Race relations symposium looks to build a 'beloved community'

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Blount County needs to work toward the “beloved community” espoused by Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights activists said during a weekend summit.

The Alcoa-Blount County branch of the NAACP along with Blount County United hosted the second annual Race Relations Symposium over the weekend — the two-day virtual event conducted over Zoom that touched on several issues that affect people of color in the Blount County community and beyond.

Local NAACP Vice President Charles Carpenter kicked off Friday’s session by introducing a number of honorable guests who laid out the mission of the organization and the weekend of discussion.

“These difficult conversations are important,” Alcoa City Commissioner Tanya Martin said, “and they must take place in order to create lasting change.”

Throughout Friday’s session, several speakers reiterated the mission to build towards the “beloved community,” a concept popularized by Martin Luther King Jr. that is described by the King Center as “a global vision in which all people can share in the wealth of the Earth.”

“We should all be able to grasp the concept of the beloved community,” the Rev. Willa Estell said.

Estell is president of Alcoa-Blount NAACP and chair of Blount County United.

“This concept of the beloved community runs through the mission of what we are about. It’s not this utopia kind of state that we believe we’re already in, but it’s one we’re working toward,” Estell explained. “It’s one that we want other people to embrace. This concept of humanity, all of humanity, being important and all of humanity not being judged on anything other than their character. And so we’re working to address those disparities that cast some people out and include some people.”

Friday’s keynote speaker was LaKenya Middlebrook, a Knoxville attorney who serves as executive director for the city’s Police Advisory and Review Committee and worked with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.

Middlebrook reiterated Estell’s comments on the beloved community concept, and spoke at length about the problems Black Americans are facing in today’s society — problems, she explained, that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This past year and half have been especially challenging,” Middlebrook said. “The pandemic brought to light and brought exposure to disparities in health, employment, housing, economic security, and education in communities of color and poor communities.”

The symposium continued on Saturday, when organization leaders and guest speakers were joined by local law enforcement and education officials. Maryville Police Chief Tony Crisp, Alcoa Police Chief David Carswell, and Blount County Schools Director Robert Britt all joined the virtual event.

“We are your partner in this journey to a beloved community,” Britt said, “and certainly part of what we feel like is part of our mission to provide the highest quality education to our young people in developing that community.”

Local NAACP Second Vice Chair Keri Prigmore moderated Saturday’s session, which featured discussions on the racial wealth gap, examining stereotypes and assumptions, voting rights and critical race theory, which has recently become a controversial subject nationwide.

Through it all the focus remained on achieving that beloved community, a place where diversity, equity and inclusion are embraced.

“We have a goal. And we understand that it won’t happen overnight, but it definitely won’t happen if we don’t work towards it,” Estell said. “So all that we do is working towards that community, so hopefully for our children and our children’s children, it will be a better place.”