The impact that conversations and community can have on social issues — from their role in bringing an end to apartheid to how that same approach can be used to combat local problems such as hunger — was the focal point Friday of the inaugural “The Conversation With …”
The event, held at the Tulsa Country Club, featured rock musician Taylor Hanson as presenter and a guest of honor, former U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Edward Perkins.
“One of the things we hope to do is inspire new ideas,” Hanson said. “Our hope is that we will be led to an idea built on collaboration that can benefit hunger in Tulsa. That idea is the very beginning of the discussion because hunger is the gateway to so many things.”
As the first black U.S. ambassador to South Africa, Perkins was given a unique assignment by President Ronald Reagan to help dismantle apartheid without violence and to make sure Nelson Mandela was freed from prison.
To do so, Perkins said, he went into the various South African communities and urged them to join together to make change.
“We very quickly learned that if we were going to have any success in South Africa, it had to be a community effort,” Perkins said. “I thought it would be useful to get the communities to come out against apartheid en masse.”
Perkins recalled visiting houses of worship from many faiths as well as both the white and black communities, where the residents were in equally bad conditions, urging them to form bonds.
“We cultivated leaders in those communities,” he said, adding that Mandela sent him a letter of encouragement stating that the community approach was the correct approach. “He said ‘We are a rainbow nation and everyone has to work together.’ ”
“The Conversation With …” was also a fundraiser for the Iron Gate soup kitchen and a chance for Hanson to highlight a new collective partnership called Food on the Move, which is designed to take healthy and affordable food into food deserts.
Hanson said that the idea stemmed from talking with Perkins and Connie Cronley, executive director of Iron Gate, about community capitalism, or the commitment to the community by its members from businesses, nonprofits and government.
“We talked about ideas that could come to bear to face hunger differently and that brought the concept of looking at the food deserts that are spread across the city and connecting them with the community,” he said.
Perkins, who most recently served as executive director of the University of Oklahoma’s International Program Center, added that strong communities make strong nations.
“If we have kids who don’t get an education or who don’t get enough to eat, we will have a weaker nation because of that,” Perkins said. “Hungry children do not exhibit their best skills. They do what’s necessary to exist.”