Sharmane Anderson was shocked by what she learned from Rev. Nelson Rivers in June 2017.
The pastor from Charity Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston took the stage at the first Charleston Forum to talk about equity in education in South Carolina. He touched on the state’s Black Code of 1865, which restricted African Americans’ newfound freedom after the passage of the 13th Amendment earlier that year. He drew the line from the legal discrimination of the 19th century to the continued segregation and achievement disparity in school districts today.
Anderson, a mom and a paralegal at the state Solicitor’s Office in Clarendon County, started thinking about how she could help teachers improve reading levels in her area.
“I called upon friends of mine from college [and] different community people to ask what they thought about me starting a reading academy, and they thought it was a great idea, so I thought, ‘What will we do? How would we do it?,'” she recalls.
Anderson opened the 1865 Reading Academy just one month after the forum. Starting with about 13 to 14 students, the free weekly sessions at Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church in Manning, S.C. now boast a roster of 38 kids led by Anderson, local teachers, and AmeriCorps volunteers.
That spirit of inspiration and initiative is what Charleston Forum CEO Brian Duffy hopes to encourage with this year’s event.
The forum was launched in 2017, two years after a white supremacist killed nine people during a Wednesday night Bible study at Mother Emanuel church downtown. This year’s format has been tweaked. A three-hour showcase of social justice nonprofits at the Charleston Bus Shed will precede the two-hour forum taking place across the street at the Charleston Music Hall.
“We think that networking does nothing but improve the chances to get real change around here,” Duffy says. “We’re trying to drive as many community members there as we can to learn about [the nonprofits] and get involved as a volunteer or a sponsor. We aren’t the answer in ourselves and we aren’t trying to be. We’re trying to help move it all forward.”
Just how much the forum meets that mission remains unclear.
This year’s schedule is packed tight with 13 prominent speakers, including Today host Craig Melvin, Congressman Joe Cunningham, Mother Emanuel Rev. Eric Manning, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, and Ninth Circuit Public Defender Ashley Pennington, who will touch on his work with the Criminal Justice Coordinating Coordinating Council, a group of area police departments, agencies, and nonprofits that released a report of racial disproportionality in the Charleston County criminal justice system last year.
“We’ve had forums and discussions and discussions and I’m not sure what the intent is and what we’re supposed to net from it,” says Dot Scott, president of the Charleston NAACP.
The Holy City has no shortage of platforms for speakers, panels, conversations, and lectures. The Charleston Area Justice Ministry, an interfaith social justice group, hosts two well-attended annual meetings, one of which asks public officials to commit to addressing issues such as racial bias in policing, unreliable transportation, and lack of affordable housing. The Sophia Institute’s Social Justice Racial Equity Collaborative invites speakers of different races, many of whom hold positions of power in the region, to talk about their respective experiences navigating the same waters.
Scott says she likes this year’s speaker lineup and plans to attend the Sun. June 16 forum, which, during a phone interview, she initially had a hard time differentiating from other speaking events she gets invited to throughout the year. Still, she remains wary of any grand plan to tackle the inequality, intolerance, and outright hatred that led to the shooting four years ago.
“I’m always skeptical about what conversation I’m gonna have,” she says. “We gotta do more than have a forum here, an expo here, and we have kids that can’t get educated. We have housing conditions that are deplorable. We got young black men killing each other.”
Duffy says he recognizes that the most important changes happen on the ground.
“I think we’ve had an impact on helping push macro-level change, and part of that is opening people’s minds to what needs to be done,” he says. “What we really need is people to get out there to the forum and the expo. The only way we can help make a difference is if the community stays engaged.”
Anderson says she will come back down for this year’s event.
“I feel as if every year you learn something new, and if you are a quick starter or motivated by change, the Charleston Forum is a breeding ground for that,” she says.