Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, former Gov. Haley Barbour, and Rev. Keith Tonkel were on their best behavior at Operation Shoestring's "Conversation About Community." In doing so, they missed an opportunity for the frank public discussion that Jackson's problems deserve.

On Thursday, November 14, a diverse group of Jackson stakeholders gathered at Convention Complex for Operation Shoestring’s annual “Conversation About Community.” The event brought together Jackson’s Democratic Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, former Republican Governor Haley Barbour, and Methodist pastor Keith Tonkel for what was billed as “a frank, open talk about solutions.”

They came together to discuss Jackson’s starkest problems. As the Operation Shoestring website put it: “Our capital city faces a declining tax base, an urban-suburban divide, struggling schools, crime and poverty. If Jackson, or Mississippi, for that matter, is going to rise, the solution will require our collective buy-in.”

Instead, the audience was served – along with fried catfish and sweet tea — an hour and a half of predictable platitudes and political platforms.

Gov. Barbour emphasized the importance of hard work and creating economic opportunity, Mayor Lumumba called for more resources to support better education and community development initiatives, and Rev. Tonkel reminded everyone of the importance of coming together and respecting each other’s common humanity.

Unsurprisingly, Rev. Tonkel was seated in between the two politicians — a placement that I imagine was as precautionary as it was symbolic. There were other telltale signs that event coordinators went to some lengths to ensure that the conversation wouldn’t get too heated.

At one point, the event moderator, Oleta Fitzgerald (Operation Shoestring board member and Director of the Children’s Defense Fund’s Southern Regional Office) introduced a question with “Robert [Langford, Operation Shoestring Executive Director] told me not to talk about this, but… Jackson has a gun problem.” None of the speakers addressed guns in their responses.

Also, disappointingly, while at the beginning of the program attendees were encouraged to write down questions on cards, which were collected by event volunteers, only one audience question was actually posed to the panel. Overall, despite the hard-hitting prompt in the online description, the controlled structure of the conversation didn’t encourage much specific, candid dialogue.

To be fair, the “Conversation about Community” functions as a major fundraiser for Operation Shoestring, a nonprofit that does vital work in central Jackson. It is not surprising that the speakers were on their best behavior. If the event’s sole purpose was to raise money and awareness for a worthy cause, then it was a rousing success. The twin billing of Barbour and Lumumba packed out the cavernous ballroom.

But it is difficult to feel good about the possibility for progress in Jackson when even the facilitators of this conversation seemed to think the only option for discourse between diametrically opposed public figures is banality.

Ideological consensus is unlikely, if not impossible, on most of Jackson’s problems. But the role of healthy discourse is to find practical solutions that can bridge ideological divisions.

In reviewing my notes and rehashing the event with coworkers I began to recognize occasional overlaps in each speaker’s suggested solutions. To move forward, we have to admit that differences in philosophy may be irreconcilable, but that different trains of thought can arrive at mutually-acceptable policies and legislation.

The most immediate opportunity for this sort of compromise seems to be the need for more educational options for young people in Jackson. Lumumba explained that it is not enough to say, “education is critical,” but that we must make more effort to “connect education to life” by developing a curriculum at every level that is both compelling and practical. Barbour shared an anecdote about the derision and contempt his family would have faced if one of his sons had considered attending community college instead of a four-year university, and concluded, “We need to quite stigmatizing workforce development and skills training for our students.” When questioned directly about the ongoing debate over charter schools, Lumumba indicated that he was unsold but remained open-minded, while Barbour expressed more enthusiastic support. But that was as far as that got before the subject was changed and, shortly afterward, the event ended.

Above all else, this “Conversation About Community” confirmed the need for more substantial public dialogue. It difficult for me not to see Thursday’s event as a missed opportunity, but perhaps that should have been predictable given the nature and purpose of the forum.

Nevertheless, I remain skeptically optimistic about Jackson’s future. There seems to be potential for bipartisan collaboration on its most important issue, education reform, but we should expect our leaders to talk about it and other issues they disagree on in a dignified, productive way. If they cannot, then it falls to the rest of us to begin these conversations ourselves.

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