Before State Rep. Kabir Karriem dispersed the audience Monday evening at the Columbus Municipal Complex to allow attendees to meet with various service providers, he asked for a show of hands to gauge what services were in greatest demand.
The event, called “A Night of Empowerment,” gave residents an opportunity to gather free expert advice on a variety of subjects, including home ownership, criminal record expungement, voter registration and job opportunities.
The event also included COVID-19 vaccinations and free groceries, the latter provided by local ministry Live, Love and Christ.
“How many of you are here for the vaccine?” Karriem asked.
Only a few hands went up.
“How about home ownership?”
A dozen or so responded by raising their hands.
“How many of you are here to see about getting your record expunged?”
Of the roughly 120 people who packed into the courtroom, about a third of them raised their hands.
Later, as attendees moved among the tables set up to provide services, Karriem stood and watched, clearly pleased with how the event was unfolding.
“I’m very impressed with the turnout,” he said. “I knew that there were a lot of needs in the community for these services we’re providing tonight, but you never know exactly how many people will come out. I think it goes to show that there are people who want some help.”
Gertrue Weatherspoon sat in the front row as the meeting began. When Karriem asked how many were attending to get the COVID-19 vaccine, she was among the few who raised her hand.
“All of it was interesting,” she said. “When they asked people to raise their hands, I could have raised my hand for just about everything. I came out to get information on being a first-time homebuyer, so I raised my hand for that. I also raised my hand for the vaccine. I brought my sister out here so we could get vaccinated together. I also wanted to get more information about voting because I could not vote for mayor in the election. I have kids who go to the city schools, but they won’t allow me to vote in the city election because they said I lived in the county. I don’t understand that, so I hope someone can tell me what’s going on with that.”
There are voters who live in what is called the separate school district, which is an area outside the city limits that is still part of Columbus Municipal School District.
Etwona Jones stood near the back of the line of those seeking information on having their criminal records expunged. For her, that was just the start.
“My charge was back in 2008. I haven’t been in any trouble since,’’ said Jones, 36, and mother of four. “Having a record really does hinder those of us who have made mistakes when we were younger. Now we’re trying to do better. I have a great job, so now what I’m hoping to do is buy a house. That’s where my record is hindering me. So, hopefully, I can find out how to take care of that.”
Sheniyah Richardson was waiting to learn information about home ownership, but she found all the information interesting.
“I saw the flier, and the title that said something about empowerment,” she said. “When I saw that and read all the services they were going to offer tonight, I thought I really should come out. I don’t need everything on the list, but I felt like I could get the information and take it back and share it with somebody else.”
Karriem said he was gratified by the turnout, especially those seeking to have their criminal records expunged.
“It’s about providing some sense of hope in our community,” Karriem said. “Everything shouldn’t be about doom and gloom because you’ve made a mistake. America is the country of second chances, so I’m happy to provide this. Again, I’m just glad so many people turned out for these services. I feel like a lot of people here are going to get the help they need. That’s what it’s all about.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.