Community Action Partnership of Sonoma County hosts weekly panels on race with community leaders

The nonprofit has created a digital forum for discussions that often happen away from the public eye, examining sometimes uncomfortable topics about race with local thought leaders, professionals, public officials and ordinary residents.|

On Community Action Partnership’s weekly livestream about the county’s struggles with systemic racism, Santa Rosa Police Chief Ray Navarro suddenly faced questions from prominent local organizers about the safety of protesters.

Joy Ayodele and Amber Lucas, two activists that have led local Black Lives Matter marches over the past few months, Monday night recounted personal tales when drivers or agitators confronted protest crowds in sometimes violent or menacing ways.

The two women were critical of what they viewed as a disparity in police presence and response times from officers when it came to protesters decrying racial injustice versus people rallying in support of police.

Navarro disputed some of their points, but asked to have a separate conversation so they can establish a system that provides protection from agitators but doesn’t dissuade protesters who would be wary of a large police presence.

As the city’s first Latino police chief leading one of the county’s largest law enforcement agencies, Navarro has been in the center of the community tension between policing and protesters.

“The ultimate goal for me is to stop the behavior,” Navarro said during the broadcast, reiterating his desire to hire a new police auditor. “We’re all human and make mistakes. As law enforcement, we’re held to a higher standard because we’re given a lot of authority. We shouldn’t abuse that, so it’s important we have those balancing measures.”

The trio jostled on issues like oversight, safety for marchers and tangible reforms that could restore trust between local communities of color and law enforcement sworn to protect them.

“I would agree tensions get high with the high visibility of uniformed officers, and it gets even worse when they’re in riot gear,” Lucas said. “I agree that’s a conversation we need to have.”

These types of exchanges have become commonplace for Community Action Partnership of Sonoma County’s “Community Conversations on Race” series, which is streamed live on Facebook every Monday.

The nonprofit has created a platform for discussions that often happen away from the public eye, examining sometimes uncomfortable topics about race with local thought leaders, professionals, public officials and ordinary residents.

The series was started by Marcus Clarke and Katie Whitaker, two communications staffers for the Sonoma County branch of CAP, who have cultivated a following that’s eager for these local forums. Each episode is averaging 2,000 views since the series began in mid-June.

For Clarke, who has also joined some of the weekly panels, it’s become a tool to challenge narratives about the Black experience in Sonoma County and explore questions other residents have tried to raise during the nationwide reckoning over racial equality.

“Our hopes and dreams are not taken into consideration when we are the ones who often bear the brunt of policies,” Clarke said. “This gives us an opportunity to explore those things with — not just Black people — but all communities. There’s never been a space and venue I have been a part of that involves the whole community to explore these things.”

Like many, Clarke and Whitaker were inspired to act after George Floyd was killed May 25 in Minneapolis police custody, sparking protests and greater calls for change around the country.

The original plan was to do an eight-part series, Whitaker said, but the reaction to the first few episodes was so strong that they decided to make it permanent.

In the first livestream, CAP’s director of community engagement Vince Harper shared a candid and vulnerable perspective of someone exploring the issues raised after Floyd’s death.

Other episodes have offered advice for families trying to have these conversations with their children, or four Black men and women opening up about generational trauma or racism they’ve experienced in Sonoma County.

Some of the most popular episodes have garnered nearly 3,000 views.

“It went from that to seeing the response from the community and seeing this was a need that needed to be filled and people wanted to talk about this,” Whitaker said. “People needed a forum, and now we’ll be doing this indefinitely.”

The coronavirus pandemic has forced much of daily life online, but for CAP’s conversations on race, that’s allowed each broadcast to have a wider reach, Whitaker said. Hundreds of people will tune in live, and many will leave comments or ask questions during the stream, which moderators will sometimes bring up with their panelists.

“People are home. People need to connect with others,” Whitaker said. “This is the opportune moment to get peoples’ attention and get them involved in this conversation.”

Race can be an emotionally charged topic, and is often difficult for people who are afraid of saying the wrong thing, or don’t want to reveal they might not be as informed, Clarke said.

He and Whitaker are still learning how to moderate conversations and be respectful of all viewpoints. The learning is ongoing, Clarke said, but they have the shield of a national organization to help them take those chances, and are hopeful they can be a voice for those who aren’t ready to use theirs just yet.

“People don’t know how to have those conversations,” Clarke said, “so we’re taking the risk of doing it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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