The Auburn Diversity Task Force held its first meeting last week against the backdrop of an apparent Auburn High student in blackface posting a selfie on Snapchat, an action that drew widespread condemnation in the community.
"This is an exciting day for Auburn, I believe, to have the understanding that this (a diversity task force) is important for the future and the well-being of our community," said Auburn Mayor Ron Anders. "And I don't think it goes without saying that it's also been a difficult day in Auburn, and we've had something happen in our community today that's unfortunate, that's hurtful, and I believe that the work of this committee could go a long ways toward being mindful of those kinds of activities in the future and maybe even help somebody think twice before they would make a mistake like that.
"I don't take it lightly that we're all here on the same day that something awful has really happened in the city of Auburn."
The Diversity Task Force, one of four created by Anders to deal with pressing issues in the community, is led by Ward 1 Councilwoman Connie Taylor and Ward 5 Councilman Steven Dixon, both of whom drafted other members from the community to join the group, which includes those representing the African American, LGBTQ+, Muslim, Jewish and special needs communities.
Taylor selected Christine Bradshaw, former City Councilman Clemon Byrd and Anthony Brock to join the task force, while Dixon selected Pride on The Plains president Chad Peacock, Asim Ali of the Auburn Islamic Center and Brittany Cannon Dement, who Dixon credited with raising the issue of diversity in the community during her campaign for mayor in last year's municipal election.
"I really think that she was the one that got this whole conversation going throughout the campaign," Dixon said.
Anders also brought other community members into the fold, including Samantha Bradshaw of the Exceptional Foundation of East Alabama, and Mike Halperin, a member of Beth Shalom, and Brittany Branyon, who was not in attendance.
More members could be added to the group, which became apparent when the task force asked those in attendance for their input, with residents pointing out a lack of representation for immigrants and the Hispanic and Korean communities in Auburn.
In many ways, the at-times emotionally-charged meeting served as a springboard for starting a conversation about diversity in the community.
Anders, who indicated the task force could result in a permanent committee, asked the members for their input and suggestions.
Taylor voiced support for creating subcommittees, while other members suggested diversity training for Auburn City Schools teachers and community events focusing on diversity, including dinners, and other suggestions. Someone in the crowd implored the task force to extend diversity training to students, saying that the Auburn City Schools system is "broken." Another suggestion was hosting youth diversity events.
Much of the meeting was devoted to listening to task force members share their stories and struggles.
"I think even in this group we will become more tolerant because, clearly, there's interactions that none of us have ever had," said Peacock. "I consider it a very silent voice in the community because we're very afraid to speak out. It isn't always popular what we're doing.
"We are growing and we are tired of being quiet, and it's time for us to be heard."
Ali, who grew up in Auburn, shared that the comments he's received from members of the Islamic Center after Anders, Taylor and Dixon visited last week have "re-energized the community so much."
"There is no substitute for meaningful interaction," Ali said. "You can't watch a YouTube video and all of the sudden (it) teaches you how people are. You've got to be purposeful about how you live your life when it comes to meeting others."
Dement shared her story about how her views changed when she and her husband fostered and later adopted their biracial son, which she said resulted in her being cut off from family.
"It wasn't until we fostered and adopted our son, who is biracial, and so our son is of color, that I realized the amount of privilege that I had as a white woman in Auburn," said Dement, who added that she wants to make Auburn a better place for all children living in the city.
Halperin, who grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and has a wife who is Catholic and a son who is agnostic, said he liked the feelings that were being shared at the meeting and suggested that the inclusion of "churches" in a mission statement offered by Bradshaw was problematic.
"Diversity for me has been a life experience, which doesn't mean that I don't have room to grow, but I have a foundation," he said. "I'd like to take a little bit of a different approach. I like all the hands-on kinds of suggestions that are made, and Mrs. Bradshaw, I think you brought a good beginning for us. But let me address a couple of things that are a little bit more global. The first goes to the mission statement where the word churches is included. Now, that excludes the Islamic Center because they're not a 'church.' Beth Shalom, the Jewish synagogue, is not a church.
"So in terms of diversity, if we're thinking about that as a committee, perhaps we should broaden our view right there that this community is made up of many faith groups.
"I think that any mission statement, we should try to broaden it as much as we can to be as inclusive and respectful of the richness of differences in the Auburn community," Halperin added, noting that there are also members of the community who are atheist or agnostic.
He also said there is a need for more inclusion and diversity on the city's boards and commissions.
The Diversity Task Force has not yet set a time or place for a second meeting.