Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation CEO hoping race matters summit is driving change in WV

Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation President and CEO Michelle Foster speaks during the annual Report to the Community at the Clay Center in Charleston in 2018. Gazette-Mail file photo

Original Article: Charleston Gazette Mail

Oct 28, 2020

As The Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation continues its series of star-studded conversations on race in West Virginia next week, the organization’s CEO is hoping previous sessions are inspiring people to fight for positive change.

The foundation kicked off the 2020 Summit on Race Matters in West Virginia series in August with five planned events, but the virtual crowd sizes showed the demand for a sixth. The upcoming event is Nov. 5 from 4 to 6:30 p.m., and will be headlined by Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown University sociology professor and contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. The panel will discuss education and employment issues.

The final event will be held Dec. 3, where a soon-to-be-formed panel will discuss housing and wealth inequities in the Black community, said Michelle Foster, CEO of The Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation.

Previous discussions were held with some of the top experts in their respective fields, including Angela Davis, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ibram X. Kendi and Dr. Camara Jones.

Davis is an activist, scholar and author who has spent her life fighting for civil rights — she was the most historically important person to participate in the session. Foster said “folks were just amazed we had her.”

Hannah-Jones spearheaded The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which looked at the legacy of slavery 400 years after the first African slaves were brought to the United States. Kendi is the author of The New York Times bestseller “How to be an Antiracist,” a book seeking to change the way people think about what an anti-racist society looks like.

Foster said Hannah-Jones’ keynote speech on the impacts of racism and disparities on the health of Black people is the subject that hit home the hardest for the Mountain State.

In West Virginia, significant health disparities for Black people exist in infant mortality rates, cancer, diabetes and heart disease, among other chronic health conditions. And now, COVID-19 is disproportionately killing Black Americans.

The series has already exceeded expectations, Foster said. More than 800 people virtually attended the first event, and the following sessions each had more than 300 participants. She said the discussions have been mostly audience driven, as viewers can submit questions to the panel before and during the event.

The star power the foundation secured for the summit is not lost on Foster. She said West Virginians deserve to hear these professionals in an discussion tailored to their home state.

“We believe that West Virginia is good enough to hear these folks speaking directly to them … We too want to hear from the leading voices in their work,” Foster said. “We didn’t let the fact that we were West Virginia limit who we try to reach and who we bring here.”

Virtually is really the only way this many speakers of this prestige could speak in one series, Foster said, which is one of the few silver linings to be found during the pandemic.

“Having the access to these big name speakers, it’s the fact that we don’t have to fly them in and house them,” Foster said. “So that has been a blessing of COVID-19, just being able to reach people virtually.”

But for this summit to actually mean something, change must occur too, Foster said. One conversation from the first panel discussion has stuck with her since, which is “we have to move from awareness to action.”

“You just can’t stop at awareness. Awareness is not the end. Awareness is not the solution. So we’ve got to go from awareness to action,” she said. “That’s really stuck with me throughout … yes we’re increasing awareness, but where do we go from here?”

Foster said the summit has captured what The Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation does best: playing the role of a community convener. The foundation brings people together and educates the community on the ideas that will lead to positive change.

In August 2021, one year from the first panel, Foster said the foundation will look back at the previous year and examine what progress has been made. Change can be small; the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra contacted Foster following one discussion to say they are looking inward to find ways to be more inclusive.

Change can also be big, like beginning to close some of the drastic health disparities facing Black West Virginians.

To attend the Nov. 5 event, visit the foundation’s website for the registration link.

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