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ESSENCE Festival 2013: Empowerment Experience highlights

Beyond the msnbc Studio Square experience, Reverend Al Sharpton, Melissa Harris-Perry, Mara Schiavocampo, and Joy-Ann Reid played an important role in shaping
Icon of Civil Rights panel
Icon of Civil Rights panel

Beyond the msnbc Studio Square experience, Reverend Al Sharpton, Melissa Harris-Perry, Mara Schiavocampo, and Joy-Ann Reid played an important role in shaping the discussions on the Empowerment Stage at the ESSENCE Festival in New Orleans. The theme: Be Fearless in Your Community.

Icons of the Civil Rights Movement

Sharpton moderated the "Icons of Civil Rights Movement" conversation with panelists Myrlie Evers-Williams, Congressman John Lewis, Shirley Sherrod, and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes. They began by addressing the rampant structural racism that continues to exist 50 years after the Voting Rights Act was passed.

Shirley Sherrod reflected on being forced to resign as the State Director of the United States Department of Agriculture after giving an address to the NAACP in 2012 that was perceived as racist.

"I am the  only person who's ever been accused of discrimination at USDA, who's been fired from the job, and we've complained about discrimination [at the USDA] since the end of slavery " she said.

Icon of Civil Rights panel

On the theme of discrimination, Congressman Lewis shared why he was happy to be back in New Orleans.

"I was on a Freedom Ride but we never made it, we got arrested," he said, "so it's good to be here one more time."

When Sharpton asked Lewis what he would tell the fallen civil rights leaders, Martin Luther King Jr., A. Phillip Randall, Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, and Medgar Evers, he said, "We got the Voting Rights Act but they tried to take it from us...send us some words. These people are too quiet...send us some inspiration...Yes we've made some progress, but we're not there yet. Yes, we have a black president but it's not Dr. King's fulfillment, it just a down payment."

Finally, in his call to action Lewis urged young people to participate in the 50th annual March on Washington.

"Turn out on August 24," he said, "march like you've never marched before."

In the final lap of the talk, Sharpton asked Myrlie Evers-Williams what advice she would give to young black women.

She said, "Someone told me that I was stronger than I thought I was and I should move forward in the march to freedom. [You need to] believe in yourself or have someone that believes in you. The keyword is believe. Believe in a cause... Find ways to pull people together not just for your families benefit but for everyone else -- that is key."

In closing, each panelist agreed that black people need to understand the suffering and oppression of all marginalized groups in order to get ahead.

Congresswoman Eleanor Norton put it simply, "you gotta get rid of all the 'isms..we [black people] carry the mantle of leading equality."

Where Smart Starts

Melissa Harris-Perry moderated the "Where Smart Starts" panel with education experts: Dr. Steve Perry, Dr. Thelma Baxter, Dr. Michael Lomax, and Karen Harper Royal. They addressed many of the challenges that face our education system from the student loan crisis to learning the differences among students and schools in impoverished neighborhoods. The panel provided constructive guidance to parents with children in the public school system.

Where Smart Starts panel

Karan Royal addressed parents with children who have special needs, "We need to be monitoring the program and the school with IEP [individual education program]. If the school is not providing what it says, we [parents] have to be the checks and balances."

Later she affirmed, "children with disabilities can go to college -- don't let disabilities lower your expectations."

Dr. Perry encouraged parents to take initiative, "just because you were bad in a subject, doesn't mean you can say your child is bad. Do not allow your own expectations to limit your child's ability."

When discussing struggling schools, his message was clear, "Do everything you can do to take your child out of a failed school."

Black Women's Agenda 2013: Moving Forward

Mara Schiavocampo led the forum titled "The Black Women's Agenda 2013: Moving Forward" and featured a wide range of perspectives from Joy-Ann Reid, C. Nicole Mason, Dr. Julianne Malveaux, Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice, and Tamika Mallory on media, leadership, motherhood, and health.

Black Women's Agenda 2013

A substantial amount of time was spent discussing the portrayal of black women in the media, specifically the casting of black women in reality television. All the panelists agreed that these shows tend to choose women who lack self-respect.

Joy-Ann Reid admitted that when publications, like, produce positive news it doesn't get the same attention that the lowly pieces do likes ones on "butt implants" for instance. Nevertheless, Reid urged the audience that "as black people we have to embrace every single one of ourselves."

When the conversation turned to healthcare, Dr. Montgomery Rice shared her 5-step approach to addressing obesity:

1: Acknowledge the problem 2: Set goals 3: Partner with other women to talk about how you are going to exercise 4: Monitor what you eat 5: Look for other resources

She left the crowd with a message of reflection, "Beautiful bodies come in different shapes and sizes... it's about being able to walk up the stairs or play with your kids without being out of's about living longer."