Black Belt Action Commission region’s best chance

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 2, 2004

Commentary by Hank Sanders

“Will the Black Belt Action Commission really do something, or is it just another political show?” In one form or another, I have been asked this question many times since Aug. 12, the day the executive order creating the Black Belt Action Commission was signed. They really wanted to know, to paraphrase the old Sam Cooke masterpiece, if a change is going to come to the Alabama Black Belt.

In truth, I don’t know if the Action Commission will really do “something.” In truth, I believe it is our best opportunity. In truth, I believe it will succeed if we give it our best effort. Governor Riley, co-chair Kay Ivey and executive director Bill Johnson have pledged their best effort. I will give my best so that a change for the better will come in the Alabama Black Belt.

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This is something that has never been tried before. We take a great chance when we try completely new approaches. However, we take a much greater chance when we keep doing what we have been doing. If a change is going to come, we must take risks.

The Black Belt Action Commission is divided into 13 committees: Agriculture; communications; community development; culture and youth; education; families; health; infrastructure; marketing and tourism; manufacturing skills training and Labor Force; small business; and transportation. Gov. Riley charged each committee with assessing the problems, setting goals, developing and implementing solutions and measuring the results. In one year, we will see how well each committee has met its goals. Then new goals will be set for the following year and so on.

At one time or another during the full Commission’s first meeting and the Executive Committee meetings before and after, we talked about vision, action, inclusion, communication and creativity. Each is necessary if we are to change the Black Belt for the better in our lifetime.

Vision is powerful. During times of slavery, those enslaved would often escape. According to common wisdom, they traveled by night because they were less likely to be caught. The real reason they traveled by night was because the only way to be sure they were traveling north to freedom was by the North Star, only visible at night.

Those escaping enslavement were sometimes chased by “slave catchers.” Other times they came to rivers they could not cross. Still other times swamps prevented them from going north. In each instance, they had to go south, east or west to overcome the obstacle. They, however, could always get back on track by locating and following the North Star.

Our North Star is our vision. For the Black Belt Action Commission, that vision is a transformed Black Belt in key areas of life. If change is going to come, we must have a shared vision that keeps us moving toward a new modern-day freedom.

At every opportunity over the last 20 months, I urged Gov. Riley not to create a Commission to further study the Black Belt. Now is the time for action. His commitment to action is reflected in the Commission’s name, Black Belt Action Commission. In addition, each committee is charged with action – improving life in the Black Belt in its category. If change is going to come, we must have action.

We must have inclusion – inclusion of women as well as men, blacks as well as whites, young as well as old, the poor as well as the rich, the grassroots as well as the powerful and people from inside as well as outside the Black Belt. It is important that we truly understand that all of us, regardless of our positions in life, have something to offer in meeting this challenge. Effective solutions to perplexing problems will often spring from the least likely sources. Solutions cannot be imposed from without, so the Commission must work with those within the Black Belt. If change is going to come, we must have broad inclusion, not tokenism.

I am convinced that we can reach agreement 90 percent of the time if we talk openly and honestly. Too often we allow the 10 percent we cannot agree on to stop us from discussing the 90 percent we can agree on. It is imperative that we talk across lines of gender, race, age, education level, economic status, etc. If change is going to come, we must truly communicate.

We must think “outside the box.” If we do what we have always done, we will get what we have always gotten. We cannot simply take what was done in other places and graft them on the Black Belt. We certainly cannot clear-cut the people, institutions and culture of the Black Belt and plant new crops. If change is going to come, we must be creative while respecting the people, culture and institutions of the Black Belt.

Finally, we must understand that each category of action is but one link in the chain of development, and the chain is only as strong as its weakest link. If change is going to come, every link of the chain must be strengthened. It is up to us whether change comes to the Alabama Black Belt.

EPILOGUE – It is easy to doubt when deceit and disappointment have visited us so often. Doubt, however, has never changed a single thing for the better. It takes courage to believe. It takes even more courage to act. Now is the time for courage to act to change the Alabama Black Belt.

Hank Sanders serves in the Alabama State Senate.