Tayyib Smith spends a lot of time thinking about how Black Americans have garnered important wins for democracy.
For example, the Philly entrepreneur, who focuses on social impact work, often looks to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Based out of the Pullman Palace Car Company, the BSCP was the first African American labor union in the country. After more than a decade of fighting for a living wage, reasonable rest for workers, and a 240-hour work month, the union won its first contract agreement.
What’s more, Smith considers how the Pullman porters partnered with The Chicago Defender — a leading Black weekly newspaper that published Langston Hughes and Ida B. Wells — to distribute the paper to Black southerners, informing them of happenings in other parts of the country.
“They told people about opportunities in the North. That partnership between Black-owned media, and a collaborative of Black unionists who then became Black political lobbyists, created the Great Migration,” said Smith.
This is the type of power Smith said he hopes Black communities can tap into during this period of political organizing to demand institutions and individuals across society address systemic racism against Black people.
“It’s these types of power that you need … in order to move forward, and not always be led by the well-meaning benevolence of guilt and sorrow from white people who don’t have the cultural competency to move democracy forward,” he said.
It’s why Smith accepted an invitation from Chase L. Cantrell, a friend who runs a real estate development nonprofit in Detroit, to help convene a series of conversations about what it means to be a Black man in the U.S. and across the African diaspora.
The “Next Steps Together” initiative will bring 50 community leaders from cities across the U.S., including Philadelphia and Chester, as conversation moderators.
Over the span of three days, Smith and Cantrell hope to engage 5,000 Black men, in groups of five to 10, as part of 500 moderated conversations they hope will provide a safe space to share their lived experiences and promote healing.
The conversations will begin on Friday, which marks the start of Juneteenth celebrations commemorating June 19, 1865, the day enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas first learned they were free — more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
In Philly, the day is usually celebrated with a parade that draws thousands of people. This Juneteenth falls during an unprecedented time, as the coronavirus pandemic still looms over the city and protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis weigh on Black protesters’ mental health.
When Cantrell came up with the concept and asked Smith to spearhead the efforts in Philadelphia, he framed the event in the context of COVID-19, which has disproportionately affected Black Americans.
One of the questions offered to moderators to ask attendees is, “How have you been impacted by COVID-19? How are you coping?”
But the questions are designed to go beyond COVID-19, said Smith, because the same communities that are most vulnerable to the coronavirus are ones that are affected by failures in the health care, carceral, and education systems.
It’s for that reason, Smith said, that these conversations need to happen absent the “white gaze,” as author Toni Morrison called it.
Often, Smith said, it can feel as though Black men are coming together through “sports or braggadocious means of viewing masculinity,” leaving little room to share “concerns, fears, desires and dreams.”
It’s been Smith’s experience that there aren’t as many opportunities for Black male fellowship as there are for Black women. He hopes the virtual meetings can be a first step to filling the gap and a jumping-off point for further organizing.
“This about us and about healing, and about talking about what’s worked for us in the past and how do we move forward in a progressive, positive way that’s in the best interests of Black people,” he said.
Those who would like to participate in or moderate a virtual gathering can sign up here. The gatherings will begin Friday, June 19 and go through Sunday, June 21.
WHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.