A very important dialogue took place last week at Mount Zion AME Church, steps from the College of Charleston. Members of the community from different races and backgrounds were there to hear a discussion between Dr. William Melvin Brown III and Dr. Andrew Savage, high school and medical school classmates who discussed their role in the recent controversy involving the Charleston Rifle Club. Brown, who is African American, is a respected physician and Navy veteran who was denied admission into the all-white social club in downtown Charleston.

The incident made local and national news as an example of how institutional racism stubbornly persists to this day, and that blacks with impeccable academic and professional credentials are still routinely excluded from social and economic opportunities solely on the basis of race. The dialogue was hosted by the Social Justice Racial Equity Collaborative, convened by the Sophia Institute, which has offered a series of forums on “truth, racial healing, and transformation.” The collaborative is comprised of a racially diverse group representing over 40 local organizations and nonprofits of all backgrounds who seek to promote racial equity and justice in the wake of the Emanuel massacre.

The group has conducted similar forums involving dialogues between community leaders such as: Judge Alex Sanders, who previously led CofC and served as a Court of Appeals judge; Rev. Nelson B. Rivers III, civil rights and state NAACP leader; Darrin Goss, CEO of the Coastal Community Foundation; S.C. Sen. Marlon Kimpson; S.C. Rep. Peter McCoy; Judge Arthur McFarland, co-president of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry and former municipal judge; former S.C. Rep. Lucille Whipper; educator and civil rights leader Millicent Brown; Mayor John Tecklenburg; Metanoia founder Bill Stanfield; and several others. Each dialogue pairs one African-American community leader with one white community leader who in turn, share their personal backgrounds and experiences with racism in frank and open discussions on how our community could become more inclusive and less discriminatory.

The vision of the Social Justice Racial Equity Collaborative is to contribute to a just, equitable, and thriving community where people of all races are empowered to fulfill their potential. Part of that mission is to develop culturally competent leaders who understand the rich and complex racial history of our community and are empowered to act in a fair manner while promoting social justice. Perhaps the consortium’s most significant accomplishment to date occurred last year when the Charleston City Council approved a resolution apologizing for the city’s role in the slave trade. The apology resolution was championed by the Sophia Institute with the leadership of Melissa Maddox-Evans, part of the group’s senior leadership and general counsel for the Charleston Housing Authority. The resolution’s passage was proof that like-minded, positive individuals of all backgrounds can come together to make symbolic and concrete changes that will improve our discourse on difficult racial issues.

The tremendous success of these ongoing events is also further evidence that the collaborative’s strategies, methods, and programs are having a significant community impact. Founder and director of the Sophia Institute and co-chair of the Social Justice Racial Equity Collaborative, Carolyn Rivers, notes that over 1,200 members of the community have attended the forums since they began in May 2017.

Melvin Brown and Andrew Savage’s conversation was an example of how this works. As the two men discussed their personal backgrounds and the circumstances leading to Brown’s rejection from the Rifle Club, the overall spirit was not one of condemnation or criticism, but one of problem solving. Audience members asked questions, and a frank and open discussion followed about how institutional racism can be elimi—nated and how the community might move forward after an ugly and painful incident.

Forums that dare to tackle the ideas championed by the Social Justice Racial Equity Collaborative will always face stiff headwinds, particularly on racial issues. Social change is hard to accomplish, especially in a community where old attitudes and traditions die hard. This community is better off because of the work of the Sophia Institute and organizations like it. If our community can come together to discuss solutions to difficult racial problems rather than ignore them, we will be better off.

Dwayne Green is a former city attorney from Charleston who focuses on litigation, municipal, and zoning issues.

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