Community leaders talk race, Columbus statue in South Philly

(Philadelphia Tribune photo)

By Ayana Jones

PHILADELPHIA — A group of about 25 community and political leaders met Thursday afternoon to address concerns around racial strife occurring in the city.

The closed door meeting held by Bob Brady, chairman of the Philadelphia Democratic Party, drew a diverse group of clergy, current and former elected officials, and leaders of nonprofit community organizations.

“The purpose of the meeting was to bring people together and let them know that we care about this city — that we want to understand protesting, but we just got to do it in a peaceful manner and not let it turn into something that’s ugly,” Brady said.

“We had people in that room that never thought they would talk to each other, never thought they would sit next to each other,” he continued. “Now they are walking out hugging each other and that’s the message we’ve got to send to the whole city of Philadelphia — that we’re going to move this city forward.”

The group, which was comprised of African Americans and Italian Americans, discussed the dispute surrounding the Christopher Columbus statue at Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia and other issues.

“I think that people are gaining a greater level of understanding of each other’s issues,” said state Sen. Sharif Street (D-Phila.) as he reflected on the dialogue.

“There were some Italian Americans that explained the significance of Columbus as a symbol to the Italian community, that quite frankly a lot African Americans hadn’t contemplated.”

The discussion went beyond the Columbus statue controversy to address issues of criminal justice reform, disparities in education, housing and poverty.

“I think that there was an overwhelming position from African Americans that this not be made about symbolism,” Street said. “Symbolism is important, but substance is more important and real change, real reform of the criminal justice system and real investment in communities is much more important to people than symbolic removal of statues.”

Community activist Darryl Shuler said that he hasn’t encountered anyone from the African American community who is concerned about the Columbus statue.

“We don’t care about the statue,” he said. “We care about the poverty. We want to get out of what they call the hole. What offends us is we’re being short-changed.”

Shuler said the meeting left him feeling optimistic, however he wants to see some real action.

Some of the other meeting attendees included Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church; Mel Wells, president of One Day At A Time; Oshunbumi “Bumi” Fernandez, CEO of Odunde; former City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell; and former Mayor John Street.

“There is some concern that some folks in South Philadelphia feel like the mayor walked away from them and that they are not getting the support that they need,” the former mayor said.

“But overall these are just a group of people who believe that this city can do better and the (city) budget is inadequate to deal with many of the problems that are in the community. The police violence thing is very important but it’s more than that — it’s schools, it’s housing, it’s jobs. It’s all of the things that make a neighborhood, a neighborhood and that make a city, a city for everybody.”

Ayana Jones is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.