WAXAHACHIE — In light of the country’s sensitive issues of racial division, residents of Ellis County gathered for a panel discussion on Sept. 21, to raise awareness of the matter and better the community under an umbrella of unity for the future.

“The panel was not only powerful, but it was well received,” began Jake Hibbard, Secretary of the Ellis County Young Democrats. “People from both sides of the aisle came where we had conservatives and liberals that said they learned a lot from it and that they enjoyed it - and that’s something we wanted.”

“We didn’t want it to be a partisan event, we wanted to be a community family, and our community is full of different people with different views. We just wanted to bring everyone together to discuss those views and to hear some other opinions that may not be like theirs,” he added.

In honor of the International Day of Peace, the meeting took place at the Ellis County Women’s Building and opened a conversation of honesty and enlightenment on the current issues at hand, regardless of political identification.

According to a Pew Research Center survey, 58 percent of Americans say racism is a “big problem in society,” while 29 percent say it is “somewhat of a problem.” And just 12 percent say racism in the U.S. is a small problem or not a problem at all.

“You have to come to the table, and if you don’t come to the table, nothing goes away, and nothing happens, and sometimes silence says something,” expressed Dr. Jamal Rasheed, President, and CEO of the Ellis County African American Hall of Fame and East Field College professor.

“We had the opportunity to be ‘pro-active’ instead of ‘reactive,’ and that’s what this was about. Ultimately, Ellis County is going to face what the bigger cities are facing, so the fact that people came to the table to be ‘pro-active,’ and not be silent was what this meeting was all about before anything gets crazy.”

Discussing such a broad issue, the varying panelists included views from Pastor Henry Batson III of Faith Fellowship in Red Oak, Police Chief Eddie Salazar of Ferris’ Police Department, Dr. Kimber Shelton of KLS Counseling and Consulting Services, and Pastor Macia Hagee of First Christian Church in Waxahachie.

In addition, Mayor Angeline Juenemann of Ennis, former president Arthur Fleming of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Kelly Miller, M.Ed. Educator and social activist from Tarrant County were also panelists during the meeting.

“There were three different sections, and it was very heartfelt and real,” Hibbard recollected the schedule. “We had moments where people clapped and cheered after some of the panelists spoke, and we didn’t have any craziness of booing or shouting, even if people disagreed, but everyone knew we weren’t there to stroke egos or to point everyone to one particular viewpoint, it was just a discussion."

“It opened up great dialog," expressed Eddie Salazar, Ferris Police Chief, and panelist. "Everybody admits that there is a problem with racial tension here as well as everywhere else. The first priority should be to admit that there’s a problem and then we can move forward as a community and correct any discrepancies that are there.”

Moderating the event, Rasheed directed questions from the audience that dealt with everything from favoritism in schools to religious separation, law enforcement biases, workplace inequality, societal intolerance, and what unity might look like for the future.

“What we do in Ferris is a huge community policing program, called ‘Cop on the Block,’” Salazar began how he's taking action to unite Feris residents. “A lot of citizens volunteer with us one night a month, and we load up the wagon, and we go to different neighborhoods and hand out bottled water and engage citizens in dialog, which has made a huge difference for us.”

Salazar mentions that listening is the first step to racial recovery and program development and combination helps build trust in a community.

He goes on to note that the Ferris Police Department fulfills a list of pro-active programs that include Link the Square, Cop on the Block, Coffee with a Cop, and Citizens Police Academy that engage and humanize public relations between citizens and law enforcement.

“What we’re trying to do is break those berries down that society has placed on us and let them know, ‘Hey, we’re human. Come talk to us,’” Salazar acknowledged.

“I had this one citizen I approached about getting her church involved in our ‘Link the Square’ program and was having difficulties in doing so. So I said to her, ‘How can I get you to help me do that?’ And she says, ‘Well, my church isn’t going to do it because we don’t trust you.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s what I’m trying to tell you, I want to earn your trust – how do I could I do it?’ And she said, ‘You never will. We just don’t trust you.’”

“So I approached somebody else in that same church, and they welcomed us with open arms, and now they’re apart of our ‘Link in the Square’ program,” he chuckled. “If people don’t reach out and open their arms up in acceptance, then this problem is going to continue. So don’t stop just because there’s one person.

"Keep going and find that one to help fix it because it all starts at the individual level, and it’s going to take a community to solve this,” Salazar encouraged.

As the night moved on, the topics of the session ranged from “the reason racism persists” to “overcoming inherent beliefs that may lead to racism,” finishing with the discussion on “passing the torch of change” to improve race relations in every aspect of the county.

Among those in attendance, hearing stories like Salazar’s, was the Introduction to Sociology class from Mesquite’s East Field College, making their own observations of the panel.

“A topic that struck out at me and truly made me think was when the teacher said that black students in schools are disciplined more than other races,” recalled Rafael Martinez, student, of Kelly Miller's personal experience. “If a white student was to shoot out an answer, he’d get praised, but if a black student would do it, it’d become a small lecture. That small lecture could cause black students to be oppressed and in the future, isolate themselves from learning and being involved in the classroom.”

“With having heard all the speakers, I no longer view racism as just skin color but so many different aspects I didn’t think of. All I can do now is put my voice to action and make a powerful statement in my day-to-day life by getting involved in my community, state, and country. Racism must be stopped, but it will take everyone united to make a change,” he recognized.

From testimonies of personal struggles against racism to overcoming prejudices, the meeting concluded on an encouraging note with a surprise “Flying Buttress Award” presented to Rasheed by the Ellis County Young Democrats.

“The flying buttress helps hold up the cathedral structure but is not apart of the building,” Hibbard articulated the meaning of the award. “Dr. Rasheed is not apart of the Ellis County Young Democrats, but his support in this is something we just really appreciate him for because he was a big instrument in this panel happening.”

“My students had said, ‘Did you know you were going to get that?’ and I said, ‘No,’” Rasheed chuckled. “So I accepted it in honor of my wife who lets me go down there all of the time.

"Life has taught me that much,” he laughed.

Though the panel was successful through the topics discussed and the turnout of the packed room, Hibbard is confident there will be another panel and encourages more of the community to join.

“This was not a proselytizing event to get Ellis County to join our group,” Hibbard clarified. “We can’t solve all of the world's problems, but we can at least make an attempt here in Ellis County to talk about the situation, to see what’s going on, and then we can go from there.”

“We want to be a voice and the ears, and we didn’t want a massive chaos coming to Ellis County, but we wanted to go ahead and talk about it now, diffuse any situation and make it a peaceful panel of open minds, ears, and giving people a time of open mouths. That way, chaos doesn’t ensue, and we can come together and be an example for the entire community,” he finished.

To connect with the Ellis County Young Democrats for the next panel meeting or to give feedback, visit elliscountydemocrats.org or email EllisCountyYoungDems@gmail.com.

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Chelsea Groomer, @ChelseaGroomer

(469)-517-1450