A diverse mixture of political, civic and civil rights leaders participated in a town hall meeting to discuss the problems that Blacks faced and what direction should be taken under a new presidential administration in 2017.

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During the CBC conference’s National Town Hall Sept. 15, Valerie Jarrett spoke about President Obama’s accomplishments during his time in office. (Courtesy Photo)

The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation hosted its annual National Town Hall meeting on Sept. 15 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in downtown D.C. U.S. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), one of the conference’s co-chairs, told an estimated 400 people that the Nov. 8 general election is crucial to the future of the U.S.

“This election will be decided by the people,” Bass said. “Our issues are America’s issues and now more than ever, disparities in education, employment and health care cannot continue to leave our communities behind.”

Participants in the panel included: Rep. Robert ‘Bobby’ Scott (D-Va.); Julianne Malveaux, a nationally recognized economist and writer; Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League; LaTanja Silvester, president, Service Employees International Union; Brittany Packnett, vice president National Community Alliances, Teach for America; Jahmal Miller, deputy director, Office of Health Equity, California Department of Public Health; and Melina Abdullah, professor and chair, the Pan-African studies department at California State University.

The moderator for the program was April Ryan, White House correspondent and bureau chief of the American Urban Radio Network. Before the discussion began, Valerie Jarrett, the senior political adviser to President Obama, talked about the accomplishments of the nation’s first Black commander-in-chief.

“Thank you for your support for our president and our country,” Jarrett said. “What an eight years it has been. In 2009, we were losing 800,000 jobs a month and unemployment was at 10 percent, with it being higher for African Americans. Today, we are at a 5.6 unemployment rate and, as has been reported in the news, middle class incomes are rising for the first time since 1999.”

Jarret mentioned the passage and successful implementation of the Affordable Care Act and the highest high school graduation rate in the nation’s history. She also spoke about the troubled criminal justice system and said it needed reform, noting that the president commuted the sentences of 673 inmates and pointed out the work of former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and current Attorney General Loretta Lynch in fighting voter suppression.

“I encourage everyone to vote,” Jarrett said. “Not just for president, but for state’s attorney, judges and state legislators–those legislators will draw the lines for the 2020 census.”

The election generated a lot of discussion among the panelists. Miller said that Blacks need to be fully engaged in the political process.

“Many Black people only see voting as the means for change,” he said. “We have to change our game beyond just voting. We have to show up for hearings in Washington, our state capitols, our county seats and city halls.”

The Pew Research Center released data in 2013 that showed, for the first time, Blacks voted at a higher rate for the 2012 election cycle than Whites. Sylvester said that Blacks need to be more actively engaged politically “and make sure that the right people are elected to office.”

Packnett said that she intends to vote in the November election but confesses that many of her fellow millennials may not.

“The presidential candidates aren’t addressing the issues that affect us,” she said. “We have to ask why?”

Morial, the former mayor of New Orleans, took issue with Packnett ‘s concerns.

“You are not the first generation that is frustrated,” he said. “Voting is a responsibility, it’s not like buying ice cream. I agree that we need to protest and make our concerns heard but it is not a viable strategy for Black people not to vote.”

The other topics that were discussed weren’t debated so passionately. The panelists supported the Black Lives Matter movement and favored ending the prison-industrial complex in which people of color fueled its profits by being incarcerated.

“We have five percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population,” Morial said. “In my home state of Louisiana, many towns’ primary industry is the prison that created jobs for the people and supports local businesses. This is an example of misplaced priorities.”