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That’s a RAP

A Union Presbyterian Seminary webinar explains Charlotte’s Reimagining America Project

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — The Reimaging America Project, a grassroots effort of clergy, activists, and local leaders in and around Charlotte, North Carolina who are working to reduce the unjust impacts race has on the systems of our society, was the subject of an illuminating webinar offered last week by Union Presbyterian Seminary and two of its institutions, the Center for Social Justice and Reconciliation and the Katie Geneva Center for Womanist Leadership.

RAP co-founders Jennifer Roberts, a former mayor of Charlotte, and the Rev. Dr. Rodney S. Sadler Jr., Associate Professor of Bible at the seminary and the director of the CJR, were participants in the “Demonstrating Intersectional Justice” webinar, which can be seen here. Joining them were fellow RAP members Joanne Stevenson Jenkins, Kevin Woodson and Dr. Jim Beard, a retired chemistry professor who’s now a lay pastor.

“I smiled when you called me one of the co-founders, because you are the other co-founder,” Roberts told Sadler. “We have been in marches and protests for the last 20 years, recognizing injustices we see all the time.” During a protest and march on the day George Floyd was murdered, “You and I walked together and looked at the crowd,” she recalled. “What was interesting was the diversity of the crowd.” She and Sadler asked each other, “Why does this keep happening over and over? We have got to end this cycle of oppression, violence and injustice,” the former mayor said. “We know violence disproportionately impacts communities of color … Storytelling is so powerful. How can we bring these voices forward? That’s how we started RAP.”

“We want people to see that racism is real,” said Sadler, calling RAP “a head and a heart approach.”

Beard said he came to RAP “in a circuitous route,” having heard the Poor People’s Campaign co-founder the Rev. Dr. William Barber II speak at the Festival of Homiletics. “He’s one of those people who will get you to do something,” Beard said. “I went to the [PPC’s] march on Washington, and after that I was much more impassioned about doing something around racial injustice.”

One evening Sadler “was making the pitch for RAP. It was a calling and I felt I had to do this,” Beard said. Having taught environmental chemistry to college students, “environmental justice is an obvious thing for me. I have spent years fighting the battle to say climate change is real, but it had never occurred to me that environmental justice had anything to do with race.”

“For me, education has always been a lynchpin,” Woodson said. “Education frees you. It allows you to understand your surroundings and your own head.”

“With RAP, we are brave enough to get at the root of the matter,” Jenkins said. “We are trying to help people dismantle the silos they live in,” which she called an “either/or way of thinking, rather than both/and.”

“I believe people don’t want people to be as proximate to a solution,” Jenkins said, “as RAP encourages them to be.”

Jennifer Roberts

“We need to do a better job connecting people to governance,” Roberts said. Because governance in the United States is divided into local, state and national levels, “you’ve got to advocate in front of the right legislative body.” In many states and counties, “we have seen an attack on voting rights, and we know Jim Crow institutionalized obstacles … That’s why voting rights and the way elections are run are very important.” The challenge in North Carolina and other states is “we don’t have a citizen’s initiative process. That’s just one example of the things we need to continue to work on.”

Asked by Sadler what’s surprised them the most in their work, Beard said in environmental justice, “it’s how subtle and insidious” racism remains.

“It’s almost a secret virus that creeps through our society. Well-meaning people just aren’t aware of it,” Beard said. “They may not choose to look, but it becomes obvious in environmental justice. You have to look, and you have to think.”

Woodson said changes are needed in the entire education system. “Solving your child’s problem may not solve the problems for all children,” he said. In the work, “what has surprised me is the lack of empathy or concern for others’ children.”

“One thing that has surprised me is how recent the attempts to expand voting rights have been,” Roberts said. “People who are alive today” had the experience of having to recite the Preamble to the Constitution before being allowed to cast their vote. Other recent impediments include placing polling sites in inconvenient places and requiring voters to produce a photo ID. “People with privilege and resources don’t understand why” those are obstacles to voting for many people, she said.

Jenkins noted the organization is also working on a policing project. “RAP wanted to get behind what it takes to hold onto your humanity while doing your work as a police officer,” she said. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg police chief and a former police captain who’s now a chaplain — both are African Americans — are part of the project. “It’s a story we don’t hear a lot,” she said.

The Rev. Dr. Rodney S. Sadler Jr.

Asked by Sadler how doing their part to bring about The Beloved Community had impacted their life, Beard said, “It’s why I stay. We come together and we share, and it incubates more ideas and feeds on itself.”

“It reminds me we are living in a time of being separate and unequal, and we are too comfortable with it,” Jenkins said. “I gather strength and renewal to go out into the community.”

“We go through a lot of things, and we still say, ‘Join us. Help us, and we can make the community a better place,’” Woodson said.

“It’s absolutely the hope,” Roberts said. “We have huge issues, but I hear a willingness to be vulnerable.”

“We have seen some of our advocacy bring about change,” Roberts noted. “There are so many good people willing to learn and put their shoulder to the wheel to bring about change.”

The Reimagine America Project meets via Zoom on Wednesday evenings. Learn more about RAP here.

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