In light of the recent pain and consternation caused by a racially insensitive photograph three Jefferson City High School students were involved with, Jefferson City Public Schools is launching community engagement initiatives to chart a healthy course forward.
District officials and one community member shared with the News Tribune what they hope the initiatives achieve.
JCPS Board of Education President Steve Bruce admitted he initially had his misgivings about the upcoming community meetings publicly announced Thursday by Superintendent Larry Linthacum.
Bruce doesn't want accusatory screaming matches that could bring up old traumas or inflict new ones. However, he said Friday he expects "purposeful" conversations with the community — actions structured and productive yet remaining honest and open enough for people to share their voices.
Linthacum said three local pastors have said they'd be willing to host community discussions in October: the Rev. Cassandra Gould of Quinn Chapel A.M.E. Church; Bishop James Howard of One in Christ Baptist Church; and the Rev. Jon Nelson of Soma Community Church.
Linthacum said the discussions won't be only for the congregations of those churches, though, but for anyone in the community.
"It's not something folks naturally want to talk about," he said of discussions about race and diversity, but he wants the meetings to be mechanisms for "folks to feel how we can move forward."
"We do diversity training, but how can we make it better?" he said, noting one example of what could be explored.
Bruce said Friday that what pushed aside his trepidation about the public meetings were his reflections on his own fatherhood. More specifically, he thought about the kind of pain and fear he and his children have never had to deal with.
"It's something we've never experienced" as a family not composed of people of color or other groups who've faced marginalization, he said.
"Despite the unfortunate way it's come about," he said, he hopes the incident can "give us an opportunity to look at deeper issues" beyond the photo itself.
He added he hopes Jefferson City could "be a better community because of this," and more representative of the kindness, compassion and empathy he believes are valued by local people.
"If we don't teach the good and what we want for our community — because we are a diverse people — someone else is going to come in and teach hate," Patsy Johnson warned Tuesday.
Johnson was born and raised in Jefferson City, has been active with PTA and other volunteer work, is a JCHS alumna and has nieces and nephews attending JCHS.
She's been engaged in conversations with community members and district officials since the photo came to attention.
"I actually would like to have time to sit down and talk to different people about different types of tools," she said Thursday of what she hopes the upcoming meetings yield. She wants discussions to incorporate and produce locally tailored diversity training and discussions instead of one-size-fits-all approaches.
She wants something "that will purposefully move this city to a better place" and that can be a model that will outlast the current moment. "It has to continue."
"Things like that happened when I was in school," the 56-year-old Jefferson City resident said Tuesday. She said similar racially charged incidents in the past were not dealt with "in a way to really get to the root of the problem." However, she sees this moment as an opportunity for the district to set an example for its students.
"All students are going to be looking at how this is handled," she said.
Bruce said anyone willing to engage in the discussion at the meetings is "more than welcome at our table."
"This is something we need to do," he added.
Specific dates and information for the meetings is not yet available.