On Thursday, Feb. 18, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., an Ohio University Black Summit was hosted via Zoom to forge togetherness among the people of Athens and the surrounding areas.
Those who attended learned more about Mount Zion Preservation Society, Black Wall Street Athens/Albany and the new Athens Green Book while engaging in open dialogue amongst their peers.
Although the event was planned to occur last year around the same time, the pandemic kept it from happening in person. However, after the planning committee discussed the event more, they were able to host the event via an online platform.
“Students will be able to connect with community people, engage with them and ask questions during the discussion session,” Carolyn Lewis, director and general manager of Emerita, said. “What we really wanted to do at the end was to plan breakout rooms where folks can go into a room for six questions we have to ask, we don't have to, but we're asking. We want to make sure everybody's involved so that we can not only engage them, but hear what others have to say about who they are and their experiences, experiences in Athens and what we can do for each other – what do they need from us – and who are they and what skills do they bring to the community.”
J.W. Smith, a professor in the School of Communication Studies, originally had the idea of hosting an event like this. Smith had two goals for the event, the first one being bringing the community of not only OU, but Athens as a whole closer together and creating a more accepting society.
“The second thing I wanted to get done was, to present the most balanced possible positive approach and prove a proactive approach to dealing with these issues,” Smith said. “We have been blessed in Athens, with not having a lot of stuff that's happened in all the major cities, but it's probably going to happen. And we have to be prepared when it happens –what do we do when it happens, and how do we put the most positive, not just spin on it, but the most proactive way of dealing with it.”
During the Zoom, speakers shared their experiences and answered questions that were asked by the audience.
Lewis and Brandon Thompson, also known as DJ B-Funk, were the moderators and introduced the speakers, while simultaneously sharing their insight on the matter.
Smith delivered a powerful message about the importance of not only equality, but equity, too. He also emphasized the importance of family and faith. Smith was able to uplift the audience with his words and let everyone know that change is going to start with heart and soul.
Lewis spoke about her experience growing up with her great aunt in Bluefield, West Virginia and taught the audience about her ‘Green Book.’ Lewis was able to describe her history growing up as a Black woman in West Virginia and the struggles she faced, as well as share her touching story about her great aunt and her legacy.
Trevellya Ford-Ahmed, the board director for the Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society, spoke about the Mt. Zion Preservation and the grants and support they have received from the businesses and organizations in Athens.
Nana Watson, president of the Columbus National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, spoke about the NAACP. She spoke about what steps can be taken in order to succeed the political, educational, social and economic equality rights of all persons to eliminate racial discrimination. She also spoke about how crucial it is for young people to start stepping up in leadership positions in their towns.
Additionally, Watson brought up the negative impact that COVID-19 has had on the Black community.
Watson spoke about how change can start with seeking office, asking to serve on committees, hold elected officials accountable and grade elected officials. She encouraged the audience that if they don’t get a seat at the table, bring a chair to assure that voices are heard. There will not be change if there is fear of change.
Near the end, the audience broke off into discussion rooms where they were able to engage in more intimate conversation and listen to the important thoughts their peers had to share.
In the breakout rooms, groups discussed questions like what keeps and has kept them from connecting with other people of color in the Athens community; how long and what brought and/or kept them in Athens; what has been something they love about Athens; if they could change one thing about the Black community in Athens what would it be; what is something the Black community is very good at in Athens; and what is an area the Black community could improve on?
Discussion of the contributions that African Americans have made in the U.S., and more specifically Ohio and Athens were reviewed. A recurring point was made throughout the night: it is important that Black people are able to feel a sense of belonging wherever they go.
“When you come to Ohio University, you're not just coming to an institution, you're coming to a community that has an internal campus community that's important,” Renée Middleton, dean of the Patton College of Education, said. “We always talk about the town relationship that many of our students also have connections in the community, or should. So it's important for students to understand not just the campus community, but the wider Athens community.”
The audience was engaging in open conversation through asking many questions. The conversation that the Black Summit started does not end now but is encouraged to continue every day.
“We're hoping that this will not be the first or last,” Smith said. “I'm hoping somebody will catch the dream and then somebody else will do the next one. You know, if we could have one or two of these a year I think that's only a good thing.”