Two panel discussions — one on race and the other on the environment — provide hope

By Maria Saporta

This past week, I was able to moderate two different panel discussions — one on race relations and the other on the environment — and both left me optimistic with where we’re headed as a nation and a state.

The race relations panel at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta was part of the week-long Trumpet Awards, one of the most highly regarded awards programs for African Americans that was founded by our own Xernona Clayton.

The panelists included Cory “Coco Brother” Condrey, a radio personality and a motivational speaker with the STAND Campaign; C.T. Vivian, civil rights activist, spiritual leader and vice president of the SCLC; Howard Ross, founder and chief learning officer of Cook Ross Inc.; Jeffery Tobias Halter, president of Y Women; and Joy DeGruy, lecturer, author and professor.

At the end of our probing, and sometimes contentious discussion, it was apparent that although we have made great strides in race relations since the 1960s, the residue of racism is still all around us.

That racism sometimes surfaces in comments and attitudes that people have made about President Barack Obama. Would Eric Cantor, the U.S. House Minority Leader, have stood up and walked out during a meeting with a president if he were white? I think not.

Vivian spoke about the box that Obama is in — being the first black president but also a president who has to represent everyone in the country. For some he’s too black, for others he’s too white.

And while electing a president of mixed race is a major step forward for our nation, it is only a first step.
According to a member of the audience, more than a million African Americans are in U.S. jails and prisons — a far higher percentage than any other ethnic group. Until we as a nation deal with the underlying issues of racism, we won’t be able to address the deep seated problems of education, crime, poverty, equity and opportunity.

Personally, I believe that if President Obama is re-elected to a second term, he could be uniquely positioned to reopen a meaningful national conversation about race.

I left that panel feeling optimistic because I heard the open-minded views of Condrey, part of the newer generation who believes in the ideals of the Civil Rights movement, but also is adapting the message to a nation that’s become more diverse and more complicated.

The second panel — which was billed as an Environmental Town Hall meeting — was one of the more complex that I have ever moderated. There were 26 environmental leaders — some who have been on the scene for decades and several who are new leaders of nonprofit organizations.

The environmental summit was organized by the Sustainable Atlanta Roundtable (SART) — which meets on the first Friday of the month and often is one of the most rewarding hour or so that one can have each month. Southface and other environmental groups help put together the monthly programs that also highlight the grassroots work that so many are doing in metro Atlanta and Georgia.

The idea for this past Friday’s summit came from a column I wrote last year about the changes in leadership at several environmental organizations.

After that column, several folks proposed putting together a SART with the new players on the scene. The idea kept snowballing as we decided to invite veteran environmental leaders and realized how many people deserved to be part of the discussion. The panel of 26 leaders was only a representation of all the groups and leaders in metro Atlanta and the state. In fact, most of the 211 people in attendance were just as qualified to be part of the discussion.

But we had limitations of time and space. So with those constraints we spent about an hour talking about the state of environmental leadership in Georgia, how we compare to other states, what should be some of our top priorities and where do we go from here.

Since I was moderating the discussion, I wasn’t able to also report on what was said. But fortunately there were plenty of folks tweeting throughout the program.

Beth Bond put together a “tweet diary” of the 90-minute session.

Southface also posted about 20 photos on Facebook that were taken during the session, which you can see if you click here.

Again, I left that session feeling encouraged that there are so many extraordinary people working on the environment. Although we may disagree on some points here and there, there is tremendous opportunity for the different leaders and organizations to find consensus and work collaboratively on issues critical to our state’s future.

So it is with a hopeful spirit that I share with you a couple of highlights from this past week.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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