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Education is the key to improving equality and decreasing divides within communities.
That was the main point made at an open conversation Tuesday evening. Sponsored by The Times and Brenau University, the dialogue about race relations and equality was set to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the civil rights movement as a whole.
Brenau political science professor Heather Casey Hollimon moderated questions from the audience to a six-member panel, composed of a variety of community members representing the white, black and Hispanic populations of Hall County.
Questions at the Community Conversation About Civil Rights focused on how far society has come in 50 years, and how far is still left to go.
“I think the way that I view things is the next wave is really ... a socioeconomic battle,” said panelist and Hall County public defender Travis Williams. “That’s the real issue. That’s the real problem that we face as a society, and as a community.”
Williams was joined on the panel by Deborah Mack, Luis Santos-Rivas, Ed Schrader and Diana Vela.
“I think equality under the law came about, but we’ve got to go a lot further than that,” said Bill Coates, who rounded out the panel. Coates is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Gainesville.
The event, held in Brenau University’s Hosch Theatre, attracted thoughtful audience participation, with members and panelists sharing their personal memories of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, as well as their views on the overall legacy of the civil rights movement of 50 years ago.
Education is the great equalizer, many seemed to agree, with comments made about how a well-rounded education puts people on a more even playing field, regardless of skin color or gender.
Sheila Caldwell, from the University of North Georgia, was in the audience.
“I think Martin Luther King was about equal opportunities, but I think equal opportunities come when you take advantage of education,” Caldwell said. “I think, working as an educator, it always disheartens me when I see a lack of gratitude for all the things our ancestors have done.”
Gainesville High drama instructor Pam Ware was also in the audience.
“This is exactly what I preach to my students,” she said. “Life is full of opportunities. It’s full of doors. If you open the door and walk on in, and test the waters and take a risk, what could be the benefits but great?”
Ware said the way to open those doors is to work to get an education.
Schrader, who is the president of Brenau University, said he is inspired every year as new students come to campus.
“No matter how old or set in our ways we get, if we’re continuing to learn then we’re continuing to give hope a chance,” Schrader said.
Vela, who is a senior at Gainesville High School, pointed out there is still a disparity in educational opportunities for the Hispanic population, particularly in higher education.
“I still do not have the opportunity to get the same treatment to go to college,” she said. “I’m graduating top of my class. I’ve advanced in many courses, and my dream is to become a pediatric oncologist.”
It was an issue Santos-Rivas also touched upon.
“I believe that there still (are) a lot of things to do,” he said. “I think this is just the tip of an iceberg. Talking about the Hispanic students, there are a lot of things to do.”
He said the civil rights movement was about education.
Coates said he sees religion and the churches helping play a role to stress the importance of education.
And Mack, a former Hall County commissioner, pointed out that Martin Luther King Jr. was not strictly calling for equality for African-Americans.
“The justice that he called for,” she said, “was not only for minorities, but it was for everyone.”
Vela closed the evening by quoting Robert Goizueta, former CEO of the Coca-Cola Co.
“Opportunity: Ours to seize or to fight for,” Vela said. “They are not ours to lose.