills that they can take back to home and to their communities.

Hill Carmichael, the director of Urban Ministry, said it is okay to “recognize when you have participated in propping up a system that is unfair to other people.”

“I say that as someone who moved from North Crestwood to Vestavia, but in doing so I also recognize that to some degree I propped up a system of inequality.” Carmichael said.

Being aware when participating in those situations is important, he said.

Lyord Watson, a preacher and philanthropist, said it is up to people to impact their sphere of influence.

“See if [conversations] of race and diversity, and inclusion are part of the organizations and entities that we are part of,” Watson said. “Not only that, but to see if it is an actual barrier.”

Watson spoke on his background from Brewton, Alabama and how moving to Birmingham was a change for him. Watson said he also grew up in economic privilege.

“I came from a solid middle class family with both parents,” Watson said. “Coming from Brewton and to Samford University I realized my privilege is very different from my privilege in Brewton.”

Moving to Birmingham Watson said he realized that his socioeconomic background did not mean anything to people when they saw his skin color. Watson said he does not see many people in institutional philanthropy, either.

“You don’t have the people who experience what it means to be black, who have lived in or around the communities they are trying to help,” he said. “There is a gap in understanding and empathy.”

The conversation was overall productive and well-received from the crowd. The Junior League of Birmingham held a community roundtable on the issue last week with four panelists with diverse backgrounds.

“I hope people took something away from it, and realized that it is actually a problem, and that they try to do something about it,” said Crystalyn York of Girls, Inc. who was in attendance.

At her table she said her colleagues also discussed how to make change, she said.

“If we are in a crowd and someone says something that you know is wrong, you need to be able to tell that person stop,” she said.  “Dusting it under the rug and saying that’s just how they are is not okay, don’t let them be that way.”