Justice official offers mediation services to strengthen community

Pine Bluff resident Monroe Isadore, 107, was eulogized after his death in a police shooting in September as a kind and Godly man who loved his community. His death and subsequent community tensions were the inspiration for a visit to Pine Bluff on Wednesday by U. S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service mediator Reatta D. Forte.

Forte met in City Council Chambers on Wednesday afternoon with around 20 community leaders, including Mayor Debe Hollingsworth, Aldermen George Stepps and Bill Brumett, Southeast Arkansas College President Steven Hilterbran, the Rev. Gary Bell of Pine Bluff First Assembly of God and Arkansas NAACP President Dale Charles.

“We work with communities to prevent and respond to alleged violent hate crimes committed on the basis of actual or perceived race, color, national origin, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion or disability,” Forte said. “We say we are America’s peacemakers. Quite often community residents for whatever reason don’t feel that they can reach out to the mayor or members of the City Council to express concerns that they have and this can lead to tension.”

Forte said she was heartened to see a strong cross-section of community leaders present at Wednesday’s meeting.

“In order to have a true community dialogue you must have representatives of all community groups present and today I see not just Caucasians and not just African-Americans but instead a mix,” Forte said.

Hollingsworth agreed that open communication with members of the community is critical.

“When introducing change into a community there is an educational timeline there,” Hollingsworth said. “You will have some push-back regardless of what you do. Any city that is trying to move forward is going to have that.”

Brummet praised Hollingsworth for instituting regular town hall meetings as a key aspect of her administration.

Forte agreed that town halls are important and said that her agency is planning to host its own town hall meetings.

“The meetings that we conduct are held with members of the community only,” Forte said. “We don’t invite any of the community leadership so that people can speak freely about their concerns. My role is then to take that information and relay it to the mayor, the city council and other community leaders.”

Forte stressed that elected leaders need to remember that they represent their entire community, not just the people who elected them.

“It is the duty of community leaders to come together and represent the needs of the whole community and not just individual constituents,” Forte said. “You are there to represent the needs of the entire community. You don’t have to like everyone that you work with in city government but you do have to work with them for the good of everyone in the community.”

Forte said that during her time in the military she learned that regardless of your personal feelings for another service member, when it was time to complete a mission everyone worked together.

Bell said he was impressed with what Forte had to say.

“You have convinced me that you are a true third party and that is very important,” Bell said. “To have someone who won’t be persuaded to one side or another. I believe that things in Pine Bluff are trending in the right direction.”

Hollingsworth said it is important for the community to know that there is someone available to help who is a true third party who can help to resolve festering problems.

“It is important for our community to understand that there are go-to people outside our city who can help with any conflict no matter what the conflict is,” Hollingsworth said. “That way the emphasis can be placed back on what is best for the community.