Howard County residents who want to discuss affirmative action programs, low-income housing and multicultural education programs can attend a forum tonight sponsored by the African American Coalition of Howard County.
"We want to do consciousness-raising with both the community and the [County] Council as to what issues are important to us, what their positions are and seek to get their commitment to address these issues," said the Rev. Robert A. F. Turner, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Baptist Church in Columbia and coalition chairman.
The 50-member coalition was founded last summer by Mr. Turner and other activists concerned about economic and social issues affecting Howard County residents.
Tonight's forum is expected to draw nearly 100 people, including members of black sororities, fraternities and service HTC organizations. The event starts at 7:30 p.m. at the county office building.
Five coalition members will offer presentations on education, low- and moderate-income housing for county families, minority businesses, the Columbia incorporation movement, and county government affirmative action programs.
County Council members and audience members will have a chance to discuss the issues with the coalition members.
"We're not just interested in issues affecting the African-American community," Mr. Turner said. "If these issues are addressed, Howard County will be a better county."
County Councilman C. Vernon Gray agreed.
"People should come because it's important knowing what the County Council is doing," said the District 2 Democrat. "The council makes decisions that affect everybody regardless of what district they live in."
"Holding the forum face-to-face lets [the County Council] know we're a serious constituency out there," said Pearl Atkinson-Stewart, the coalition's program coordinator. "We are there, and we're a group who will be speaking out on these issues."
The coalition wants to see more minorities in top-level county government positions. "I don't believe there's a sufficient number of minorities at the top level of management," Ms. Atkinson-Stewart said.
County Councilman Darrel Drown, who represents District 1, said that while he wants to see more people of color employed in county government, he objects to affirmative action programs that use quotas to achieve racial parity.
"We need to be moving toward a colorblind society," Mr. Drown said. "It's more advantageous for everybody."
He added: "If you have quotas . . . that creates all kinds of dissension. We need to start staying away from that stuff. It creates lots of animosity and lots of problems."
On housing, the coalition worries that rising costs prevent many low- and moderate-income people from living in the county.
"It's a real growing concern," Ms. Atkinson-Stewart said. "I know people who work here and really would like to live here but can't afford to."
The group also is concerned about efforts to incorporate Columbia, a 28-year-old planned community governed by the nonprofit Columbia Association, essentially a large, homeowner association.
The coalition worries that incorporation would increase property values, making homeownership even more expensive.
The coalition also seeks continued financial support for ethnic education, such as the Black Student Achievement Program, designed to help black students improve test scores and grades. The program has been criticized for restricting its services to black students.