Community leaders express thoughts on Black Lives Matter movement
By Mary Beth Roach
While the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the country have centered on law enforcement reform, they have also served to refocus the nation’s attention on race relations.
We recently talked with four community leaders — all people of color — who shared their viewpoints on the protests and on the best ways to move Central New York ahead in a positive direction.
‘I’ve been deputy mayor [in Syracuse] for 2-1/2 years; I’ve been black my entire life’
As deputy mayor for the city of Syracuse, Sharon Owens, who turned 57 in September, can offer a unique viewpoint. She is a black woman, she holds a high-ranking post in Walsh’s administration, and she has spent most of her career working in nonprofit agencies and in the public service sector.
“My perspective as deputy mayor is that I’ve been deputy mayor for 2-1/2 years; I’ve been black my entire life,” she said.
As a person of color, a woman, a wife and the mother of a child with special needs, she can’t separate any of that from who she is as deputy mayor.
“They very much influence, as they should, what I do and what I attempt to do in this position,” she said.
After attending a rally at Forman Park in early June with Walsh, she was introduced to some of the individuals from Last Chance for Change. She joined with the marchers through the city, believing that this would give her an opportunity to walk with them and give them some clarity on some of the issues they were concerned about.
At one point along the way, she was invited to talk to the crowd, “to give them some information, to make sure they had correct information, and give them information about the topics they were concerned about,” she said.
“It was a good opportunity for me to get to know some of them and for them to know me at that moment. It was a moment to be able to connect at some level,” she added.
A while later, she attended a rally held at City Hall, but in an observation mode.
“It’s important for me not to inject myself. That’s the role that I feel is appropriate for me,” she said.
City leaders are hearing the demands of various groups and having conversations with them in various ways, she said.
“The efforts that are under way now of police reform are efforts that the community needs to know from my perspective, from the mayor’s perspective, and from the chief’s [police chief Kenneth Buckner] perspective. We agree upon much more than we disagree on. The issue is how do we get there and how do we get to the same end road,” Owens said.
The death of George Floyd in May has shone the light on the need for police reform, she noted, but reforms are needed across the board, particularly with educational and housing systems, key economic drivers in the community.
“Really, it’s coming to a reckoning of who we are as a nation, the very big mistakes we made as a country, even in the tenets of the constitution that didn’t consider an individual like me. First of all, it didn’t even mention women and it didn’t mention people who were black as human beings. First thing, coming to grips with that and how that intrinsic foundational tenet of who we were as a country and how we were formed shape how we continue to grow as a nation,” she said.
H. Bernard Alex
H. Bernard Alex, 58, estimated that he walked between 40 and 55 miles during the recent 40-day peaceful protest in Syracuse.
As bishop-senior pastor of the Victory Temple Fellowship Church, he said his congregation was the first African-American faith community here to protest, and as they were marching from their church on East Willow Street to the Public Safety Building, some of the members of Last Chance for Change joined them. The group was formed following the death of George Floyd in an effort to end racism and police brutality, and they marched through the streets of the area for 40 days.
He said if they could support his church, then he could support them.
While he believes in the necessity of having law enforcement, he wants it be more reflective of the community. He was involved in creating the Syracuse Citizen Review Board in 1993, in which citizens assess complaints brought against members of the Syracuse Police Department. He also serves on the Town of Dewitt Police Commission, and is a member of the Columbus Circle Action Group, formed in late June by Mayor Ben Walsh to help the city revamp downtown Syracuse’s Columbus Circle into a year-round educational and learning site. The Christopher Columbus statue there is drawing controversy, since there are differing views on the explorer.
“I am the most pro-police guy. I want policing to be done with equitable service and for it to be done correctly. I can’t imagine living in society where there is no system of civil order, but I do want police to reflect their community” while focusing on receiving diversity and sensitivity training,” he said. “The department must look like the community it serves,” he said.
He said the groups involved in these recent protests have devised a plan that is doable and feasible, which is critical if it’s to succeed.
George Kilpatrick, the men’s outreach coordinator at Vera House and host of the radio program “Inspiration for the Nation,” has taken part in at least two of the local marches and attended the demonstration held at City Hall. This latter event was held in June, and local media estimated that it drew approximately 2,000 people.
“We just want to be treated equitably by law enforcement,” Kilpatrick said. “That’s what this is all about, because it’s not working for all the citizens of the community.”
The protests are about how black and brown individuals are treated differently in different instances, he said.
“The world is saying enough is enough. That’s why you see the ‘Black Lives Matter’ that’s moving beyond black communities, where you have people from all parts of the community — white, black, brown, Asian, you name it — being all part of the movement to end systemic oppression and to make law enforcement accountable and equitable,” said the 61 year old.
While the protests have demanded police reform, Kilpatrick said they also raise awareness to issues that people of color have always faced.
“In the past, we would give lip service to these concerns. We would have diversity statements; we believe that all people deserve opportunity. And that might be true, but is that the actual practice? Now, this movement has brought forth more than just lip service and diversity statements, and ‘we believe’ statements that have no substance. Now companies and organizations are looking at ways to actually do the work, and this means confronting the issue of race and racism in this country.”
In wrapping up his thoughts, Kilpatrick said, “We have a tremendous opportunity to remake our nation into the promise of what we want it to be.”
Calvin Corriders, 57, said while the protests are important, the protestors can’t do it all. It takes people from various walks of life to bring their expertise to work on the issues and change policies, such as improving educational systems, job opportunities, and housing.
“We’re not going to be able to take a bite of the elephant in one sitting. It’s going to take a bite at a time,” he said.
While he serves as the regional president for the Syracuse market for Pathfinder Bank, Corriders has also been involved in community-based organizations to affect change and has served on the board of education for the Syracuse City School District from 2000 to 2014.
Currently, Corriders serves as the vice president of Blueprint 15, an initiative started last year that would re-imagine the area near East Adams Street near Route 81, once known as the 15th Ward. The plan would include renovating a large portion of the Syracuse Housing Authority’s properties, offering a mix of subsidized and market-rate housing, a neighborhood school and health and wellness components.
He supports the idea of a community school, which would help to level the playing field for the youth, he said. He also put forth the idea that private sector companies pledge to have a certain percentage of their work be dedicated to people of color.
“That would be a way in helping to improve the employment that affects minority communities, particularly black and brown. It would be a way to help start up minority-owned businesses that would be able to sustain themselves, and that would affect housing because now people would have the ability to have a living wage, but they’d be able to own a home,” he said.