Annual citywide Black male summit June 27-28
24th June 2013 · 0 Comments
By Edmund W. Lewis
For nearly two decades, the Rev. Tom Watson has been bringing people together to talk about and work toward finding solutions to the myriad of problems facing Black men and boys in New Orleans.
Watson, senior pastor of Watson Memorial Teaching Ministries, began his ecumenical walk as a Central City minister of a storefront church near the B.W. Cooper housing development, a post he was appointed to in 1989 by his father, also a pastor. That was 24 years ago.
During part of the period that he was shepherding the storefront church, Rev. Watson was also running the Milne Boys Home, an experience that clearly remains near and dear to his heart today. Those two posts laid the foundation for the work Watson would later take on to empower and uplift Black males in New Orleans..
In 1992, Watson and his wife, the Rev. Patricia Watson, established the Family Center of Hope, a nonprofit group that the pastor says plays a greater role in the annual Black male summit than the church. “We do it together, but the Family Center of Hope is the bigger face of this summit and still thrives and serves not only young Black males but families at large and youth and children throughout the city, including the West Bank,” Watson said recently.
“I had not only congregants but also neighborhood people from the then-Calliope Project who were afraid to walk around in their homes for fears of bullets, shots and murders,” Watson told The Louisiana Weekly. “Here I was a young pastor, social worker and leader of an institution that served young Black males — it became a no-brainer to me that I needed to do something beyond the four walls of my young church. At the time I started out, I didn’t have half of the resources in terms of members that I have now, so it was a very humble beginning. But I did have some volunteers in my church and some community persons that decided that we needed to do something about that issue in particular in terms of violence and murders, particularly Black-on-Black homicides in that specific area.”
Shortly before he launched the annual Black male summit, Watson led a group of about 100 church members, community residents and young people in a march on City Hall to demand more summer jobs for young people. The following year, he witnessed a rise in Central City youths who were able to find summer employment.
The first citywide Black male summit was held at Xavier University in September 1994, widely considered one of the bloodiest years in recent New Orleans history with more than 400 murders committed that year, including that of Kim Groves, who was slain by convicted NOPD Officer Len Davis.
The only year that the summit didn’t take place was after Hurricane Katrina and floodwaters ravaged 80 percent of the city, Watson said.
This year’s summit will take place June 27-28 at the Family Center of Hope Auditorium, 4422 St. Charles Avenue. The theme for this year’s summit is “The War in New Orleans Goes On: Who’s Responsible? Who’s Responding?” From 9:00 a.m. until noon Thursday, the summit will host a morning networking and brainstorming session that will allow groups and individuals involved in efforts to expand opportunities for young Black males to share information, resources and successful strategies with parents and other service providers. Watson said that he hopes to use the Resource Fair, titled “Interventions That Demonstrate Promise,” to create a resource manual for helping young Black males.
“It’s all about best practices and the kind of evidence-based programs that help families to have the kind of resources they need,” Watson explained.
Among those scheduled to address participants at a Thursday panel discussion set for 7:00 p.m. are New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the Rev. Dr. Dwight Webster, pastor of Christian Unity Baptist Church, the Rev. Dr. Torin Sanders, pastor of Sixth Baptist Church, and the Rev. Tom Watson. The theme for the panel discussion will be “Escalating The Dialogue To Resolve” and the moderator will be WDSU-TV news anchor Norman Robinson.
Watson said that on Friday morning, June 28, the focus will shift to critical thinking about the problems Black males face in New Orleans. The theme for the Think Tank will be “A Home For Our Sons: Restoring Milne Boys Home.”
“That’s where we really roll up our sleeves and say ‘What do we really want to see change as a priority in New Orleans?’” he told The Louisiana Weekly. “The big issue we’re going to push this year is the realistic opening of Milne Boys Home. We’re saying ‘If we really want to save our sons and have a home for our sons, let’s restore that boys home.’ I am biased — I ran Milne for several years back in the 90s. It’s a disgrace that Milne isn’t open — the Superdome got open after the storm, the sports arena got open after the storm. When we talk about saving our boys, I project that we could turn around the lives of at least 300 kids overnight when Milne Boys Home is opened. Covenant House is not the place for them at this time — that’s for homeless kids and it does a great job. When Milne was open, it became the extended family for so many young Black males.
“That’s how we get the greatness of our native son, Louie Armstrong,” Watson continued. “…Louie Armstrong stayed at the Colored Waifs’ Home, which it was known as back then, and got his first cornet through the Milne process. Milne Boys Home is an anchor institution that has not been opened for years; pre-Katrina it has been struggling to remain open.”
Watson urged the community to get engaged in the process of bringing Milne back and said he plans to meet with neighbors, neighborhood associations and New Orleans City Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge Morrell to find ways to take concrete steps toward making that happen. He says Congressman Cedric Richmond has already asked him to be “the face of the reopening of Milne Boys Home.”
“Let’s open that home. Maybe if the brother involved in the Mother’s Day shooting had been in a place like Milne Boys Home as a kid, he wouldn’t have been out there shooting like the wild, wild west,” Watson said. “When we look into the lives of our young Black men, it starts when they’re two or three years old. What we see out on the streets of our city is a visible manifestation of a lot of things that were disconnected in their lives at a very young age.
“Our goal is to bring restoration, hope and solid initiatives that will turn some of this tide around as it relates to young Black males.”
Asked who is ultimately responsible for Milne Boys Home not being open, Watson pointed to a “collective of persons and entities” that includes the Milne Trust Fund and the Nagin and Landrieu administrations. “Pre-Nagin, it was open and functioning,” he said. “From the mid- to late 90s on, it has been declining and devalued. Hurricane Katrina kind of put the icing on the cake.”
Watson said that the Rev. Pat Watson, CEO of Family Center of Hope, is a member of the Landrieu administration’s NOLA for Life COP team, and that last year the summit produced a 31-page report of recommendations some of which the mayor is currently using as part of the city’s murder-reduction strategy.
Over the past 19 years, Watson says he has come to understand the importance of learning the spoken and unspoken language of young Black men. “A lot of people complain about our young men walking with their pants hanging down so low that you can see their underwear,” Watson said. “I call that a manifestation of what’s happening with the economics and miseducation in our community. What those young men are saying is that ‘We are not being paid attention to.’ As (The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond co-founder) Ron Chisom told me years ago, it’s called exaggerated visibility. What they’re saying is, ‘You’re not paying attention to me. I can’t have a job, I’m devalued. I’m disproportionately killed, maimed, locked up and miseducated, so the only way I can get your attention is if I wear my pants below my waistline but I can hardly walk or run but at least you look at me.’ They’re saying, ‘Look at me.’ They’re crying out, ‘I need help.’
“I serve on the Audubon Commission, and the tons and tons of millions of dollars that go towards taking care of monkeys and elephants could be used to prevent some of these crimes, that’s another area we can turn things around in. It’s a disgrace in terms of the priorities in this community.”
Watson agreed that “economic violence” plays a critical role in creating poverty, breeding violence and destabilizing Black families in New Orleans. “There’s no doubt about it,” he said. “In many ways, I see New Orleans as a high-tech plantation. When you look at the poverty in our communities and the miseducation of our children, the three anchor institutions — the family, church and school — are under severe attack from three angles:Racism, classism and an equity issue.
“Until New Orleans has a serious dialogue and a serious campaign to deal with the disparities and inequities in the economic system of this city, it’s only going to get worse,” Watson added. Watson said the average Black kid in New Orleans doesn’t have anything to do in New Orleans during the summer and throughout the year, but the business community continues to invest in the tourism industry rather than young people.
“They don’t want to talk about that,” Watson said. “What we do in New Orleans is perpetuate poverty. We don’t have a journey for hospitality industry workers to get out of poverty, They go from hotel to hotel and restaurant to restaurant, and they never get out of the cycle of poverty. Until we address poverty and miseducation in New Orleans in a fruitful, productive and action-oriented way, we will remain a tale of two or three cities. When you think about economics and prosperity in New Orleans, our people are continually being left behind. We’re disproportionately unemployed, we’re disproportionately killed, we’re disproportionately sitting in jail — it’s a serious issue. I don’t hear any political leaders really taking a stab at that because it’s not the most popular thing to talk about.”
According to some who have studied race relations and racial disparities in New Orleans. the city has become infamous for crafting a draconian system of white supremacy that leaves nothing to chance when it comes to Black advancement. “I believe that there is a type of shadow government that controls the economics of this city,” Watson said. “I believe that they are not willing to share meager crumbs from the table because it has been proven over and over again.
“When we look at the millions of dollars that have come to New Orleans for rebuilding after Katrina, our people have not benefited very much from that,” Watson said. “Major contractors from within New Orleans and external to New Orleans have come here and they’re still here making tons of money, and our people continue to live in poverty and continue to be miseducated. There’s something wrong with that picture. It may even be by design that many of our people are continuing to operate at risk and in poverty because those who have the power to release and give access, and give bonding capacity and banking loans and the like are not playing a fair game with us.
“Unless we have political leaders and some of our business and faith leaders getting together and coming up with a true Black agenda, that’s going to continue.”
A fall 2013 gathering called the Citywide Summit on African-American Leadership designed to “develop a community-based Black agenda” is currently in the works, Watson said. “We will forge a new coalition that will take a multidimensional approach and say to each and every political leader, ‘These are the priorities in the Black community that you must be sensitive to and that you must develop policy around. These are the things we must get done if you’re really serious about turning this tide around and bringing equity to our community.”
Watson says he recently attended a business luncheon during which the New Orleans Business Alliance reported that 52 percent of the city’s Black males are unemployed. “That’s a serious thing,” he said. “When guys are not working, they’re going to rob, steal, kill, sell dope and lead destructive lives. What we have been doing for 19 years is not by accident —it’s by design, it’s done on purpose and we’re hoping that this will be even a better conference this year.”
The summit is free and open to all concerned citizens. Watson encouraged white residents to attend the summit, which is designed to make New Orleans a better and safer place to live for everyone. “We want the entire community to support this,” Watson said. “We are continuing to walk away from these summits with answers. We want people to come and know that we are serious about this — we’re not just talking the talk, we’re walking the walk.”
This article originally published in the June 24, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.