A group of Southeast Raleigh residents started the conversation in 1990, when drugs were rampant and it was taboo to talk about all the people dying of AIDS.
The Friends Committee remains at the table – with a whole lot more to discuss.
The nonprofit will host the Southeast Raleigh Community Empowerment Fair from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, July 30, at the Chavis Community Center.
Forty vendors will share what they know and how they can help us help ourselves in the areas of housing, community sustainability, food access, health and wellness, civic engagement, entrepreneurial support and development, and transportation.
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Timing is crucial. Southeast Raleigh is a hotbed of gentrification, but it is also a food desert that lacks easy access to healthy, fresh and affordable food.
Corridor after corridor is disappearing under a rug of urbanization with buy-low-sell-high tactics. Rising property values are pricing out current and lifelong low-income residents and small businesses – an unwelcome change to the area’s legacy as a cradle of African-American history.
Southeast Raleigh is also apathetic. The need for voter education, registration and participation remains at an all-time high. So does the push for folks to embrace civic duties and engage in local politics and community advocacy around education, criminal justice, health care, fitness and economic development.
Meanwhile, the area is a pawn in Wake County’s transit plan. If voters approve the $2.3 billion plan in November, the county will see an increase in bus service. But some fear changing a system currently tailored to low-income residents will lure more high-end development, skyrocket property values and hasten gentrification.
“When you see the storm coming, you have to be willing to do some work to protect your interest, to protect your home and to protect your neighbor’s home,” said Aaliyah Blaylock, 38, whose father, Johnny, is founder and current president of the Friends Committee. “If we don’t look at what’s out there to help us improve our housing or sustain our communities, we’re going to get caught in that storm.
“Getting caught in the storm means we’ll become storm debris, so we’re coming together to empower each other to get the information we need to make sure we’re bolted down.”
When the Friends Committee started more than two decades ago, a storm had hit.
“And no one, medically or spiritually, was touching the issue of black people dying with AIDS,” said Johnny Blaylock, 66. “Those infected and affected – committee members had family and friends dying, too – needed an advocate. They needed someone to speak up for them.”
Group members spoke at area churches, hosted a candlelight vigil, lobbied legislators and landed Earvin “Magic” Johnson, a former professional basketball player who has AIDS, to speak at an educational forum at St. Augustine’s University.
The group became the first black-issues-focused group certified as an AIDS educator by the American Red Cross, Johnny Blaylock said.
Over the years, the group has focused on everything from voter registration and political action to employment and police relations.
Months before Akiel Denkins’ death added Raleigh to the sobering national trend of black men killed by white cops, the Friends Committee called for police body cameras and a citizen review board.
The group also joined Raleigh Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown to host a series of community-police roundtables across Raleigh, Johnny Blaylock said.
“We have always been the tip of the steer in terms of being grassroots,” he said.
Friends Committee member Ollie Hooker is pleased his initial idea to host a health fair blossomed into a bigger conversation.
“Black people are in trouble, and information and knowledge is one way to help us out of this trouble,” said Hooker, 64. “Hopefully, it will give us a larger voice.”