Prominent leaders within the Western New York community offered their advice and insight around the socioeconomic challenges and opportunities that exist in the current climate of civil discord during a panel presentation on Thursday, Sept. 17. The presentation, held virtually though Zoom, was hosted by Niagara University’s College of Business Administration as part of its community and corporate outreach.

Dale Martin, host of WNY@Work, moderated the hour-long discussion, which attempted to determine if local and national demonstrations and civil discord were having meaningful effect on the socioeconomic disparities to which they are bringing attention.

The Hon. Byron Brown, mayor of the City of Buffalo; the Hon. Lenora Foote-Beavers, Buffalo City Court judge; Dr. LaVonne Ansari, CEO of Community Health Center, Inc.; and Bishop Michael Badger, senior pastor at Bethesda World Harvest International Church, addressed questions around whether the current movement and unrest will bring about real reform in economic inequality; the role of the church during the current civic discord; the impact of institutionalized racism on the health and welfare in our community; how to change an environment where Black and Hispanic youth are less likely to complete high school or college, leading to higher unemployment within that population; police reform; affirmative action; and issues concerning unions.

The panelists spoke about their local efforts as well as those needed on a national level to address these issues.

“I think there has to be an intentionality to change the economic situation of Black people,” said Bishop Badger. “Intentionally, we have been left out; intentionally, we have to be brought back into this. And it is a conversation that is going to be very challenging for America, because you can’t have reconciliation without recognition of the wrong that was done and how that wrong has impacted me. … then there has to be repentance—that means that I’m going to change the way I’ve been doing things—and then there has to be restitution. And then we can have reconciliation. Until America is willing to face what it’s done and the impact it’s had on us, and still having on us, it’s going to be very difficult to change those statistics.”  

Judge Foote-Beavers noted the way women and, in particular, women of color, were impacted by COVID-19, because they work in jobs that were affected by the lockdowns or because of the domestic situation they are in. She added that concerns around food insecurity, children living in poverty, and homelessness were increasing because of the pandemic. “The only way that we’re going to be able to deal with this issue is to deal with it from the top down. There’s got to be real reform, real change, putting the money in the resources where it is clearly needed,” she said. She also acknowledged that, while affirmative action has provided some good progress in certain professions, it is not solving the problem, but rather, diverting focus from the true issue of racial equality.

Panelists also said that while the pandemic created awareness of these issues, it also created an opportunity to make needed changes.

“What COVID-19 has done is really expose all the stuff that those of us of color already know, but it actually brings it to a consciousness of change,” said Dr. Ansari, who provided sobering statistics on mortality rates among the Black population and explained that the current environment of oppression and injustice causes them to experience disproportionate stress, which leads to greater susceptibility to chronic conditions and illnesses, including COVID-19..

“We see at this period of time with COVID-19 and the protests around racial equity that systemic racism is real,” said Mayor Brown. “For far too long, people in our country really denied that systematic racism was real and so, to have an impact on the reality of systematic racism, you need the intentionality of specific policies to address it. There needs to be an opportunity for reconstruction of society. That can only happen with a federal response. We need the federal government to provide resources to city, county, town, village, and state governments to be able to head off the crises that we are going to see because of the economic losses of COVID-19. But beyond that, we have the ability to reconstruct how our society works for everyone and to do that, we need an appropriate federal response.”