By Robert Guttersohn
Pastors, politicians, police officers and community activists filled St. Luke Church on Sunday to chart plans for positive change in the Mahoning Valley at the 10th annual ACTION public meeting.
The meeting of the Alliance for Congregational Transformation Influencing Our Neighborhoods was themed “We are Better Together.”
Its forum served as a reflection of the past 10 years and a reminder of what organizers saw as future obstacles, most notably state Issue 2 and possible expansion of the EdChoice school-voucher program.
Gov. John Kasich said to “get on the bus or get run over,” said ACTION Board President the Rev. Lewis Macklin. “Little did we realize it was a school bus.”
Rev. Macklin, pastor of Holy Trinity Missionary Baptist Church, called Ohio House Bill 136, the bill that would expand the voucher program, an “education apartheid.” Opponents fear such expansion will hurt public schools, particularly in cities.
“We want to tell the governor to take his bus and shove it,” he said.
Although he would not tell attendees how to vote, Rev. Joseph Fata of St. Luke said the decision to vote yes or no on Issue 2 was simple: Vote no if you are for the rights of workers. Father Fata warned of placing “economic control in the hands of the few.”
“ACTION is about standing behind the rights of workers,” Father Fata said.
The mission of ACTION is to develop leaders within communities of the Valley to bring solutions to poverty, racism and social injustice.
Among the approximately 300 attending were Youngstown city council members, city Schools Superintendent Connie Hathorn, board of education members along with Rod Foley and Jimmy Hughes, the current and former city police chiefs respectively. Sitting next to them was Boardman Police Chief Jack Nichols.
Church choirs from both the city and its suburbs sang songs throughout the forum.
The meeting also highlighted Youngstown’s recent surge in murders.
Youngstown teacher Jennifer Walker said the violence on the street is spreading to the classrooms.
“These students see what is happening in the streets of Youngstown, and they are worried about their futures,” Walker said in her testimonial.
She said the threat of violence on her students adds to their household stresses. She said several of her students are being raised by grandparents or brought up in a single-parent home. Some, Walker said, don’t see their parents for days.
“These problems are coming into our schools, and they are problems that need to be addressed,” Walker said.
She added the entire community is responsible for the education of its children, and the community knows how to do so better than those in Columbus.
“We know what’s best for our students, not the state superintendent and not Gov. Kasich,” she said. “We need to create schools where the kids want to learn.”
Lynn Hart Bilal touched on the need for cracking down on crime in her testimonial as sister to 2009 murder victim Kevin Hart.
“We speculated that police wouldn’t do anything because he was just another black man murdered,” she said.
When police arrested two suspects just days after Hart’s funeral, Bilal felt optimistic that justice would be served. But after hearing prosecutors dismissed the case, the pessimism returned.
“I felt victimized all over again,” she said after hearing of the case being dropped.
The forum outlined past successes for which ACTION lobbied. For example, speakers noted the expansion of block-watch groups to divert crime while Father Fata cited the expansion of Eastern Gateway Community College into the Valley.
But the repeated message throughout Sunday’s meeting was the call for solidarity among the Valley’s organizations.
“As a community, we are better together,” said Rev. J. Dwayne Heard, the ACTION clergy caucus co-chair, followed by an in-unison “amen” from those in attendance.
“Tell your neighbor, putting aside differences, we are stronger together,” he said.