Sisters With A Purpose group vows to make a positive impact on race relations in Lawrence
photo by: Nick Krug
Tired of crying, Natasha Neal vowed to make a change.
The morning of July 7, Neal said she awoke to a phone call telling her about a recent shooting. In the days prior, two black men had been shot to death by police officers — Philando Castile was killed in Falcon Heights, Minn., on July 6, and Alton Sterling was killed in Baton Rouge, La., on July 5.
Little did she know that in just a few hours, the bad news would grow. On the evening of July 7, during a demonstration regarding the shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota, 12 police officers in Dallas were shot, and five died from their injuries.
“Immediately the tears started, even before I knew a name,” she said of her phone call. “But after that moment I decided I’m not going to sit and cry no more. I’m not just going to sit and post (on the internet.) I’m going to take action.”
That day Neal founded Sisters With A Purpose. She called on friends to join and help her make a positive impact on race relations in Lawrence. The group is actively recruiting members, has organized a community gathering for next month, and plans to start a dialogue with the Lawrence Police Department.
Lawrence Police Chief Tarik Khatib said he looks forward to a meeting that he hopes will happen in the next few days.
Since the most recent shootings, Khatib described the mood within the department as “somber.”
“We are both concerned about the shootings of citizens as well as shootings of police officers and are still trying to make sense of things,” he said.
Khatib also said the department has been “humbled” by community members reaching out recently, offering food or words of encouragement.
Monique Richardson was one of the several dozen people to join SWAP within the first week, and she has worked extensively with Neal to get the organization off the ground.
Before July neither Neal nor Richardson would have considered themselves activists, they said. Even so, as black women living in America, they’ve been forced to consider certain realities and pass on what they’ve learned to their children.
“There’s no safe thing to tell your kid,” Neal said. “I can’t say if you go to school every day and listen to everything they say and get straight As and if you see a piece of trash on the ground to pick it up, I can’t promise you’ll never get your brains blown out if you get pulled over by the police.”
“I had that talk with my son,” she added. “The talk about what’s going on, the war against black men. He’s only 9 years old, but it had to be done.”
Richardson said she had a similar discussion with her son, who just turned 12.
“It’s draining,” she said.
The concern doesn’t stop with her son, Richardson said. She also fears for the safety of her brother, father and grandfather.
While that discussion is a necessity, Neal said it’s more important to keep the focus on the future and on positivity rather than dwelling on what’s wrong with the world. She tells her children they’re loved every single day, she said.
“I don’t want to sit around and talk to my son about black men getting killed in America,” she said. “I’m telling my son about solutions. What he needs to do. And the first thing I embed into his head, into all my children’s heads, is education.”
That positive message is what Neal says she wants to pass on to the rest of the community through SWAP.
“It’s about bringing people of all backgrounds together, supporting the education of the youth and fostering positive relationships between the community and local law enforcement,” she said.
Despite the group’s name, all are welcome within SWAP, even men, Neal said.
“I don’t care what race you are, I don’t care about your religious background. Men are welcome, because we need their support too,” she said. “If you’re ready for a change and ready to take action, you are more than welcome.”
So far Neal said the community’s response to SWAP has been overwhelmingly positive. Members are calling day and night, she said. Some volunteer their time, others offer their services. Currently volunteers are working to develop a website for the group as well as creating graphic designs.
In addition, Wayne and Larry’s Sports Bar and Grill offered its back room for SWAP’s ongoing meetings, Neal said.
As SWAP grows, others will take notice and its reach will spread, she said, noting that those who sit on the sidelines aren’t part of the solution.
“Everybody’s busy, but you can take a moment or two to get to know a child in your community, and that’s where it starts,” she said. “Once they see other races standing up too, there’s going to be a change. Seeing people come together is a beautiful thing.”
Aside from SWAP’s regular meetings, which are not yet set in stone, the group will hold a back-to-school event for local children and families on Aug. 13. The event will be held between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. at South Park, 1141 Massachusetts St.
Neal said the event will offer haircuts for kids, motivational speakers, food and several other activities for all who attend.
Those who wish to learn more or become involved can email Neal at firstname.lastname@example.org.