Summit Against Racism marks 20 years of speaking out and re-energizing activists in Pittsburgh

Head to East Liberty this Saturday to participate.

2017 Summit Against Racism

2017 Summit Against Racism

Germaine Williams / courtesy of Summit Against Racism
MJ Slaby

Some years, hundreds of people attended. Other years, it was a few dozen that kept it going. Two years ago, roughly 500 people showed up in a snow storm. Last year, more than 700 people participated.

Saturday marks the 20th year for the Summit Against Racism, an annual one-day conference about race relations created by the Black & White Reunion and hosted by the Metro-Urban Institute at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

“We look at the summit as an opportunity to re-energize in a new year,” said Tim Stevens, chairman and CEO of the Black Political Empowerment Project and a former NAACP Pittsburgh president who helped start the summit. “In the eye of a political and social hurricane, what do we do?”

Stevens is in awe of the number of people who attended the the last two summits despite a snow storm and despite being the same day as the Women’s March on Pittsburgh and the Our Feminism Must Be Intersectional March/Rally.

“I’m blown away by the commitment of the people, I was so moved by that,” Stevens said.

This year, the summit features more than 48 workshops as well as speakers including Leon Ford and Damon Young. There will also be a pre-recorded video message from the family of Jonny Gammage, whose 1995 death led to the creation of the summit. The theme is “The Struggle Continues: Healing Trauma, Building Community, and Inspiring Action.”

“One of my fears is that people are almost paralyzed and traumatized,” Stevens said, adding that current climate has drastically changed what is considered “normal.” But there’s an energy that people know they can’t be intimidated and “cannot shrivel up and die.”


Attend the 20th annual Summit Against Racism

Join the annual one-day conference on race relations created by the Black & White Reunion and hosted by the Metro-Urban Institute at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Admission includes breakfast and lunch, speakers, workshops and more. Reduced admission is available for students, seniors, groups of 10 or more and low-income attendees. No one will be turned away for lack of funds. Registration will be open at the door. Attendance is capped at 750. The Pittsburgh Theological Seminary is wheelchair accessible. Registration and breakfast starts at 8 a.m. Saturday.  

Where:Pittsburgh Theological Seminary at 616 N Highland Ave (East Liberty)

When:January 20, 2018 from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

How much:$30

The summit, always held on the Saturday after MLK Day, is largely volunteer-run and registration fees go to costs for the summit, which includes two meals for attendees, as well as to the Jonny Gammage Memorial Scholarship, given to University of Pittsburgh or Duquesne University law students of color interested in civil rights and social justice issues.

Despite being 20 years old, the event is more relevant than ever, said Ann Mason, one of the original organizers. “Trump woke people up and more people have been active.”

The summit is a place that brings people together face-to-face and builds community and connections, she said.

Not everyone fights racism in the same way, added Yvette Shipman, this year’s event coordinator. The summit allows people to find the activism that is best for them.

Last year, people were in shock over the election of President Donald Trump and that same level of shock has continued as his administration has been clear about his intentions with immigrants, people of color and poor people, Shipman said. A lot of people are in pain and are hurt, but they are also hungry to know what to do, she said.

Tim Stevens speaks at the 2017 Summit Against Racism.

Tim Stevens speaks at the 2017 Summit Against Racism.

Germaine Williams / courtesy of Summit Against Racism

Building a summit

Mason was getting ready to call Gammage shortly before his death in 1995. At the time, she worked for the Hunger Services Network and wanted to talk to him about Thanksgiving. Gammage, a local business man and cousin of former Steelers defensive end Ray Seals, had helped with donations in the past.

But on Oct. 12, 1995, Gammage, who was black, died from suffocation after an altercation during a traffic stop by five white police officers from Brentwood, Baldwin and Whitehall within the Pittsburgh city limits. A coroner’s jury recommended homicide charges against all five officers; only three were charged with involuntary manslaughter, per a Post-Gazette timeline. The court cases ended with a mistrial and charges dismissed for two officers and not guilty for the third.

Mason and thousands of others participated in Downtown protests. Meetings related to those protests led to the creation of the Black & White Reunion and later, the summit.

Early summits focused on police brutality, but since then, the event has evolved to also include topics such as environmental justice and issues impacting the Asian, Latino, LGBTQIA+  and Muslim communities in Pittsburgh. A Racial Justice Town Hall was added in 2017.

A few years ago, people started asking why the summit was organized by a group called the Black & White Reunion, instead of a more multicultural name, Stevens said.

When it was created, it was about black and white people coming together to speak out about issues with the police, he said. But as the summit evolved, it was clear the name needed to be altered slightly to make people feel welcome and acknowledge that not everyone in Pittsburgh is black or white.

Starting in 2016, the event’s full name is now “Summit Against Racism: A Multicultural Initiative of the Black & White Reunion.”

If the different groups facing oppression can come together, there is strength in numbers, Shipman added. Not only do organizers work to have a diverse set of workshops, but they also plan for diversity in presenters.

Presenters who are white pair up with a presenters of color and that allows for added viewpoints, Shipman said. “It’s all about perspective.”

New this year is a workshop led and created by Pittsburgh police officers about “Group Violence Intervention.”

Presented by public safety staff, including police, the workshop includes an overview of group violence intervention to explain how police work with the community to reduce violent crime and provide social services to people impacted by those crimes, said Assistant Chief Lavonnie Bickerstaff. It will also include information on procedural justice — how police use fairness as crime prevention, she said.

Although officers have attended the summit before and will again this year, this is the first time police have presented, and that’s a sign of how much police and community relations have grown in 20 years, Bickerstaff said. Every day, police strive to work with the community and keep Pittsburghers alive and out of jail, she said.

Given how the summit started, to have the police lead a workshop is a breakthrough for a new day in Pittsburgh, Stevens said.

Although some organizers had mixed feelings about adding police as presenters, Shipman believes that in the end, it’s a good thing.

If the officers come with an open mind and there is dialogue, then both sides can hear from each other to inform later interactions with each other, she said, adding there often isn’t a lot of trust between police and communities of color. “We will have an individual who can speak loud and clear about that — Leon Ford.”

2017 Summit Against Racism

2017 Summit Against Racism

Germaine Williams / courtesy of Summit Against Racism

If you go

Stevens said his biggest hope for attendees of the summit is that they leave with a specific action of activism — signing a petition, plans to go to a public meeting or volunteering with an organization. “You don’t have to create something that’s around 20 years later,” it can be a short-term action, he said.

Shipman agreed. Attendees should come “to find their activist within, because there is plenty of work to do.” If attendees don’t have a chance to say everything they want to say, she said they can write it down and share it with organizers to inform the 2019 summit.

The Incline asked organizers for their tips for first-time attendees. Here’s their advice:

  1. Take a look at the planning committee’s definition for racism, Shipman said. Knowing this will help inform conversations during the workshops.
  2. Look at the workshop descriptions in advance and start thinking about which ones to attend, said Thea Young, outreach coordinator for the summit. See a full list. The workshops include topics like:
    • Disability Justice: Unlocking Cages and Classrooms
    • Asian and Black Coalition Building in the US
    • A Healing Pause: Yoga for Processing Trauma
  3. Read the summit’s community agreements, Shipman said.
  4. At the summit, visit the booths in the community resource room to talk to organizations and meet new people, Young said.