21st Racial Justice Summit, hosted by the Black & White Reunion at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. This group has helped us get connected to progressive people and groups in Pittsburgh. This year, DH chose to volunteer stuffing programs, serving food, monitoring rooms, and cleaning up. I attended as a participant, sitting in on panels about race and immigration, the criminal justice system, and genealogy for black families. We were encouraged to consider that the United States has only been a functioning democracy since African-Americans secured the ability to vote with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in 1960s. The fact that the canisters of tear gas used in Gaza and in Ferguson, MO, were made just 1.5 hours from here reminds us of the intersectionality of peoples subjected to state violence. The most moving session to me was watching a 2005 documentary about the 1995 death of 31-year-old black businessman Johnny Gammage during what should have been a routine traffic stop, the failed trials, and so many marches held on familiar streets. I also listened to a black filmmaker talk about trying to uncover ways in which poor Pittsburghers were evicted from the East Liberty neighborhood in the name of progress and gentrification. It was a representation of some of the best of what the Steel City is trying to be.
Black Pittsburghers frequently point out that there are (at least) two Pittsburghs. There's the exciting sci-med-tech of the universities, hospitals, Google, and Uber. And then there are the locals who are still trying to get a fair shake while dealing with inequalities of health and wealth, not to mention discriminatory policing so bad that it led to the first consent decree in the country (Department of Justice oversight over a police department). This annual summit provides time and space for people of color to refresh and reconnect, and for white people to learn and find ways to help. Recognizing my many privileges in life--including coming to Pittsburgh as a recent transplant to participate in those growth industries--I went with the intention to listen more than I talked. I came, as the saying among people of color goes, "to take a seat." After a day full of moving stories and hard truths, it finally happened during the last panel of the day, on cultural narratives. An elderly white Jewish woman challenged one of panelists (a Palestinian woman) over her characterization of Zionism, violence by the state of Israel, and the intifada. They interrupted each other, there was shouting from around the room, and finally the questioner gave up and left entirely. I'm afraid that exchange confirmed many stereotypes. There were certainly heightened emotions on all sides, especially given the synagogue massacre here less than 4 months ago. Palestinians want their country back. Jews are still hunted. Black people still die at the hands of police despite Johnny Gammage, the consent decree, Michael Brown, and Black Lives Matter.
Of the long list of ground rules that came with our participant packet, the one that stood out to me most was the injunction to "leave the stories, take the lessons." If someone shared a painful part of their life during a breakout session, that was to be kept in confidence; but if we learned anything from the hard conversations happening around us, we should incorporate that into our lives. One of the organizers reminded us as the last panel broke up, that if we do nothing differently now, we will have wasted a snowy Saturday. But if we seek to be the change we want to see in the world, then it will have been time well invested. Here's to knowing when to speak up and when to take a seat, using our feet and voices for the oppressed, and voting like it matters (because it does!).