More than a month after postponing a highly-touted but ambiguous race forum, city officials are tweaking the format into multiple meetings, rather than a single, end-all event.
The idea is to split the forum up into meetings they’re calling “community conversations,” said Shayla Beaco, the city’s senior director of community affairs.
“It’s a phase approach,” Beaco said. “Community conversations will take place in the fall.”
Beaco said there is no set timetable or number of meetings, but she believes they will take place throughout the year.
The specific topics each of these meetings will address are also unknown at this time, Beaco said, but the city wants to hear from residents on what the topics should cover.
“One of the things we’re going to survey and poll the community on is topics we should cover,” she said. “The survey and polling will help us develop a launching point.”
Jena Burson, senior advisor in Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s administration, said the survey will soon be available online as well as on paper in the Mobile Public Library.
Originally, Stimpson decided to hold the forum after the council split along racial lines on the appointment of former Mayor Sam Jones to the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System board, city spokesman George Talbot said. But it also fits in with Stimpson’s motto of “One Mobile” and follows on the heels of the documentary “Mobile in Black and White.”
To help with the planning of the forum, the city contacted Mobile United, an organization with roots in racial unity and civic leadership.
“Mobile United originally worked on community relations and one of the areas they focused on was race relations,” Beaco said. “We felt like they were the ideal organization to lead us in this endeavor.”
Christienne Gibson-Barraza, administrator of Leadership Mobile, wrote in an email that in its inception, Mobile United was created by a group of 60 concerned citizens to address high racial tension, unemployment and lack of unity.
“Through our diversity committee, we still work on some issues as they have been slow to change,” she wrote. “A project that began with our diversity committee in 2009 and now resides at the University of South Alabama, a documentary called ‘Mobile in Black and White,’ has delved into many of the issues that continue to divide Mobile along racial lines. It was designed and implemented by Dr. Rob Gray and Dr. Joel Lewis as a vehicle for community conversations, but never was done on a citywide scale.
“The film and existing conversations provide a relevant platform to work from that addresses the structural and institutional injustices that still exist so that we can begin the work needed to move forward,” she added.
The forum was originally scheduled for June, but was postponed to allow more time to work on an agenda. Gibson-Barraza wrote that she supported the delay.
“We think this is a very important step for our city and thought it prudent to invite more people to the table who were familiar with these types of conversations to get their input,” she wrote. “We have put together what we think will be an effective way to consider and engage experts, leaders, citizens and everyone who has an interest in improving race relations.”
Mobile United is made up of 138 active members. Members are graduates of both the Leadership Mobile, or Youth Leadership Mobile programs, as well as the general public. Members pay an annual fee of $125.
Gibson-Barraza wrote that Mobile United has a unique committee structure which tackles seven areas, including education, social services and housing, government, diversity, public safety, health services and natural resources.
“Each committee is comprised of Leadership Mobile graduates, as well as citizens at large, who have a vested interest in the topic at hand,” Gibson-Barraza wrote.