On Aug. 1, pastors of predominantly black churches assembled at the White House to have a meeting with the 45th president of the United States to discuss criminal justice reform. Among those in attendance were televangelist pastors John Gray and Paul White; businessman Bishop Dale Bronner, co-owner of Bronner Bros. and Bronner Bros. International Hair Show; Trump supporter Pastor Darrell Scott; and Alveda King, niece of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King.
We expect our leaders to host convenings on pressing issues; however, despite the fact that the prison industrial complex disproportionately impacts communities of color, this meeting provoked much suspicion. After reviewing the minutes released by the White House, our suspicions were justified. No work had been accomplished or substantive conversation held. Instead, the pastors praised the president without recognizing how divisive and damaging his agenda and policies have been for communities of color. Even as we mark the anniversary of the Charlottesville white nationalist rally, where one person was killed and Trump's response was to call the white nationalists in attendance some "very fine people," Pastor Darrell Scott declared at this meeting with Trump: "To be honest, this is probably going to be ... the most pro-black president we have had in our lifetime."
As a person of faith, hearing these words was very disappointing. A collective of African American pastors reached out to challenge those who were in the meeting in an open letter about Trump's dangerous antics and politics.
After days of not being able to shake the failure of this meeting, I started to think about how it impacts communities of color, but also those involved in other movement spaces working on justice reform, tackling HIV decriminalization, felony disenfranchisement, and equitable sentencing for petty crimes that involve marijuana. Participating in a meeting like this can create the illusion that your issues are being addressed. But with some basic investigation, you'll find that the current Justice Department, under the leadership of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has been doing the opposite of supporting criminal justice reform. This does not dismiss or refute the great opportunity and responsibility that these preachers had and missed, but instead brings us to begin a conversation on how we as advocates show up and use our power and influence in spaces to leverage power for communities we serve.
Some of the pastors here, like Scott, are supporters of Trump and his agenda. But some of them may have thought that they should attend the meeting to build a bridge or to use the opportunity to highlight the problems people face who are returning to our communities from prison. Many of us who are advocates have been in the position of the latter group. I personally, at times, have felt like Ariel in the animated film The Little Mermaid when she bargained her voice for something that appeared to be greater. Yes, I've also fumbled the opportunity to challenging the status quo and bringing other perspectives into a space and speak truth to power because I felt as if the opportunity to be in the room was good enough.
As a black gay man living with HIV from the South, using my voice has afforded me the opportunity to sit at many tables that I'd never imagined. From coalition meetings to local HIV planning councils to national HIV/AIDS policy meetings at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building with members of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy (before Trump effectively dismantled the office and appointed members of the advisory council resigned in protest).
I learned from those humbling opportunities that how you use your influence and power will impact many people, communities, and generations to come. These opportunities will challenge your resolve and your readiness, and they will begin to shift your understanding of how issues are moved from a passionate table discussion to direct action. We are not all born equipped to handle our power and influence; they are instead cultivated with intention and often moments of failure and critique from friends, foes, and your community.
In recent years, I've adopted the three "B"s, which have guided me so that I could be a better steward of the opportunities that I've been afforded and not flounder: Be Prepared. Be Present. Be Persistent.
Many high-level meetings come with invitations. Whenever you read the invitation, you will see that the purpose of the meeting is usually stated clearly. The organizer gives you the when, where and what. These are usually meetings with government agencies, elected officials, leaders of institutions of higher education, or corporations. However, as movement leaders, that's not where the majority of invitations come from. More likely than not, for those working in community to challenge social and structural issues of the world (i.e., HIV and AIDS, infant mortality, police accountability, access to health care, education reform, reproductive justice, immigration rights, etc.), invitations aren't packaged so nicely and the expectation from our participation is often unclear.
Most of our invitations come through an email, a text message, or a Facebook post inviting us to said event. We accept these invites because we know our voices need to be heard and the population we serve should be at the table, but little to-no-detail is provided. Should you decide to accept an invitation, it's best to do your homework beforehand, so you can fully participate in the meeting. Here are some things I recommend:
- If you don't know the organizers of the meeting, research them, and if they include an attendee list, research the other attendees. Sometimes you can do that research based on the email addresses in any email communication.
- Spend some time reading up on the issue(s) before going to the meeting. Go to government websites, research papers, news articles, podcasts, or online videos. If they send out any materials in advance, read those before you attend.
- Come prepared with questions.
- Take notes; bring your own pen and paper in case you can't use a laptop.
You were invited to the meeting and space for a reason. You were called upon because you possess the ability to speak and move an issue forward. The first thought about being present is acknowledging that you are enough to be at the table. Now that you're there, it's time to show up.
- If possible, get a good night's rest. If you've traveled, don't spend all night at the club before the meeting.
- Create a regimen that balances your thinking. That could include, but is not limited to, mediation, exercise, prayer, or yoga.
- Drink your coffee, tea, water, or whatever gets you up and going.
- Introduce yourself to people you don't know.
- Write down names of those in the room that you personally would like to/need to follow up with afterwards.
- Depending on the nature of the meeting, bring some enthusiasm or excitement.
- Continue to reflect on goals of meeting (if provided).
- If possible, bring a young person or someone newer to advocacy work along with you to experience the meeting, so you are also helping to develop the skills of others.
Follow up is always key. We've all gone to meetings to talk about the next meeting, which often involves little-to-no follow-up.
- Ask the organizers what the follow-up will look like.
- Create a timeline of progress of items (i.e., one month, three months, six months),
- Explore ways of assisting the organizers in hosting a follow-up meeting,
- Read any notes that come out after the meeting and look at the items that are listed for follow-up. Make sure that you do any work you committed to doing afterwards.
- Let others in your community or organization know about the meetings you attend. Not many people are able to know the inner workings of government or what issues are coming down the pike that may impact their lives. Hold community report-backs if you attend a national or international meeting or conference.
Whether it's a meeting with program staff at a civil rights organization, a meeting with a clinical team about treatment recommendations for a patient you are advocating for, or even a meeting at the White House with the president of the United States, you have influence and power.
Each opportunity for influence, big or small, should be handled with care. It's life or death for so many, so your seat at the table is critical. Don't let your voice go unheard for fear of rocking the boat, but instead show up with all the power you possess, given to you by our ancestors. And change the world.
Marvell L. Terry II is the founding principal for Netherwood Consulting Group, a social impact consulting group designed to help build strategy and strength among community, institutions, and individuals. Terry is also the Founder of The Red Door Foundation and the annual Saving Ourselves Symposium, a convening for black LGBTQ living in the South on health, wellness, and social justice.