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The Welcome Table is set, New Orleans, now let’s begin

A friend sent an invite that the Mayor’s office had sent out to come to a public meeting about race reconciliation. I had to read the email twice – what? This came about the same time that the news was exploding with the foolishness of Donald Sterling. I know most every Jewish person on this planet is cringing that this guy is a Jew. Sterling is obviously afflicted, but the truth is his style of racism makes it easy for everyone to point their finger and say, “He’s a racist” and not look at themselves in the mirror – and I mean everyone because whether you are Black or white or red or yellow or brown you live in a racist society and you either have internalized racism or you are racist. It’s pretty hard to escape.

But I digress.

The invitation to the meeting said:


The Welcome Table New Orleans is a multi-year initiative focused on race, reconciliation and community-building. Meetings are designed to foster trust, unity, teamwork and cohesiveness amongst community members by providing a safe, respectful, structured space to engage in meaningful and honest discussions about race relations. The process aims to break down racial barriers by bringing citizens of different racial groups and backgrounds together to build relationships that lead to improvements in key areas throughout the city.

So I went, and I went with an open mind. I’m wary and weary of politics in this city and I’m even more tired of race relations, but if someone wants to sit down at the table and talk about reconciliation, then I’m all ears. I arrived at St. Roch Community Church where the second of these meetings was being held and was happy to see a diverse group. Pastor J.B. Watson introduced the forum and reminded us we were in a House of God and to act accordingly. Then Judy Reese Morse from the Mayor’s office got up to tell us what this was all about.

The framework for this call to action grew out of an idea in Mississippi – that’s right I said Mississippi – where as the 50th anniversary of the integration of Old Miss was approaching a group of people got together and said they wanted to do something. Not a PR (read: press release, public relations, petty reconciliation) something, but something real that spoke to the hearts and minds of the community and from this initiative an organization grew into The Winter Institute.

The process, Reese Morse told us would begin with relationship building and having important conversations within four groups each assigned to struggling areas within the city. The groups will be given the leeway to govern themselves deciding where to meet, about what to meet, and how often. The three year project will begin with relationship and trust building segue into a retreat and brainstorm of an action plan and then there will be the implementation period.

I had just finished a busy week – work projects that were finally emailed, a friend visiting from out of town and Jazz Fest and I almost did not go to the meeting because I am suspicious of public forums for activities such a race reconciliation, but when I listened to the stories of the people who were given the chance to speak their truth, I knew why I had come.

The vision of this initiative is not only within the four proposed diverse community groups, but also the formation of a group of mothers, those whose sons have lost their life to gun violence and those whose sons have taken lives. And as Reese Morse said, “Sometimes the mothers wear both hats.” She referred to work in South Africa that was done by a mother’s coalition – moms who had dealt with loss and whose voices were so important and so powerful and women who had so much to say. As a mother, I think about the mothers in Nigeria right now – worried to the point of madness about their kidnapped girls – and pray they find their daughters. And as the mother of a son in New Orleans, I pray every day that an angel walks by his side when he gets old enough to go out alone.

There will also be a coalition for youth – middle to high school age. A youth council. The forum seeks the full expression of our community to gain the better insight and application to move forward.

The microphone was opened to those wanted to tell their stories and so it began, the reverend who said there will be no racial justice as long as there is economic injustice. The woman who offered  she has a business that serves all people – black, white and Vietnamese – and confessed she’s never dated white BUT she said she sees problem with her own people (read: internalized racism), one agreed with the reverend and said racism is not our biggest problem, classism’s the problem. A woman who is an advocate for humans rights said racism is about hate and it is not in terms of color because Nazis hated Jews – both the same color – she saw the hate more between the 1% and the 99%, while an adult educator with the Urban League said there is a trust problem – who has the money? – the common money myth is the blacks are stealing it and the whites are hoarding it.

One woman said we are all human as far as she knows. Another said he was a member of the NAAWP – the National Association for the Advancement of White People. I thought I misheard, but no, dead serious and he offered his help as a social worker to anyone who needed it. A few had logistical questions and voiced suspicions about the mayor’s office being in charge of the money. My friend who sent me the invite wanted to know timelines and how the Facilitators who would lead the groups would be selected.

My favorite speaker – Ms. Mary Washington (didn’t catch the rest of her name) said she is 69 years old and has lived in New Orleans all her life and she wanted to tell us that LOVE is the way – “Anyone who knows me, knows I don’t shake hands, I hug.” She has a 41 year old son who was given 19 months to live as a child and it was love, she believes, that helped him overcome. No question about it.

Other people stood up – the woman in hospitality who said her white boss used his shirt tail to turn the doorknob after she had touched it, or the woman who said money is at the root of evil and all happiness but the obstacle is what’s in your heart? Is it Love? There was the Korean American woman who said that “you cannot feel what another person has gone through unless you have gone through it yourself.”

Several people began to leave as it seemed that everyone would have something to say and the night would go on forever, when a white man said he wished the NAAWP man would have remained so he could hear him say that the NAAWP is a white supremacist organization and the guy was misleading folks about its intent. He mentioned the 7,000 public school educators who lost their jobs due to the 2005 Federal Flood that were mostly middle class African American women. “They didn’t come back,” he said. And he said, “The recovery has left a lot of people out.”

A Black Panther alum said it was disconcerting that people got up to speak and then left before listening to what other’s had to say.

A staff member from the PISAB said how do we keep people in their homes in the wake of gentrification? Another man said he grew up in this neighborhood where St. Roch Community Church is where a flag was flown that would tell African Americans when they were allowed to use the park. Another cited her family history where her father bought a home and started a business only to be black balled and eventually threatened in McComb, Mississippi thus forcing the family to relocate to New Orleans where a Jewish family (Mintz) gave her dad an apartment and helped get them on their feet. “My father overcame hatred with love,” the woman said.

And so begins The Welcome Table effort here in New Orleans – now let’s roll up our sleeves and get on this.

“I’m going to sit at the Welcome table
Shout my troubles over
Walk and talk with Jesus
Tell God how you treat me
One of these days!”

classic pooh

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