At West Chester, diverse crowd tackles bias issues

Conversation continues at lunch between classmates Brittani Canty (left) and Imani Luckey.

Standing in front of about 100 people - black, white, Latino, Indian, male, female, young, old - Lisa Croft talked about the elephant in the room.

"It's not just there to sit and look pretty," she said. "Sometimes we need courageous people to . . . say what that elephant is."

That was the essence of the discussion at the daylong "Courageous Conversation" at West Chester University on Saturday. The diverse crowd talked about "implicit" biases: ingrained beliefs that can influence behavior, often subconsciously.

"We really want people to start to understand: What are the things that are really holding us back?" Croft said in an interview.

"What are the things that we learned in our childhood and heard in our homes and saw on television that really formed our opinions about race and lifestyles?"

The conference, which Croft says may be the first of its kind in the region, was a reaction to the August shooting in Ferguson, Mo., of Michael Brown, a black teenager, by a police officer. The national turmoil it sparked inspired Croft, first lady of St. Paul's Baptist Church, to put together a panel at the church to discuss race relations. More than 200 people showed up. St. Paul's then hosted two more forums, one in collaboration with the West Chester Area School District.

Saturday's free conference was sponsored by West Chester University and Mayor Carolyn Comitta's office.

"There's no question that questions of justice and equality and bias are a national conversation that we wanted to be a part of," Comitta said.

Although Croft said the turnout at earlier forums was indicative of West Chester's diversity, the borough still is more than 70 percent Caucasian, and the black population declined significantly between 2000 and 2010, according to census data. This, Croft said, makes the need for such a conversation more urgent in the town.

"We don't really talk about this stuff in school," said Imani Luckey, a 17-year-old senior at West Chester East High School who attended the conference. "If we bring up Eric Garner, Michael Brown, it's pushed aside," she said, referring to two black males killed by police officers in 2014. "People try to push it away. No, we've got to talk about it."

"Even simple things about African American culture we don't talk about," added a classmate, senior Brittani Canty. "It's slavery, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks. That's it."

In December, a grand jury's decision not to indict the Ferguson officer who shot Brown sparked protests in Philadelphia and among local university students, including some at West Chester.

"It's something I deal with every day working with students on campus," said Jenai Copeland, a resident director at West Chester University who attended the conference.

In one workshop led by Juliana Mosley, vice president of student affairs at Lincoln University, a classroom full of people spoke out, listened, laughed, and clapped in a discussion about white privilege and cultural privilege.

"Your life can affect so many people if you're willing to take a chance and be real and have those conversations," one young woman said toward the end of the workshop.

On Saturday, Croft said the turnout and the conversations she heard encouraged her. If there is enough demand, she said, she wants to turn the conference into a series.

"We hope that this is history-making, and we hope it is going to catch on and it will be a movement," Croft said.

"We're in a country where assimilation has always been the agenda. . . . We're saying, No, you can be diverse."

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