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'If we're not at the table, we're on the menu': Panel urges Black Lehigh Valley residents to get more engaged in politics

David Jones, moderator of Black Wall Street Part 2.
Julian Abraham
David Jones, the moderator for the evening. In his day-job, he is Regional Vice President of Homestead Smart Health Plans.

  • A panel discussion from the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce encouraged Black residents of the valley to become more involved in politics
  • The panel featured five members, all with extensive political experience
  • The discussion was held at Penn State Lehigh Valley's campus

UPPER SAUCON TWP., Pa. — A panel discussion put on by the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce featured a lively discussion, and a prevailing message: get involved in politics.

The panelists Wednesday night brought years of experience serving on boards and commissions throughout Pennsylvania and the country.

The panel put on by the chamber's African American Business Leaders Council was part two of a three-part series called "Black Wall Street," and was held at the Penn State Lehigh Valley campus.

The first panel focused on history, whereas Wednesday night's session focused on the current state of business and politics in the Lehigh Valley, from the perspective of Black residents.

Phoebe Harris, Anette Nance, and Olga Negrón
Julian Abraham
From left to right: Phoebe Harris, Anette Nance, and Olga Negrón.

The panelists were: Michael Laws (chair of the PA Democratic Black Caucus), Anette Nance (executive director of the Governor's Advisory Commission on African American Affairs), Olga Negrón (executive director of the Governor's Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs), and Phoebe Harris (a member of the Allentown School Board.)

The panel was moderated by David Jones, who spent 12 years as a Lehigh County commissioner, as well as being the former vice president of the Allentown Police and Fire Civil Service Board.

'If we're not at the table, we're on the menu'

Jones went through some historical disadvantages that Black residents in the Lehigh Valley have faced, especially in the political realm.

This segued into the first question: "What can we learn from history that speaks to the importance of Black folks being politically active? As well as some of the challenges we are facing today?"

The first to answer was Laws, chair of the PA Democratic Black Caucus. In his role, he covers 67 Pennsylvania counties.

He started his response with a statement that turned heads.

"I think one thing that we really have to understand, is that if we're not at the table, we're on the menu."

Michael Laws
Julian Abraham
Michael Laws, Chair of the PA Democratic Black Caucus.

In the audience, a woman exclaimed after the word "menu." Then, people began to connect-the-dots in their minds, and heads eventually started to nod in assent.

Laws went on to tell the story of the first Black elected commissioner in the Lehigh Valley — who just so happens to be the moderator, David Jones.

"This man here, David Jones, is the first Black elected commissioner in the Lehigh Valley," Laws said. "And during that time, believe me, when we ran campaigns, there were dogs chasing us."

Later, Jones confirmed the story.

"When Mike [Laws] and I dipped our feet into the political ring in the Valley around 2007, it wasn't a popular thing for people of color to be involved and engage politically," Jones said. "I remember us getting dogs sicced on us, running down the street. Right in the West End of Allentown."

Black Wall Street 2 panel discussion
Julian Abraham
A member of the audience asks a question during the Black Wall Street 2 panel discussion on Wednesday.

The evening went on to discuss specific ways for people — specifically people of color — to get involved in politics. The panel noted political organizations such as Democratic and Republican campaign offices that provide resources on how to run for office, and ways to follow county budgets online before they are voted into action.

Being involved politically, according to Wednesday's discussion, was not just about running for office — but also showing up to meetings, following public information, and being aware of what's going on at the local level.

As the evening went on, the panel opened the floor for the entire room of participants. Some of the questions included specifics on getting involved, as well as questions for specific members of the panel about issues they handled during their times in their respective political positions.

At the conclusion, the panelists were met by a standing ovation from the 30 in attendance.

'A room where people get you'

Danielle Joseph, executive vice president of the Diversity Councils with the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce, says the event means a lot to her.

"For me, working with the diversity councils, it's wonderful to have a space where you can talk, feel empowered," she said. "Also be in a room where people 'get you' without even having to say a thing."

Further Black Wall Street panel discussions are planned for the fall, an organizer said, though no specific date has been set.