Mar 2, 2023 31 min read

Charleston's Journey Toward Racial Conciliation

Episode Feature Image with photos of host, Ame Sanders, and guests, Jason Sakran and Jerry Harris.

Episode 42, 44 min listen

In this episode, we'll learn more about a city's journey toward racial conciliation. We talk with a team from Charleston, South Carolina, working to advance equity and inclusion in their city.  Our guests share their hopes and vision for this work, but also candidly share some of their challenges. Join us as we learn more about a 350-year-old city’s struggle with race, one that started centuries ago with a legacy of slavery, traveled through the crucible that was the tragedy of the Mother Emanuel shooting, which led the city to formally apologize for slavery. We'll hear how that journey now leads them into the very real and challenging task of defining and achieving racial conciliation.  


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Learn more about Charleston's Human Affairs and Racial Conciliation Commission.

Learn more about the original Special Commission that was formed, the City's apology for slavery, and the earlier work that informed the creation of HARCC. Download the Special Commission on Equity, Inclusion, and Racial Conciliation Report - August 2021

If you enjoyed this episode, you might also enjoy these past episodes:

Getting to Better in My Hometown - an interview with Rev. Stacey Mills about Greenville, South Carolina's Racial Equity and Economic Mobility initiative.

Achieving Economic Mobility for Charlotte - an interview with Sherri Chisolm of the Leading on Opportunity Initiative in Charlotte, N.C.


Jerome C. Harris JR (retired)

Jerry holds a BA in Sociology and an MS in Urban Planning and Public Policy Analysis from Rutgers University.  He has had over 50 years of professional experience in government, organization development, community and economic development, public policy analysis, and advocacy.  He has taught at both the graduate and undergraduate level.

Mr. Harris is the former: CEO/President of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice; Chief Operating Office of the Shiloh Community Development Corporation; Business Administrator and Director of the Department of Housing and Economic Development for the City of Trenton, NJ; Executive Director of the Urban and Public Policy Institute at Rowan University of New Jersey; Assistant Secretary of State and Assistant State Treasurer for the State of  New Jersey.  He has also served as the Essex County NJ Administrator, City Administrator for the City of Plainfield NJ, and the Vice President for Government Affairs for the Metro Newark Chamber of Commerce.

Jerry is Co-Chairperson of the City of Charleston Human Affairs and Racial Conciliation Commission. He is President of the Charleston Area Branch of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. He is also active with the Low Country African American Giving Circle, The Charleston Area Justice Ministry, and serves on the Board of Salvation and Social Justice Inc.

Jerry is married to Dr. Gwendolyn Long Harris and is the proud father of two sons Rahsaan Harris PhD and Jamal Harris (MD) and grandfather of Langston, Avery, and Ellison.

Jason Sakran, Charleston City Council Member

Jason currently serves as the Director of Expanded Learning for the Charleston County School District, where he leads a team of 350 to oversee the delivery of the best after-school and summer programs in Charleston County. During his tenure with the Department, they have increased quality, streamlined operations, and increased access to free and/or reduced after-school and summer opportunities for thousands of students each year.

He is also co-owner of Bon Banh Mi Southeast Asian Kitchen, which is home to 3 locations in the Charleston Lowcountry. He was elected to Charleston City Council in 2019. Jason was co-chair of the Special Commission on Equity, Inclusion, and Racial Conciliation and is the current co-chair of the Human Affairs and Racial Conciliation Commission.

Jason currently serves as Mayor Pro Tempore for the City of Charleston. Jason is an alum of the Chamber of Commerce's Leadership Charleston Program as well as a past Riley Diversity Leaders Fellow.



Ame Sanders  00:11

This is the State of inclusion Podcast, where we explore topics at the intersection of equity, inclusion, and community. In each episode, we meet people who are changing their communities for the better, and we discover actions that each of us can take to improve our own communities.

I'm Ame Sanders. Welcome.

If you are already part of an organization working to make your city more inclusive and equitable, or you're part of a team considering how to organize this work within your community, this episode is for you.

In this episode, we'll talk with a team in Charleston, South Carolina. What I loved about this conversation was that the co-leaders shared their hopes and vision for their work, but they also candidly shared the challenges they've experienced, and where they still feel they fall short of their ideals. Join us in this episode, as we learn more about a 350-year-old city’s struggle with race, one that started centuries ago with a legacy of slavery, traveled through the crucible that was the tragedy of the Mother Emanuel shooting, which led the city to formally apologize for slavery. We'll hear how that journey now leads them into the very real and challenging task of defining and achieving racial conciliation.

So today, I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to talk with some folks from Charleston, South Carolina's Human Affairs and Racial Conciliation Commission. I'd like to welcome Jason Sakran, the City Council member, and Jerry Harris, who's one of the 10 citizen-members appointed to the commission, and they're serving as co-chairs for this commission.

So welcome, gentlemen. So pleased to have you on the podcast.

Jerry Harris 01:58

Glad to be with you.

Jason Sakran  01:59

Happy to be here.

-About Charleston, S.C.

Ame Sanders  02:01

Would you guys tell us a little bit about Charleston? Maybe you can tell us what makes Charleston special or unique? And maybe some of the challenges that Charleston faces, especially in the areas of race?

Jason Sakran  02:13

Jerry, you want to take this, take this one? And I'll follow up if you want or…

Jerry Harris  02:16

No, Councilman, you go ahead.

Jason Sakran  02:18

So, I've been here since 2001. So, I'm not a “been here,” as they say, in these parts. But the big challenges and what makes Charleston unique is certainly our history. You know, that's also a positive, and it's also, in my view, kind of a challenge. People are very focused on maintaining a lot of our history. And that kind of thread resonates in some of our zoning policies, resonates in our discussions around culture, resonates in a lot of our discussions around progress. So, there's this whole idea and sense that we want to maintain this history, and oftentimes, it does, in my opinion, inhibit forward-thinking or growth in a way that we want. What makes Charleston unique, other than our history, is, you know, we're a coastal town. Historically speaking, it's been a melting pot for many, particularly in the state of South Carolina. Coming from a place like New York, which is where I'm from originally, what drew me to Charleston was this idea that we had French influence, we had African influence, we had English influence, and the list goes on. So, for me, that's what makes Charleston unique and why I continue to be here and kind of work in this city.

Ame Sanders  03:28

Jerry, how about you? Do you have anything you want to add to that?

Jerry Harris  03:31

I think Charleston might be unique in terms of the number of forces that are coming together here. As Jason has talked about the demographic forces, but he’s not talked about the environmental challenges. Being in the low country and the climate change issues are major. So the question of resiliency is important. So, we have a situation where those two forces are coming together.  The history of inequities that is sometimes difficult for folks to talk about, but at the same time that we're try to become more resilient, at the same time, one of the fastest growing communities. The population growth, the questions of increased property values, suburbanization, and all those things make Charleston a very challenging place to be doing any kind of work. But certainly the intersectionality of climate inequity. I think climate change is important. It makes some of our work unique.

-Origins of the Human Affairs and Racial Conciliation Commission (HARCC)

Ame Sanders  04:31

What brought Charleston to decide to create this commission? And how did you guys get started?

Jerry Harris  04:35

Well, I'll jump on that one. The city, in 2018, made an apology, a formal apology, passed a resolution. And, that, in part, was the culmination of continued reflection on the Mother Emanuel Massacre in 2015. And also at the same time, the city, after having done the apology for slavery, was in the midst of celebrating its 350th anniversary. Some of the residents and some of the council members perceived that we had not adequately addressed action. The Apology did not include some action. So there was a special commission created given 90 days to make recommendations. Plus, your commission on equity inclusion and racial conciliation was created. Jason co-chaired that committee one of the recommendations of that committee was the formation of a permanent commission to address issues of equity inclusion and racial conciliation. Jason, you might want to pick up on that.

Jason Sakran  05:38

I'll just add to that, you know, the Special Commission, which really started in June of 2020. Jerry's Correct. You know, that was all the work leading up to the Special Commission. But really, what kind of ignited the work around the Special Commission in June of 2020, was the social unrest and the televised murder of George Floyd. And it was the 25th of May. I had spoken as a council member regarding this. We had some social unrest here in Charleston. We had a protest, a very peaceful protest, that afternoon, I believe it was May 31. I can't remember the exact date. And that evening, we had some criminal activity. And the protests turned, turned violent. So some of our city, city buildings were destroyed. There was no loss of life. But leading into that, the next few days, on a council call, I had made it very clear that, you know, as a council member and someone that lives downtown, those acts late that evening, I certainly didn't support. But, I did want to share with my council members that it would be dismissive of us and counterproductive if we weren’t understanding the angst behind some of the actions. And I think the mayor recognized that. You know, I saw things a bit differently than some of my fellow council members, and he asked if myself and Councilman Gregory could co-chair this Special commission, to Jerry's point. This is really the precursor to this final commission, which is our Human Affairs Commission.

Ame Sanders  07:01

My initial reaction to what you guys just talked about is to the 90 days that you were given to do that. That's a pretty staggering task to try to accomplish in 90 days.

Jason Sakran  07:12

I'm sure Jerry could talk a little bit about that. But I'll simply say it was an oversight on our part to think we could get this work done in 90 days. And certainly, we didn't. It took almost a year for the final report to come to fruition. Jerry.

Jerry Harris  07:27

Yeah, certainly, given the charge to complete the narrative, the historical narrative, and to come up with a specific set of recommendations for what the city might do to address disparities that had been documented by a study done by the Avery Research Center, which talked about a wide range health, education, climate, employment, housing, transportation issues. So, there was a set of disparities identified. The Commission was asked to come up with recommendations that, in essence, would, as I said, put some teeth into the apology. So the whole notion of a group of volunteers coming together, and first forming, getting a sense of what the job description was, and then diving into the data, and coming up with recommendations in 90 days, was not doable. The Commission asked for and just took additional time and found, quite frankly, that even the 125 recommendations, were basically an outline scratching the top of the scale in terms of what might be possible, what might be needed. I think it was hoped that The Commission’s recommendations would become broadly discussed and debated. Those things that made sense moved forward, those things that did not make sense or outside of the capacity of the city, not. And so here we are, still trying to make that move.

Ame Sanders  08:56

Your Initiative is a city initiative, right?

Jason Sakran  08:58

That is Correct.

-Personal Motivations

Ame Sanders  09:00

I mean, this is a huge task and a big commitment, as we just talked about. So what brings you personally to this work,

Jason Sakran  09:07

I work for the school district full time, here in Charleston, Charleston County School District. I’ve been here since 2009. So for me, Ame and Jerry, seeing every day, the disparities that exist in our public education system here in Charleston. And really, you know, looking across the country and seeing that, Charleston is, again, unique in its way, and looking at the history. In terms of public education here in Charleston, is a pretty disturbing look back when you look back really from the 30s and 40s. And what the public education system has done and has created even till today. We’re in 2023, and there are still significant issues around student achievement, access to resources, and opportunities. Literally, the district is improving in this regard, but school buildings… You know, when I started in 2009, if you looked at some of our rural sites, particularly out in Hollywood and John’s Island area, some of the schools were in disrepair. Meanwhile, a lot of our schools in our Mount Pleasant area, which is more of our affluent parts of the county, those schools weren't in such disrepair. So, bottom line, I've seen firsthand the disparities and the lack of access and what that means for a child. So for me, this work is really ignited by my passion for public education.

Jerry Harris  10:24

So for me, being born African American in the United States. Being born, the year Jackie Robinson broke into baseball. Graduating from high school the year that the Voting Rights Act was passed kind of gives me a frame for how I entered the world. My work, my life's work, I'm trained as an urban planner. Much of my work has been in municipal and state government, often having jobs requiring, trying to figure out solutions to problems that existed that had a racial and ethnic and demographic, and economic challenge to it. When I retired, and my wife and I decided to relocate back here to Charleston, I brought my experience in state, county, and local government, my academic training in urban planning, and my experience, and looked for an opportunity to become involved, here in Charleston. As I said, when the disparity report came out, and the discussion began around how the city undertook a racial bias audit at the police department. Some of the work I had done was in that particular area. And I thought, Well, why not? Service is the rent you pay for your time here on earth, and this was the opportunity.

-Who Does HARCC Serve?

Ame Sanders  11:43

Thanks for sharing that, guys, about what brought you to this work. Because, that's so important when we think about individuals and groups that come around this work and want to make a difference in their community. It has such a bearing on how you move forward. You know, we talked about what brought you to this work, I used to have a boss who used to say, Who is the who you serve? And I guess the question I would ask you is, who is the who in this work that you guys are hoping to make a difference for?

Jason Sakran  12:11

I can try to take a stab at that. But I do want to go back to your previous question regarding why this work. So in addition to the public ed piece for me, I recognized early on, I was probably six or seven. Again, I grew up in New York. So when folks think that racism or stereotypes don't exist up north, that's a stereotype. And it's a fallacy. I mean, it happens. My dad was Arab-American. So my complexion issues when I was younger, folks had asked me, are you black? What are you? So at a very young age, I had to ask my mom that question like, in terms of my identity. And then moving here to Charleston, I did experience just after 911, on at least on two occasions, I worked in the restaurant business as well. And I was working in a restaurant, and someone had asked me flat-out asked me if I was a terrorist. So I had experienced these things moving here, post 911. You know, those weren't the driving forces, but I have experienced some of this in some regard, certainly, to no extent as Jerry and some of my African American brothers and sisters here in Charleston. But, it got me thinking about identity and what my place was. So I just wanted to answer that question.

And then the second question, that's a great question. I mean, as a council member, I do have 10,000 constituents that I'm responsible for and proudly represent one of our oldest African American neighborhoods, Ashleyville/Maryville neighborhoods. So, when I think about this work, I certainly have other constituents, white and black, that live in other parts. But when I think about this work, I think about the Ashleyville/Maryville because it's one of the oldest neighborhoods in really the country. Charles Towne Landing, which is literally just a stone's throw away from this neighborhood was the founding for Charleston. So when I think about their history, and I think about the work that I'm doing, it's really, for them. A lot of them are older. So I think about, you know, what, what their grandchildren will see, what their grandchildren will experience. And the last part of this is because they're older, I've had several opportunities to speak with them. And they can recount stories that I only read in history books, but they are literally, recounting the stories from the 20s and 30s that to me are so far away, but to them, are still in a lifetime. So that's the who for me,

Jerry Harris  14:24

Well, so the who for me is everybody and all the varying interests in the city of Charleston. The degree to which anybody does not feel safe and to the degree that anybody does not feel welcomed, and to the degree which anybody feels disregarded and disrespected, and unable to firmly attain and contribute and be connected to the prosperity of what appears to be a very prosperous place, that's a problem. The businesspeople who need Jason and the Board of Education to generate employees to have the computer skills, the reading skills, and inter-personal business skills are predominately white. So closing the gaps in education addressing that, means we're benefiting them. People who don't feel safe coming downtown or walking in certain neighborhoods because of their perception of the criminality of people because of race and ethnicity. They need to be able to feel safe, and those people who are policed, because they may fit a demographic, also need to feel safe. So in a real sense, Jason represents, as he talks about, we have a representative democracy. He has to represent all of his people. And those of us who are advocates need to take into account, certainly, I am deeply concerned about the disparities and opportunities for black people. The anti blackness movement that is afoot in this country is problematic and threatening. But at the same time, I have to take into account the fact that we're taught told that we should do justice, love mercy and walk humbly. And we need to bring our communities together, if we're going to maintain this democracy,

-Who is at the Table?

Ame Sanders  16:05

With that in mind, how do you make sure that those folks are at the table with you guys, as you work through your commission's work? Have you bring them to the table?

Jerry Harris  16:17

We haven't figured that out. It is hard. And I'll make this observation. My career as a public administrator at the municipal level, county level, and state level, and in the period coming up in the 60s and 70s, where maximum citizen participation was the notion, there were resources put into making certain that community folks could come to meetings and Community Councils organized and actually, those efforts were funded. We're in an environment now, where this work is being asked to do it voluntarily. And asking people who perhaps have to work a couple of jobs, or stressed by COVID, and all that to come out and participate, who may not have access to the internet, or everybody's got access to probably a phone, but participation in democracy, when you're free, when you don't feel welcome, or don't feel safe, is not the way in which you're going to use your spare time. So it is truly a challenge. And one of the things that the City Council is actually into in the master plan. In the master plan was a comment about the process and community engagement and their specific recommendations that our commission is supporting, and urging the council actually appropriate, more money to support not only participation in the Human Affairs and Racial Conciliation Commission, but all of the Commissions and all of the activities. So citizens really have a sense that they have a voice, and that what's going on in government is transparent, and that there's a sense of accountability. My thing is we haven’t figure that out. We're working on it.

Ame Sanders  17:55

Jason, anything you want to add there?

Jason Sakran  17:59

No, I think Jerry's articulated it very accurately.

Ame Sanders  18:00

I would say it's also how to figure out how to go beyond just having people participate, but actually sharing power and decision-making, which is so important, ultimately, to achieving real participation in the process. But I know you guys know that.

This is a huge initiative, I'm sure we. We talked about your initial 90 days, and that it's a lot bigger than that. And it probably has a long time horizon for you guys. Who else in the community, and maybe beyond the community, do you guys have around the table with you? Or do you have to maybe convince or involve in the work that you're doing so that we can get a sense of the scope of the engagement?

Jason Sakran  18:41

I'll take a stab at this one Jerry, and then you can add. So, our Special Commission, which was the precursor to our current commission. We had volunteers, that Jerry had mentioned, and each one of those standing subcommittees had four or five, six different volunteers that participated. So that was really made up of almost 40 or 50 different people in that Special Commission. That commission sunsetted and provided the recommendations. One of those recommendations was to create the permanent commission, to create HARCC. One of the challenges right now, and, and one of the things that should not go unnoticed or unsaid, is our current commission. Although I would say it consists of folks, maybe from diverse viewpoints, we only have two African Americans on the commission, if I'm not mistaken, Jerry. Three. Kim, Kim? Yes, we have three.

That's somewhat problematic for me. Because, basically, what we ended up doing was in an effort to make it … we can talk more about the process of getting us from the special commission to the permanent commission. One of the things that we basically had to compromise on was that city council members had to appoint someone from their district to the commission, giving city council members, some of our more concerned city council members, some cover, I guess, or some sort of political assurance that this would not consist of a bunch of quote-unquote, radicals, which is what we heard quite frequently. My point is that from a purely racial makeup, I would have liked to see a few more African Americans on our commission. Quite honestly, it should be a majority. So back to this power dynamic. No, I think one of the things that Jerry and I recognized early on, and I appreciate Jerry, for bringing this to my attention, was, you know, I was still, because I was a council member, I believe I was chair, and Jerry was vice-chair, or something like that. I can't remember. We made a conscious decision that, you know, this is a mutual effort, and, and I'm willing to share that power with Jerry. And so we've changed that. We've said, we're both co-chairs of this effort. And I think recognizing, particularly for my white council members, there is definitely a disconnect in how the power dynamic works. So we can talk more about, you know, have this being a politically charged commission versus, you know, some sort of Community Commission. So you've got that layer of council member egos and council member politics of it all. And it does add an interesting dynamic to the soup, so to speak. But it's been a challenge, to say the least, regarding the dynamic and kind of how we acknowledged how power is shared on the commission and in our city,

Jerry Harris  21:23

To you a question of who else is being brought to the table. There's a number of ways to think about it. There are numerous groups in the city who have equity initiatives. Be it the Chamber of Commerce, be it the YWCA, even the international African American Museum. The long-standing institutions, all who have constituents, the degree to which the work of the Human Affairs and Racial Conciliation Commission, which the name itself is a political compromise, because there was not the political will to name what it is that we were supposed to be addressing. It means that some of those groups don't… We have not yet gained legitimacy. Right?

So part of our goal, and our work has to be, as we, as a commission, identify who we are to each other, and who we are to the work, begin to figure out ways in which to engage those various community stakeholders inside the city. And then, to a degree, those that are in the region that also play a role. For example, the Chamber of Commerce is a Regional Chamber of Commerce covering the three counties. Opportunities cut across those boundaries. There are projects that are regional projects, a rapid transit project that's going on. Now, we need, and we have that as a matter of fact, as a result of commission Shealy being involved in that, brought that to the table. Right? But, it's not a natural kind of situation. So each of the commissioners has the opportunity in a regional setting to make a connection, and whatever resources that we have to bring to broaden this conversation, so that the record… But realize that the detail solutions are going to involve multiple players, multiple actors, and multiple decision-makers, and the 13 of us on the commission are not those people. So if we want to be successful, we have to interact with those other systems,

-Focus Areas

Ame Sanders  23:26

I would love to keep pursuing this. And I will come back to it because I think it's very important to get the lessons that you guys have learned. But I also want to share with our listeners a little bit about the what you guys see as the things that you need to work on. So tell us a little bit about what you feel is needed in Charleston to make a difference. And the areas of focus that you guys have chosen to work on and what you're focused on right now.

Jason Sakran  23:54

So for me being, you know, on city council, I have had the opportunity to see the structural pieces that exist in the remnants of our, of the systems. So for me, it's always been a challenge, and something that interests me is like, I'm not so much focused on specific issues. I kind of take a step back and look at the entire system and try to figure out is the system supportive of the changes we want to make? So a good example would be our outdated, sometimes punitive and exclusionary zoning policies that we have. You know, that's not something sexy to talk about. Folks don't want to hear about that. But when you look at some of the decisions that have been made regarding our zoning, regarding the things that we have on the books here in Charleston, you can see a direct correlation between lack of opportunity or… I'll give a perfect example. So here in Charleston, we talked about our history we've got a very strong board of Architectural Review, which is unique to many cities. A Charleston has this quasi-government body that helps with new construction, old construction renovations and you have to go in front of this board of Architectural Review for changes to make on your on your buildings. Very clear example would be, and that has happened. When a homeowner that's been in their home for several years, 20 to 30 years might be on a fixed income wants to get some changes done to their home. Oftentimes BAR requires them to go hire an architect, hire an engineer, get these drawings made. That process is not difficult. But it is time-consuming. It is complex. And it does require additional resources to submit those drawings. My point is that the system itself has created a hindrance or has created situations where folks can keep their homes or folks can renovate their homes. So I've been pushing pm some of these systemic, kind of structural pieces, around zoning for the better part of two years. I have made some inroads, but… This is where I see, like where the rubber meets the road, is looking at our system and our structures and figuring out how to eliminate the challenges that exist. And again, that's not very sexy. And it's not fun for most people to hear that. But for me, it is because I realize that if you can fix the structure, if you can fix the system, that is going to be fertile ground for some of the other changes. So that's where my head is on some of these.

Jerry Harris  26:18

So the Special Commission had seven areas of recommendations. They included: Youth Development, Education, Culture and History, Health and Environment, Criminal Justice Reform, Transportation and Housing, and Internal Operations. In response to the ordinance, we reviewed, the Criminal Justice, Housing and Mobility, and Economic Empowerment recommendations and compared that to the city's Master Plan that had been internationally adopted prior just prior to the creation of the HARCC ordinance commission. And so we've made recommendations to City Council that they began to look at the recommendations and debate the recommendations that were in the Special Commission’s report in those in those particular areas. Inside of that, particularly when we see intersectionality here, the Economic Empowerment and Housing and Mobility kind of work together when you see a major transportation project coming along. So what we're looking at there is to see where there can be specific, inclusive interventions. Right? That mitigate against disparity or further aggravating the disparity. It may not eliminate it. It may not repair. But, it should not create more damage. And so that is one aspect of it. It's my observation that neither the Special Commission nor our Commission have talked about conciliation. Right? We're talking about fixing things that's broken. Okay, but the question of coming together to understand does group A and B, assume that group A and B them ABC and D, have the same definition of the problem, and then can debate that problem and come up with a solution for the future. That is a win-win for everybody, or minimizes the pain and loss, or the investment that has to be made. We're not there. We're not there as a society. So the notion is progress, that we're talking about conciliation, which at least recognizes the fact that there are different opinions of different interests. Okay. And we're not talking about reconciliation, right. But the whole notion that the work that's being done now, for HARCC is, in essence, to address disparities where they exist, try to minimize the likelihood that any action taken by the government worsens things. Right, either in terms of how people are in health, housing opportunities, disparities in criminal justice, and hopefully, as a byproduct of that, have the community come together to see a common future where everybody's got an investment to do quote-unquote, the right thing. But we're way away from that at this point. So the name is kind of…doesn't quite match the work yet. But the work doesn't match the name. Maybe that's what my point.

-Time Horizon

Ame Sanders  29:28

In just listening to you, Jerry, it sounds like you see yourself in the early stages of this work. Excuse me, on what time horizon? Do you guys see this work, and where do you place yourself?

Jerry Harris  29:39

Well, I'm gonna make this observation. The council in its wisdom, right, establish a three-year timeline for this commission to exist. Right? To if we're just thinking about any of the construction projects that might be going on, or any of the debates that are going on in terms of the changes that might happen in the flooding mitigation work is going to be way beyond three years. Right. So the political will, to publicly address and say we recognize that these issues and concerns disparities, not doing harm is something that we have to build into our systems as, as Jason suggests, over time, right? We've got to sell that. We got three years to sell that. Then after that, it feeds into timeline. How long it takes to build out the particular project, however long it takes for the education and recreation programs, to work themselves out, there's really not a timeframe put on when we think the impact will begin to be seen. Okay, but we have a three-year window, an opportunity to put in place, the kind of processes that may result in that.

Jason Sakran  30:59

And if I can just add to that, Ame, everything that Jerry said, is right. Happening now with our assault on our public school systems, and what can be taught, or not taught in school. So the biggest challenge I see, and it's actually a challenge that existed three years ago, but it's only gotten bigger, and I think Jerry made this point, is getting to a place where we all can have mutual recognition that the system is inherently racist. That doesn't mean every person… here’s the challenge we have sometimes with explaining this…It doesn't mean everyone that works for the city is racist, doesn't mean the mayor is racist, it doesn't mean individual people are racist. It's trying to explain that the structures and the system itself are built on racism. So getting folks to understand and acknowledge that has been a challenge. And like I said, with everything that's happening around our assault on public ed, with CRT and all this, it's actually adding more fuel to the fire. Because now, we're actually getting folks soon as they hear this work, are conflating it with some sort of agenda or indoctrination of our kids in the community. So that's one of the challenges we're up against. So I just want to add that.

-Commission Structure

Ame Sanders  32:12

There's some advantages to being created as a commission and politically instantiated for the city government. But there's also some challenges. So maybe you can talk about what you guys see as strengths for this kind of structure. What's helped you what's worked for you? And then when people think about organizing themselves to do this work, what are some of the challenges they might face if they chose a similar structure? Or would you recommend they do that?

Jerry Harris  32:42

So I would advocate for people to insist that the existing structures develop and utilize an equity lens. If the planning boards and the other quote-unquote advisory groups had an equity lens, then this work would be spread out. Okay. More people will be engaged in it. The question where a disparity might exist or how it could be explained, could be addressed. The advantage of having it be a commission and we aren’t to implement anything, we advise the mayor and the council. As such, we have something of a limited pulpit, but we do have a pulpit to stand on. Earlier this month, we made a report, a progress report to the City Council regarding our work and suggested that they do some things. That's a public discussion. Our discussion at HARCC, our commission meetings, are covered by the press, noticed by the press. So the visibility of it, and the legitimacy of the process is there. The shortcoming of that is that if the government does not prioritize and resource to the citizen engagement, okay, there's some constraints, we don't have our own resources to spend. Right. So there's a level of dependence and then again, as Jason suggested, the process by which, by how the commissioners are selected, and how they're held accountable back to the appointing authorities, could be a strength or weakness. And that if you decide to promote a commission to address equity and inclusion, you need to be certain that the authority, the resources, and the accountability, public accountability, is built in. It doesn't come automatic?

Jason Sakran  34:40

And if I could add to that too. I mean, everything that Jerry just shared is 100% correct. And I agree with and would just like to add to that. Which is, I do still believe in my heart that having this commission as an extension of city, in the long run, is going to be a more beneficial, today. Whatever today is, I believe that today. But my reasons are this. We've got three council members on the commission, myself, two others. And at the end of the day, when I'm thinking about some of these systems, and some of the structures that I referenced earlier, if you are an outside organization, I mean, you can, you can have the most in-depth conversations as a group, you can get along, it could be as diverse as possible. I just don't know how you move from theory and discussion to actually legislative action. And I ultimately see that this commission does have, and it's yet to be seen if it's actually going to come true, but does have the power to make some of the legislative changes that I see need to be made in the city of Charleston. So in that regard, I do think that the current structure is a good thing. But it's, it's yet to be seen, if we can actually make those changes. All I'm saying is, it's gonna be much more difficult for some sort of community organization or third party, nonprofit that's doing this work, to then lobby and communicate to city council, some of the changes that need to be made. So I think we're one step ahead there. On the flip side, the negative to me, is that it is, as Jerry referenced, we are publicly notified, it's a public meeting, it's open to anyone that wants to listen. And I think that inherently that structure, that dynamic gives people pause, particularly that are on the commission from really exchanging and sharing ideas. Because we do have a few on our commission that I would say, have come in with suspicion about the work, maybe it's not fully in their head, where they want to be, maybe their hearts in the right place, and maybe their heart's not in the right place. But my point is that they are coming in suspicious. And I think that this work does require, particularly as a white man, does require us to feel a little bit uncomfortable and being in a place that I can ask a question, or two or three, and not feel as though the quote-unquote mob is going to attack me. And I think we need to create that environment where folks can have an honest conversation. And it's not just white folks, I think African American folks need to be able to ask questions to their white counterparts about why they're feeling a certain way. And I think the structure that we currently have, does create a dynamic where that's a bit difficult,

Jerry Harris  37:19

in addition to the fact that the commissioners charge is to advise the city government about what it might be able to do to reduce disparity and perhaps promote conciliation, the institutions that make up our city that may have as much influence, all right, and what they do privately are not governed by the municipal government. So a commission or group or body that brings together the corporations and churches and the other power holders in the community, that are part of this fabric, that would be trying to define the future, our future, our collective combined future where we all prosper, and we do as least harm to each other as we can in that context. So an independent, non-government endorsed entity has value. Because, quite frankly, Jason and those folks who run for public office, look to those people for votes and money. So it's about your power, your power question, how do you how do you bring the power to bear?

-Reflection and Advice

Ame Sanders  38:27

I want to respect your time. So it's probably important that we close this out. So I want to give each of you a chance for kind of a final word of advice or reflection on the work that you're doing and that is still in front of you.

Jerry Harris  38:42

So Frederick Douglass said, there'll be no progress without struggle. And what we’re involved in and engaged in, we’re at a point, things are gonna change. How they change can be determined by what we choose to do or not do. For me, it is not acceptable to sit on the sidelines and not try to use the knowledge and experience I have. I mean, I’ve run county governments, run state departments, I’ve run municipal governments. It would be irresponsible for me not to try to work with and be of service and advice to my council. So I would urge people, right to look for, you know, fit in where you can get it in, in this work. Because, if we don't, we will get, in this case, the government that we deserve.

Jason Sakran  39:31

Not sure I can top that. Two things that for me, moving forward, are paramount. Particularly for any… whether it is a, you know, council-focused or city government focused effort or, you know, some community focused effort is to surround yourself with, with good people and good volunteers and folks that to Jerry's point recognize in the absence of his involvement, someone's going to be sitting in that seat. And that person may or may not be as strong as Jerry or might not have the insight that Jerry would have in recognizing that and giving of yourself. So I guess, first and foremost, is identifying a core group of people that are committed and dedicated to the work. Because it is work. We've had folks already step off our commission, or indicate that they wanted to step off because, no offense to other commissions, but it's work. We've got homework for them to do, they’ve got separate meetings. So being on this commission is not just, you know, putting it on your resume, this does require work. So identifying that group of people that are willing to roll up their sleeves. And number two, being intentional about the structure and all the, you know, if you and folks that have listened haven’t concluded from me, I'm really a process person, I think about process a lot. So standing up, the Special Commission took really three months to really build the structure in order for us to do some of the work. And then this the HARCC commission, same thing, it took us a couple of months to kind of get things organized. Because what you don't want is to create a system or structure that's disorganized, where there's no communication, there's no rules. That just, in my opinion, is counterproductive to the ultimate goal. So big thing for us is thinking about the structure, putting the time in at the front end, to create that structure. So folks know what their work is. And it's not some sort of leading with your heart only, it's really thinking the process through. So that'd be number two, for anyone that wants to do this work, is identify a strong set of volunteers and a core group of people that you're can rely on. And number two, putting that structure together and being intentional about how it works. Because when things start getting off the rails, and you've got media inquiries and people in the community pointing fingers saying that we're not moving fast enough, we're moving too fast. And we've had that. And when we get that. I think it's important to have that core group and that structure in place to kind of weather the storm, so to speak.

Ame Sanders  41:43

Jason and Jerry, I'm really grateful that you took time to talk with us today and shared your experiences, so transparently and candidly. And I wish you the best of luck in your work in Charleston, and in moving this forward. Thank you so much.

Jason Sakran

Thank you.

Jerry Harris

Thank you.


Ame Sanders  42:03

You know, this was such a rich discussion.

Jerry and Jason talked about specific challenges that they faced in their work,

  • from a charged political environment
  • to power and power sharing,
  • to the breadth of this work, and
  • the complex layers of intersectionality that they have to work within.

We talked about how there is a very real desire to move quickly. We heard them talk about their initial 90-day charge, and how even today, their work is on a three-year charter. Yet Charleston didn't arrive at this point in only a few years. It took generations. It was heartening to hear about their commitment to this step in the journey that will lead them to the next step. And the next.

A few things really stuck out for me as we wrapped up.

  • Jason reminded us that this work is hard and long, and it really matters who is on the team with you. Surround yourself with good people and learn to trust them.
  • As a fellow process junkie, Jason's advice to think about the process, not just the impact really spoke to me.
  • We heard them both talk about the fact that one step of progress is simply to stop doing more harm. And that in itself is already so important.
  • Jerry reminded us of Frederick Douglass’s words that there is no progress without struggle.
  • There is no single approach to this work, no silver bullet, no best way for a community to organize themselves. And Jerry offered a quote for this, that I'll probably pin up to my wall to remind myself. He told us to “fit in where you can get in.”

This has been the State of Inclusion podcast. Join us again next time.

And if you enjoyed this episode, the best compliment for our work is your willingness to share these ideas with others. Leave us a review. We'd love your comments.

Thanks so much for listening


Guests: Jason Sakran and Jerry Harris

Host: Ame Sanders

Social Media and Marketing Coordinator: Kayla Nelson

Podcast Coordinator: Emma Winiski

Sound: FAROUT Media

Ame Sanders
Founder of State of Inclusion. A seasoned leader & change-maker, she is focused on positive change within communities.
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