Johnny C. Johnson
As I sit and contemplate the current situation in a city and county that I have called home for 52 years, my view is one of dissipating optimism. What seems to have been rays of hope generated in Erie, a city cited as the worst in the nation for African Americans in the areas of economics, employment, income, housing, education, social mobility, and political gains has once again reverted, as scripture says, to a pig having cleaned itself returning to wallow in the mud. This is the county where racism was declared a public health crisis (see goerie.com, Matthew Rink, Sept. 3, 2020).
When Erie was coming face to face with all it was not to those representing the minority community, there was a glimmer of hope that the data provided would motivate the political system to see the inadequacies that years of neglect have wreaked on these communities and embarked on valid long-term solutions in eliminating them. (The Many Faces of Poverty in Erie – ErieReader, Rebecca Styn, March 5, 2014).
As COVID-19 hit with all of its ramifications economically and health-wise, the disadvantaged and communities of color were adversely affected. COVID wreaked havoc on the American economy and specifically on the lives of those Americans who were just surviving. The federal government saw the need during this crisis to build a wall of protection through the enactment of the American Rescue Plan (ARP). This funding source was a means of putting a finger in the dike of economic and social turmoil faced by communities.
This funding was to aid communities in all aspects of rebuilding themselves economically and socially. It was to aid and enhance communities — with equity for all being a primary prerequisite.
Moving forward in the chain of events Diverse Erie, as it is now called, became a commission with members appointed by the Erie County Council to be a conduit for the allocation of funding. From the Erie County website, “The County must allocate, or determine how grant dollars are to be used, by December 31, 2024, and spend all grant funding by December 31, 2026. Grant funds are being deployed over a five-year period to help Erie County in Building a Better Future for its residents.”
How this funding and the funds were allocated has now come under question by the present County Executive Brenton Davis overriding how these funds were allocated and impugning the character of the commission and those members who he dismissed. He did not recognize the procedure in which votes and recusals were done in line with the established rules — a procedure that was certified as being correct by those legal minds who oversaw the process and testified that it was done according to the rules. He said that he perceived that there was a conflict of interest and what he deemed as an impropriety, which has been denied by the county legal team.
During this period he dismissed minority members of the commission without any rational reasoning other than his own beliefs. What is going on, is there a hint of non-transparency? If we look at the Diverse Erie grants that were purportedly gained illegally by those organizations according to the County Executive, the amount would be equal to a small portion of the $5 million he proposes to give to Wabtec and Penn State Behrend under the guise of economic growth and job development. Is not that the same purpose of those organizations — to better the lives of those they serve?
The work of visionaries who helped write and develop the Erie Together aspiration statement, “working together to make the Erie Region a community of opportunity where everyone can learn, work and thrive” now seems like another balloon of hope released and floating aimlessly into the space of nothingness.
My question to the Erie community is a biblical one, “How long will you hesitate between two opinions?” You have to determine what is right and just for all citizens. There are no checks and balances in the current political system. Those who wield power economically and socially must become the voice for the disenfranchised for those to whom the system has turned a blind eye. Can we say to ourselves as a community, “we are better than this” or will continue to eat from the plates of indifference, apathy, and selfishness to deny to others that which we fully enjoy?
The book of Haggai 1:4-7 should have us cringe as we live our daily lives, “Is it time for you, O ye, to dwell in your paneled houses, and this house lie in waste? Now therefore thus saith the Lord of hosts; Consider your ways. Ye have sown much, and bring in little; ye eat, but ye have not enough; ye drink, but ye are not filled with drink; ye clothe you, but there is none warm, and he that earneth wages earneth wages to put it into a bag with holes. Thus saith the Lord of hosts; Consider your ways. Go up to the mountain, and bring wood, and build the house; I will take pleasure in it, and I will be glorified, saith the Lord. Ye looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when ye brought it home, I did blow upon it. Why? saith the Lord of hosts. Because of mine house that is waste, and ye run every man unto his own house. Therefore the heaven over you is stayed from dew, and the earth is stayed from her fruit.”
Once again we hear the voice of the oppressor who continuously takes away those things that will enable us to live productive and fruitful lives when the minority community is told again and again “to make bricks without straw.”
I leave for my Erie community the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr:
“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.
There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor political nor popular, but he must take it because his conscience tells him it is right.
The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Johnny C. Johnson is a retired Erie School District teacher.