On Aug. 9, just over 30 Brookhaven residents walked into a steakhouse. Some of them knew each other, and some of them were strangers. All of them came from different walks of life – psychiatrists, former public servants, lawyers, council members. They all had different backgrounds, had different experiences. But they were to discuss one thing, and one thing only: equity.
Brookhaven’s Social Justice, Race and Equity Commission held one of its first civic dinners, or a meal geared at discussing important social issues, at Arnette’s Chop Shop in Brookhaven on Aug. 9. The city established the commission in September 2020, aiming to address issues of racial inequity in the city.
The commission expects to make recommendations that will improve the city’s vision and mission statement, city hiring and retention practices, procurement and contracting, and policing. Part of the process for coming up with said recommendations involves engaging the Brookhaven community publicly, which is where civic dinners come in.
The dinner held at Arnette’s was one of five dinners across the city on Aug. 9. About 30 Brookhaven residents sat at tables in groups of about 5-6 people. Social Justice, Race and Equity commissioners facilitated conversations centered around racial equity, and spent about an hour discussing three questions. Reporter Newspapers was able to sit in on a conversation facilitated by Commissioner Danita Knight. The conversation was between Regina Koepp, J. Max Davis, Sara Henderson, and Bill Marks. What follows is a microcosm of their conversation, including personal experiences from the participants.
Question One: Can you recall a moment when you first realized society isn’t just, impartial and fair to all races? Did you think you should do something about it? Did you feel you could do something about it?
Each person at the table shared a story, some speaking about things they witnessed happen to loved ones and some sharing instances where something happened to them personally.
Sara Henderson started the conversation. She talked about her experience dating someone of Middle Eastern descent just after Sept. 11, 2001. She described an instance where her significant other came to pick her up at the airport, and parked his car somewhere he wasn’t supposed to while he waited. Henderson said when she made it outside to meet her partner, an officer had him held up against his car.
Henderson, who is a white woman, said as soon as she intervened, the officer backed off. She said for her, the experience shed light on discrimination that others faced and made her think about how she could help moving forward.
“What can I do in this moment, but [also] what can I do beyond this moment,” she said.
J. Max Davis, who served as the founding mayor of Brookhaven and works as an attorney, went next, sharing a story about a time he felt discriminated against in the courtroom. Davis, who said he works primarily to keep people out of bankruptcy, talked about a time he lost a case he was sure he would win. He said that he and his client were both white men, and the judge and the opposing attorney were both Black women.
Davis said following the judge’s ruling, he thought he saw her wink at the other attorney, and then they both retreated to the judge’s chambers. He said this small experience opened his eyes to how this might happen more often to people of color.
“I felt like I was in somebody else’s shoes for the first time,” he said. “I felt helpless.”
Regina Koepp, who is a psychiatrist, shared a story about her experience growing up in Los Angeles. She said her mother, who struggled with serious mental illness throughout her childhood, was not always around to raise her, so she moved in and out of foster care homes. Some of the families she ended up staying with were families of color. She said she noticed that she was treated differently when she was with them than when she was with her white mother. Even in the same bad situation, such as standing in a welfare line, she said she noticed white families receiving better treatment than families of color.
Bill Marks, who did public relations for the event and also participated in the conversation, said an eighth-grade history teacher changed the way he thought about racism and its legacy when he asked the class why they thought Black people were enslaved.
After allowing the kids to answer, the teacher said: “Because you were Black … the color of your skin could be identified on the spot.”
“From that point forward, I realized I can’t fix that,” Marks said.
Question Two: What are some past events or policies that have contributed to racial inequality in America? How are racial inequities maintained or amplified today?
This question’s conversation centered around access to education, the quality of public education, and how equity can be achieved in that realm. Henderson brought up the importance of financial education, and how wealth also depends on being able to pass knowledge of the financial system down through generations.
“If you don’t have access or exposure, you can’t pass it down,” she said.
Marks agreed, and shared a story about a time he had an opportunity to make a financial investment at a job, but was skeptical of the process because he didn’t have the necessary knowledge.
Koepp moved the conversation to issues surrounding public schooling and the fact that many public schools in lower income areas are underserved as far as resources. She said she would like to be able to send her children to public school, but because of a lack of resources, she worried about the education they would receive there.
Henderson said she empathized with Koepp’s concerns, but brought up the idea that pulling children out of public schools won’t help them receive the resources they need.
“We’re pulling our kids out of those classrooms because we don’t want them to have those experiences …” Henderson said. “How are we contributing [to the problem]?”
Question Three: What does real racial equity look like to you? What progress would you like to see this country achieve in your lifetime? And what’s one thing you or your community can do to help make this vision come true?
The least amount of time was given to this final question, but most of the participants agreed that economic parity and equity in educational opportunities would be important moving forward.
Koepp said she thought anti-bias training for all different types of identity groups would be an important step moving forward, as well as anti-racist curriculum in schools. Davis responded by asking who would be in charge of coming up with that curriculum, and said he has spoken with some peers who are fearful about what their children would be learning if curriculum moved in that direction.
Henderson responded to Davis by asking those parents to consider if their fears are equal to the fears of families of color. She also said compromise would be necessary moving forward.
“There’s a finite amount of resources,” she said. “Those of us on the upside are going to have to give a little to those who are not on the upside.”