Finding meaningful solutions to enduring race and social justice issues in America — begins first with open, honest, respectful conversations with one another.
That was the overarching theme of a group of panelists taking part in a virtual seminar called “Equity in our Nation.”
The Sept. 14 event, hosted by Pasco-Hernando State College, brought together local speakers of diverse race and religious backgrounds.
The panelists spent three hours expressing their views on the current state of America, and offering suggestions for how to improve systems to increase fairness, justice and educational equities.
Social justice issues have come front and center — in the wake of persistent nationwide protests in response to incidents of police brutality and other racially motivated violence against Blacks.
Having a safe haven in higher education and faith-based structures to debate differing ideas and have meaningful dialogue is the foundation to facilitate change in what’s become a nation divided in recent months, said PHSC president Tim Beard.
Beard, who is Black, put it like this: “We all perhaps would agree that our country is very divided right now. I’ve never seen it this divided in my little short 58 years. I think it’s going to take sessions and platforms to learn how to listen to each other. None of us know it all, but together, we can make America a great nation.”
That message resonates with Pasco Sheriff’s Office Cpl. Bryan Banner.
In a period rife with social unrest, Banner has “serious skin in the game” being a Black man who works in law enforcement, and who has three sons.
“I always say: I don’t think there’s much that can’t be solved over coffee and some conversations. That’s just my approach to life and problem-solving,” said Banner. “Before we point guns at each other, before we take up arms and kill each other, how about we attempt to have a conversation?”
Panelists also agreed that being humble and treating others how you want to be treated are paramount to improving society, on the whole.
“When you have a problem, you don’t fix the problem by becoming the problem,” said James Williams, a Black senior pastor at Mount Olive African Methodist Episcopal Church in Clearwater.
“In this nation, we’ve come to a place where we reach conclusions about someone based on the narrative of the day. What do I mean? Instead of giving a person the opportunity to show you their character, we generalize them, we’ve come to a conclusion about them, based on a previous experience. …What if we give people the opportunity to show us their character, before assuming that they are what we’ve experienced?,” Williams said.
Rabbi Jeff Zaremsky of Beth El-Shalom in New Port Richey and St. Petersburg similarly observed “loving one another” and “having a heart that puts the other person first and cares about them” can collectively instill sustainable social justice throughout communities.
Black in America
A significant portion of discussion veered into the Black experience in America.
AdventHealth West Pasco/North Pinellas community engagement coordinator Trevor Williams underscored the struggles people of color face today in the U.S., resulting from what he claimed is a nation originally founded “on racist beliefs and the notion of white supremacy.”
Those ideals, Williams said, remain steeped in policies and procedures “that are not made to factor in minorities and furthers the gap of equality.”
As an example, he said, “Black people who commit a crime are more likely to receive a harsher punishment compared to a white person who committed the very same crime with the same exact background.”
Williams, who is Black, also detailed how segregation is still prevalent in school systems, noting large percentages of Black and Latino students receive a weaker quality of education growing up in poorer communities, therefore placing them at a greater disadvantage in health and social outcomes compared to white counterparts.
He then summed up the obstacles overall: “Let’s just say that if my name was “Travaris” and not “Trevor” my chances of receiving a callback for an application would be cut in half.”
Pasco Alliance for Substance Addiction Prevention (ASAP) community health coordinator Bonni Snider supplemented those points — stating people of color have felt invisible and marginalized throughout American history.
“For years, minorities have been thought of as less than human; thought of as more of a condition than a person,” Snider said.
It’s something Snider has experienced firsthand, as a biracial woman.
“I have been asked numerous times, ‘What are you?’ and when I hear that question, it makes me think I’m seen more as an object than I am as a person. My response typically is, ‘I’m a human.’
“How many times can a non-minority, someone who’s Caucasian, say that they’ve experienced those same things?”
Snider went on to reference the provision of the original 1787 U.S. Constitution, which allowed Southern states to count slaves as three-fifths of a person in population counts.
The so-called Three-Fifths compromise, she reasoned, perpetuated the marginalization of Blacks for generations.
“If you fast forward, Blacks have often been seen for many years as waiters, cooks, shoe shines, field hands, service individuals, and when you think about service individuals, we don’t see them until we want something from them or until we want to ask them a question,” Snider said.
Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) community outreach director Rod Cunningham echoed those beliefs, too.
Cunningham, who is Black, shared how he’s been blessed to have a 29-year military career, received a quality education, robust financial situation and stable family life in the U.S.
But, he emphasized, “If I get pulled over (by police), I don’t feel so privileged, because my black skin won’t always get me out of that situation.”
Systemic racism and classism, Cunningham said, is underscored today in the U.S., via mass incarceration, privatized prisons, crime laws and so on.
He argued such systems have kept down people of color because society has been conditioned to reject convicts — through stripping voting rights and limited career prospects, exacerbating recidivism.
Cunningham observed: “At one point you’re gonna get frustrated making $9 an hour, and you’re going to do something illegal…”
Equity starts with personal responsibility
Preventing negative outcomes and other challenges minorities face can be mitigated with personal responsibility and demonstrating a strong moral and ethical compass, some panelists argued.
Al Hernandez, a member of the PHSC board of trustees, is an example of a minority living the American dream.
Hernandez, a Cuban immigrant, came to the U.S. “with two pennies and nothing else.”
Today he’s a market vice president at Humana and proudly holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Nova Southeastern University.
With that, Hernandez pushed back on victimhood culture, which he believes has become all too prevalent in the U.S.
“We need to be careful, as we look at ourselves and our communities. The reality is, you’re going to make your life — you do have the responsibility and you do have the personal responsibility for yourself, for your family, for your kids.
“At the end of the day, we’re all Americans, and we’ve got to start seeing ourselves as Americans first, and really get to that point of view.”
He continued: “The reality is, we’re all going to encounter issues. We’re all going to encounter situations in life. Some of them, whether it’s fair or not, is somewhat irrelevant. It’s what you do with it, and how do you actually overcome these obstacles that are going to happen in your life.
“Personally, I don’t allow anybody or anything, regardless of whether I have an accent or not, to tell me or to change my career path or to change where I’m coming from. As a person, you have to have individual responsibility to work hard, to do what is required of you to be a good member of society.”
Zaremsky added onto those views.
“The change starts with us,” Zaremsky said. “We need to look at ourselves, and that’s where the change needs to take place, and having equal laws and equal ramifications for decisions—whether good decisions or bad decisions.”
Even with the ongoing calls for social justice, the Jewish leader put into perspective America’s eminence, also warning against the ills of socialism and communism.
“We’re the least prejudiced, with the least injustices. We’re the freest and most equal country in the world, thus we should not burn it down,” Zaremsky said.
“We keep from having an unjust balance of power by allowing freedom of speech—not censoring tweets of people we don’t like, or not allowing dissenting opinions on panel discussions or on college campuses.
“Echo chambers cause prejudice, injustice, and imbalance of power. Freedom — free speech, free market, religious freedom — are the best defenses against unjust, imbalances of power. Because of our wonderful constitution, every citizen can lawfully address injustices,” Zaremsky said.
Other panelists and speakers included Emery Ailes, PHSC LIFE (Linking Faith In Education) coordinator; Joe Bohn, University of South Florida College of Public Health professor and community engagement director; Shauna Hale, assistant U.S. Attorney, Middle District of Florida; Tonicia Freeman-Foster, Central Florida Behavioral Health Network change specialist; Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Shawn Crane; and, Imam Hassan Sultan, CEO of the Muslim Connection in Tampa.
Published September 30, 2020