Baton Rouge's black residents have a positive story to tell about their community, but it's vital to do a better job of getting the word out about their achievements and contributions to the city.
That was the message delivered Saturday at the annual meeting of the Urban Congress on African American Males, which focuses on improving the lives and futures of black boys and men. Dozens of people at the forum at the McKinley Alumni Center heard from speakers that included Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards and East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome.
Edwards and Broome focused their remarks on policies and programs they've implemented in hopes of improving the economic, educational and health outlooks of black residents. Others talked about the importance of black Baton Rougeans taking ownership of the narrative that's presented about them.
"When it comes to stories about black people as deficits, as problems, we are armed to the teeth," said Benjamin Evans, co-founder and fellowship director of a national organization called the BMe Community. "But when it comes to stories of black and brown people as assets and achievers, we're empty-handed."
Those stories include accomplishments in the fields of business, government, education, community service and many others, he said. But they're too often overshadowed by talk about crime, poverty, high school dropout rates and unemployment — contributing to stereotypes that can discourage people and cause them to disengage from their community.
"When we tell our kids, 'Your neighborhood's full of poverty, your schools are run down,' what do you think their response is going to be?" Evans said.
He added: "You can't ignore the negative, because it's there. We just have to tell the fuller story."
He called on leaders of organizations that work with youth from disadvantaged backgrounds to sets their sights higher.
"We have to go beyond keeping people out of jail. We have to go beyond people graduating high school," he said. "Yes, it's important, but if we create a goal that requires them to graduate high school, it's a part of the process. ... If we stop at graduating high school, what happens after that?"
Edwards, who is seeking reelection this fall, highlighted recent changes he said have improved the lives of black Louisianans.
He said criminal justice reform efforts have been especially significant.
"Black men and boys have been disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system," Edwards said. "For decades, Louisiana was known as the incarceration capital."
Too many people were locked up on low-level drug possession offenses when they — and society — might have been better served by treatment or education, the governor said. More money is available for those types of endeavors now that the state has reduced its prison population.
Edwards talked about giving teachers and school support employees pay raises, a goal he has frequently mentioned in recent weeks. He also said he wants to ask the Legislature to let voters decide if the minimum wage should be raised to $9 an hour.
"How many children are trapped in poverty because we're not paying their parents an adequate wage?" he said, adding that something also needs to be done about the pay gap between men and women in Louisiana.
Broome spoke about her Cradle to K initiative, which helps parents get their children ready for kindergarten, and efforts aimed at economic issues, such as Employ BR and the Mayor's Summer Youth Employment Program. She said many participants in those programs are black.
"I thank the Urban Congress for being a part of the fabric of empowering, certainly, our African American males, but our total community," Broome said.