It's time to turn the page on what divides us and more letters from members of the Council Against Hate

Andy Berke

Editor's note: As a country, as a state and as a city, we have made progress in fostering understanding and relationship-building to drive out bias and hate. The work is not finished, however. Today several members of Mayor Andy Berke's newly formed Council Against Hate speak about the issue. The mayor gets the discussion started:

It's time to turn the page on what divides us

Hate is on the rise in our country - and here in Tennessee. As of a couple of years ago, the FBI ranked Tennessee ninth in total number of hate crimes in the United States. Earlier this year, the Southern Poverty Law Center counted 37 active hate groups at work in our state.

We see the spread of those toxic ideologies everywhere, from increased vandalism on our schools and houses of worship, to neo-Nazis marching on our state capitols and college campuses, to the widespread rise of bullying among adolescents on social media.

It is easy to become numb to the violence in our midst, or perhaps worse, resigned to feeling that nothing can be done. Is this the new normal in America?

I refuse to accept that. My family came to America a century ago fleeing persecution because this country offered a promise of prosperity, hope and peace unlike any other on earth. We owe it to our ancestors and future generations of refugees to keep that promise alive.

Hate speech and violent extremism are global problems, but I believe the solutions begin at the local level. That's what Chattanooga's new Council Against Hate is all about. While law enforcement agencies work tirelessly to keep the public safe from violence, a city of creators will look for new ways to combat hatred by building relationships in every corner of our community. The Council Against Hate is open to everyone as we must unite to make an affirmative statement about the kind of city we are: open, tolerant and profoundly aware that diversity forms the core of our economic and cultural strength.

After July 16, 2015, our city was held up as a model of how to respond to terrorism. We can also be a model of how to stop the hate that inspires it in the first place.

- Mayor Andy Berke

Global economy is here; we must help the community adapt

Hate is often connected to globalization and a sense of being taken advantage of and being overlooked. Jobs in a global economy often require new skills that are not accessible to all. Even as industries increase their presence on American soil, the gap between needed employees and prepared workers is an ongoing topic of discussion. As noted in articles published in both the Times Free Press and Edge Magazine, there isn't enough skilled talent in Chattanooga to staff international companies and their vendors.

Despite all the efforts made by local industry, schools and higher education over the past decade, our ability to provide adequate staff is limited. One consequence of that limitation has been to import workers from around the country. While this adds to our growth and economy, it further marginalizes those who are unable and unprepared for the jobs of the future. The alienation and isolation that this produces is felt in many regions, intensifying depression, despair, even hate.

Chattanooga has responded strongly to the skills gap through education, and rightly so. But technology teaching and training must be spread more widely, consistently and continually, if we are to deflect the isolation phenomenon. In addition, there should be preparation for serving on diverse teams, the new normal for the workplace. The teams' diversity is an intersection of ethnicity, nationality and religion as well as the more traditional categories of race, gender and generation. Education needs to include cultural competence to avoid misunderstandings and unnecessary conflicts. Training for unconscious bias, especially for those whose exposure to this broad diversity has been limited, can boost that competence.

Chattanooga is a model for transformation into a global economy. But if segments of our population lack skills to be hired and others lack team skills to progress in their jobs, then resentment will rise to the surface and hate can replace hope.

Deborah Levine, an author and trainer/coach, is editor of the American Diversity Report and a regular Chattanooga Times columnist. Contact her at

All citizens should share guaranteed freedoms, rights

Imagine being fired from your job, evicted from your home, refused service in a restaurant or refused medical care because of who you love.

This is the reality that some of the more than 20,000 LGBTQ+ residents of Hamilton County face every single day. Same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states, but Tennessee is one of 31 states that doesn't fully protect LGBTQ+ people from employment, housing or public accommodations discrimination.

I grew up in Chattanooga, and spent a few years working in Silicon Valley for tech startups. Upon returning to Chattanooga in 2016, I visited a local walk-in health clinic for a bad case of bronchitis. As a former asthma sufferer, I knew how dangerous this could be without proper treatment.

The doctor walked in and seemed confused. He glanced down at my chart - which still bore my former name - and back up at me, the realization that I was transgender apparently dawning on him. "I'm sorry, I don't know how to help you," he said.

I was stunned. "I just have a chest cold, I just need -," I began to protest, but he cut me off.

"You'll need to go to someone else," he said, exiting the room.

I found a doctor who had no problems treating me. She was enraged at my experience.

We must guarantee civil rights for this community, because all of us – no matter our gender, race, faith or sexual orientation - deserve the same rights and freedoms guaranteed to all other Americans.

Visit to learn more about efforts in Chattanooga to expand protections for citizens like me.

Samantha Boucher is the executive director of the Chattanooga Queer Community Forum and a tech entrepreneur and activist.

Let's get comfortable with discomfort

Hate flourishes in the absence of real knowledge. We saw that after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York City and in the immediate aftermath of the terrible July 16, 2015, shooting here in Chattanooga.

Shortly after the July 16 attacks, a local megachurch hosted a supposed expert on Islam to speak but a Google search showed me that this man had no historical and theological basis for his comments about my religion, which he characterized as one of unceasing terror and fervent anti-American bloodlust. In our city's most vulnerable and shattered moment, I feared this man wanted to foment rage and resentment, the result being retributive violence against innocent Muslims like my family and myself.

I decided to go to the event at the church. I won't lie - I was pretty nervous. Most people were surprised to see me there. Some were obviously agitated and clearly wished I had not come. But I had a responsibility to ensure that lies about Islam did not go unchallenged.

What resulted was a respectful, if sometimes tense, discussion about faith. I was able to offer first-hand testimony about the lived experience of a Muslim in the South. My humble presence allowed Christians to see, perhaps for the first time, what Islam looked and sounded like - a father, a businessman, a neighbor, a Chattanoogan.

From time to time, we must all go into uncomfortable spaces to have uncomfortable conversations. Discomfort is often rooted in the recognition that perceptions and beliefs need to be challenged. This is painful, messy, time-consuming work but it is essential to the act of building community.

Revealing truths about ourselves and our communities makes it impossible for others to hide behind the cloak of ignorance. In that way, peace is possible.

Bassam Issa, a commercial real estate developer, is president of the Annoor Academy and co-founder of the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga.

Keep the faith; there's work to be done

I have been studying and taking part in non-violent civil rights work my entire life. Reading the news these days, I'm both heartened and distressed. I'm heartened because more young people are becoming more involved with trying to eliminate racism, discrimination and hatred in our communities than at any point in the last several decades. I'm distressed because 50 years after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., it appears we still have work to do.

The politics of our current age are intent on separating us and turning us against each other. The freedoms that we fought for - and some died for - decades ago have still not been fully realized. Discrimination is a fact of life, which we see in extreme ways, like the organizing of hate groups, but also in more subtle ways, like legal voter suppression of minorities. What decade are we living in?

As the legendary civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy said, "I don't know what the future may hold, but I know who holds the future." Those who would seek to perpetuate discrimination against blacks, against immigrants, against people of different religions do not and can never hold this country's future.

Voter turnout across the country in the 2018 midterms was at its strongest in over 100 years, which means that democracy is very much alive in our country.

Peace and progress in America are still possible, but it's up to us to push back every day and in every way against efforts to deny our humanity and denigrate our communities. Meet, march, protest, organize, and above all, vote. Don't get turned around and don't get tired now. There's work to be done.

Moses Freeman, is the former Chattanooga City Councilman for District 8 and a lifelong community organizer and volunteer.

Empower the community to develop shared values, mutual respect

We convened the first meeting of Chattanooga's new Council Against Hate in mid-October, at a time when America seemed gripped by a fever of hate crimes and violent extremism. Since that meeting, more than a dozen pipe bombs were delivered to media organizations and politicians around the country; two African-Americans were gunned down in a racially-motivated attack inside a Louisville grocery store; and the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in our nation's history occurred when 11 individuals were killed during a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

None of that could have been anticipated when the Council Against Hate was formed, but those acts give our mission extra prescience and its mandate more urgency.

According to the Anti-Defamation League's "pyramid of hate," communities gradually permit and normalize dangerous incidents of bias until they eventually lead to lethal violence. Hateful comments online can lead to verbal epithets directed toward real people, and eliminationist rhetoric can lead to deliberate acts of terror at places of worship, college campuses and other supposed safe havens. Demeaning stereotypes rooted in centuries of tribalism shape the ways Americans relate to each other every day. As a council and as citizens, we owe it to the future generations to address and eliminate such behavior at the base of the pyramid.

Everything the Council Against Hate plans to do will be rooted in a framework of educating, empowering and affecting members of our community. To achieve our vision of living in a community free from hate, discrimination and intolerance, we believe we must:

* Engage influencers in the business community, neighborhoods, faith community, media and others to model cultural expectations around shared values of civility, respect, and inclusiveness.

* Drive generational change from the bottom-up by educating young people about consequences of bias, discrimination and hate crimes to positively influence adults' rhetoric and behavior.

* Create a coherent and consistent policy framework and set of tools to deter hate crimes through enforced laws while sharing tools and resources with others we believe will result in a sense of shared ownership to eradicate hate crime in our community.

We cannot do this alone. Please visit and lend your voice to our work. With your help, hate in our community must, can, and will end.

Alison Lebovitz, co-founder and president of the nonprofit One Clip at a Time, hosts the PBS weekly interview series "The A List with Alison Lebovitz." Wade Hinton, former city attorney for Chattanooga, is vice president of diversity and inclusion at Unum.