Bringing African Americans to the table to talk about race

NewCORE – New Conversations on Race and Ethnicity – came together six years ago with a broad but essential mandate: use faith leaders as guides for Philadelphians wading through and seeking to strengthen race relations.

Yesterday, at Prince of Peace Baptist Church in North Philadelphia, NewCORE launched We Need to Talk, a series of neighborhood sessions where African Americans can examine their experiences with race in intimate dialogue with neighbors and strangers. The group laid a framework for this series last month, when Mayor Michael A. Nutter and a host of other prominent African Americans offered intimate glimpses through their lens of race  and become unofficial ambassadors for the movement.

The talks are designed to explore issues of pain, challenges and hopes in a neutral space, without the pressure of the latest news cycle pressing buttons and pressure points.

That good intention fell aside somewhat in the wake of the Ferguson decision, though, when a mostly white grand jury opted not to indict a white police officer who killed an unarmed black teenager in the St. Louis suburb.

Officer Darren Wilson claimed Michael Brown Jr. had attacked him and that he feared for his life; some witness accounts said Brown had his hands up and was shot anyway.

The chain of ensuing events, from leaving the teenager’s bleeding body in the street uncovered for hours to the reaction by police officials in the early days of the summer shooting sparked unrest in Ferguson and solidarity protests across the United States, including in Philadelphia, before and after the grand jury decision.

The officer since has resigned and President Obama just created a task force to delve into the persistent issue of mistrust between area police and communities of color, as well as the increased militarization of police departments. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey will serve as co-lead of that task force.

Images of officers in Missouri in full-on battle gear and weaponry ignited widespread condemnation, foreign and domestic.

More than anything, Ferguson reignited urgent questions about racial perceptions and realities, in some instances creating bright lines that seem intractable. NewCORE seeks to play a role in easing people toward greater understanding, with an eye to the long view on race and intergroup harmony.table

Still, engaging any conversation about race, regardless of the participants, can be a tricky enterprise, which is why NewCORE organizers want to cultivate organic, thoughtful and personal exchanges.

Rather than big summits and television cameras, they’re opting to spur intimate “storytelling table conversation,” said the Rev. Steven Lawrence, a minister at White Rock Baptist Church and a leader in the NewCORE movement.

We Need to Talk will pick back up Wednesday, Dec. 10, at Caanan Baptist Church in Northwest Philadelphia, with the series continuing across the city through December 17. Attendees are to center their discussions on personal experiences with pain, challenge and hope as they relate to race relations.

“We want the conversations in each location to be vital and relevant for those neighbors, so we expect there will be a great variety of topics discussed,” Lawrence said.

That has been the case since he and other faith leaders responded to came shortly after the inspiring 2008 address by then-candidate Barack Obama, A More Perfect Union. In the heady days after the frank and critically acclaimed treatise on the persistent American dilemma of race, the mayor challenged local leaders to keep the energy alive by establishing safe spaces for open, honest dialogue.

While this latest series is geared toward African Americans, the work of NewCORE typically has had wide and diverse reach, having held events at the National Museum of American Jewish History and a mosque in Villanova, as examples.

Rather than try to engineer outcomes, NewCORE remains focused on starting and cultivating safe conversations.

“We have found that people are tired of settings based on talking, but not listening,” Lawrence said. “People are hungering for sincere conversation. Once that happens, people want more.

“Ongoing conversation is a great way to discover what a community can do together. We want to encourage the conversation.”

We Need to Talk: Our Pain, Our Challenges, Our Hopes
Upcoming neighborhood sessions. Registration is requested.

Northwest Philadelphia
Wednesday, Dec. 10
6-8:30 p.m.
Canaan Baptist Church
5430 Pulaski Ave.

West Philadelphia
Saturday, Dec. 13
12-2:30 p.m.
White Rock Baptist Church
5240 Chestnut St.

Wednesday, Dec. 17
6-8:30 p.m.
Quba Masjid
4637 Lancaster Ave.

South Philadelphia
Monday, Dec. 15
6-8:30 p.m.
Church of the Redeemer Baptist
1440 S. 24th St.

Southwest Philadelphia
Tuesday, Dec. 16
6-8:30 p.m.
St. Paul AME Church
8398 Lindbergh Blvd.