“We Have the Opportunity to Create Our Own Destiny” – Peter Williams
By Feona Sharhran Huff
As a male mentor, school leadership trainer and facilitator for parenting workshops, Rodney Rahim Deas is attuned to the vast problems that Black communities in Brooklyn are facing such as a lack of access to quality health care, lack of affordable housing and gentrification, poor- performing schools, high unemployment rates and increased male imprisonment.
And like the hundreds of other concerned Brooklynites who packed the sanctuary at Concord Baptist Church of Christ on Saturday, June 17, 2006, Deas also realized the urgency of attending the Black Brooklyn Empowerment Convention 2006.
The convention, running from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., brought together clergy, parishioners, elected officials, educators, law-enforcement officers, healthcare workers, community activists and members of grassroots organizations to hear the highlights and recommendations/action plans for the policy agenda, which covered Health and Human Services, Housing and Economic Development, Education and Higher Education, Criminal Justice and Public Safety, the Judicial System, Securing Our Institutions, Civic Engagement and Voting Rights, Black Culture and Values, and International Affairs and Immigration.
Councilman Albert Vann (Democrat, 36th District) moderated the daylong event in between keynote speeches and special singing selections. Dr. Dexter McKenzie, Devina Bailey and George Mitchell were the first presenters who addressed Health & Human Services. One of the startling facts they pointed out is that heart disease, cancer and AIDS cause the most deaths among Brooklyns residents. The death rates for all causes were higher in the borough than in New York City as a whole, particularly for AIDS, diabetes and homicide. Among their recommendations for countering the issues of health and human services, they listed creating an insurance co-op for small businesses and individuals to enable the purchase of group health insurance at affordable rates, focusing special attention on HIV/AIDS education and prevention, and creating activities to reinforce healthy habits.
Peter Williams and Dr. Lois Blades-Rosado discussed Housing and Economic Development. The consensus of their committee’s findings with regard to housing was that Black Brooklyn’s commercial corridors are vital hubs of economic activity. They also found that most properties on commercial strips are owned by absentee landlords with little interest in investing in revitalization, and many commercial properties are in poor condition, underdeveloped and underutilized. Williams and Blades-Rosado pointed out that many of the Black businesses in Brooklyn suffer because they don’t have enough capital to sustain themselves, have poor management and customer service, and are overcrowded with barbershops, beauty salons and nail salons. With adequate funding, training, and direction, they are optimistic.
“Clearly, we have the opportunity to create our own destiny,” Williams said. “We want to make sure we can be economically self- sufficient.”
Blades-Rosado echoed Williams’ comments, adding: “We need to teach our youth that they can create legal jobs and they can work for themselves. We need to be power brokers.”
Williams and Blades-Rosado’s committee came up with several action plans, including promoting and marketing businesses, increasing Black ownership of commercial real estate and creating merchants associations, business improvement districts and local chambers of commerce, among some ways to giving Black Brooklynites more economic power and commercial control.
Dr. Lester Young and Dean Richard Jones presented the Education and Higher Education cluster, noting that 60 percent of Black Brooklyn’s middle school population live in communities where the achievement rate ranges from 42 percent to a low of only 11 percent at the established standard and that 42 percent of Black Brooklyn’s high school ninth- graders don’t make it to their senior year in the traditional four-year time frame.
Young said the committee asked themselves, “How can students be doing unsatisfactory and the teachers get all satisfactory ratings?” To this, he answered: “Our students are smart and talented. It’s the school’s responsibility to bring this out.”
He also addressed accountability and governance. “We can’t wait for the scores to come out,” Young announced. “We have to have an accountability structure to ourselves and in the schools. We need a system that corrects the problem when it occurs – not after the fact.”
The committee recommended creating a school climate that assists students of African decent to identify with learning, in general, and school, in particular, by consistently pointing to the students’ academic potential and the rich history of Black accomplishment as well as helping teachers understand the importance of establishing close personal relationships with their students and creating after-school and summer programs that include Rites of Passage programs, talents and interests, career development, and sports.
Senator Velmanette Montgomery (18th District) later approached the podium with a hardy welcome. “I’m so happy to see the sanctuary filled with people who care about what’s going on now and for the future. If not us, then who? If not now, then when? We want to be your partners. We want you to be our partners. Together, we can do anything.”
As the first keynote speaker for the convention, Karen Boykin Towns, president of the Brooklyn Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said “With the smarts and access to opportunity that we have today ,there is no reason why we can’t work and turn things around for our community. We must put aside individual differences. Our collective voices must be heard. Let’s get our house in order today.”
Although he wasn’t scheduled to speak, Minister Kevin Muhammad was invited to say a few words – which were welcomed by the audience as they clapped and beckoned him to step to the microphone. In his brief but powerful message, Muhammad first spoke to the women: “You must rise up in the reverence of our morality because nation’s come out of your womb,” said Muhammad, the New York Representative of the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan and the minister of Muhammad Mosque No. 7 in Harlem. Pointing out how important it is that the Black youth know all about their people’s past, Muhammad insisted that, “We must teach slavery in the public school system. We know about everybody else’s suffering.”
The presentation of the clusters continued with Dr. Zulema Blair, Dr. Divine Pryor,and Eddie Ellis addressing Criminal Justice and Public Safety. “Every time we send one of our Black men to prison, you send your tax dollars and your human capital,” said Pryor, who is formerly incarcerated and serves as the executive director of NuVisions. “There has been a massive buildup of incarcerations over the last 30 years. Our young people are being prepared to go to prison.” Pryor also pointed out that Black men coming home from prison haven’t been prepared to reenter society.
Pryor’s committee came up with several recommendations to deal with these concerns such as monitoring police officers and prosecution practices of Brooklyn’s District Attorney by Black-elected officials and advocates, the development of risk assessment tools that determine the public safety risk of everyone returning to the community from prison, and conducting community and legislative hearings to address legal, legislative and regulatory obstacles to resettle successfully.
The Judicial System cluster was presented by Paul Wooten, Esq. and Dr. Esmeralda Simmons, who both stressed the overwhelming disparity of Black judges in New York. Of the 60 members appointed by the governor to the New York State Court of Claims, only one is Black. There are only two Black Brooklyn Criminal Court judges of the 14 on the bench. The New York State Court of Appeals has eight statewide appointments by the governor and only one is Black. Among the recommendations to add more Blacks to the bench, the committee offered to actively oppose the merit selection or appointive selection of judges, publicize judicial delegates at the earliest opportunity, allow judicial candidates to address the judicial convention and advocate at the earliest opportunity, create two days for the judicial conventions with meetings in the evening so that delegates could make the conventions.
Simmons offered a word of advice to lawyers looking to become judges: “Start practicing in the court you want to be a judge in.”
By the conclusion of the convention, all nine clusters were reviewed and ratified with plans for a postconvention meeting. Deas was glad that he attended. So was Naquan A.H. Muhammad. “Anytime we can pull people together for cultural issues is always a wonderful thing,” says Muhammad, CEO and president of Black Men Who Care, Inc. “But we need to start to bring a solution to reach the people who weren’t at the conference because these people are mostly affected by the issues.”