Correcting racial injustice in West Virginia will take local and statewide collaboration as well as community engagement, people attending an equality conference on Tuesday said.
The meeting, sponsored by Race Matters West Virginia and held at West Virginia State University, was attended by about 100 people who discussed issues such as the disproportionate number of black people who are arrested, a juvenile justice system that displaces young people and poor voter turnout among minority groups.
The biggest challenge to correcting those issues, one organizer said, is getting people who care involved in their communities.
“People care, but many lack knowledge on how to make a difference,” said Takeiya Smith, a West Virginia State University student and representative of the American Friends Service Committee.
Smith, who along with WVSU students helped organize the event on campus, said she believes those who attended now have a better idea of what they can do. While the meeting was mostly informational, those in attendance formulated action, and Smith said people left knowing what their role is in combating racial injustice.
Some of the ideas tossed around included requiring new police officers to complete community service so they are more sensitive to issues and people in their beats or patrol areas, organizing community action and passing a bill that would give people who have had a run-in with the law a second chance at gaining employment.
Community service requirements of new cops, one person said, could help reduce the incarceration rate of blacks, which is reportedly two to three times that of white people in Charleston. Statewide incarceration rates for black people, according to Race Matters, is seven times the rate of whites.
Those in attendance also called for the Legislature to pass the Second Chance for Employment Act, a bill introduced last session by Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, that would allow people convicted of non-violent crimes to apply to have their records cleared after five years for a felony and after one year for a misdemeanor.
“It’s something that has to happen,” said Amber Miller, a St. Albans resident who was convicted of burglary 11 years ago, an offense that made securing a job difficult for years.
She said the bill would help level the playing field. She has started a petition in support of the bill, which she said she is confident will be introduced again.
The bill, which was sponsored by House Democrats and Republicans, was assigned to the Judiciary Committee but never made it to the floor for discussion. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate by Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall. It also did not make it out of committee.
Smith said having the conference at WVSU, a historically black university, was fitting because young people are a demographic the group hopes to get more involved.
“That’s why we had it here,” she said. “Every great revolution had young people at the forefront.”
Other issues discussed were creating safe environments for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students on college campuses and reinvestment on Charleston’s West Side.
The group will meet again Nov. 10-11 in Lewisburg for a summit on race matters. For more information about the summit, visit www.racematterswv.net.
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