Five years ago on the corner of 30th and Martin Luther King Jr. streets, pastor John Girton, locally known as “Pastor G.,” set up the tent he’d be sleeping in for a month to raise awareness about crime in Indianapolis.
Today, what he calls the tent campaign has blossomed into an annual call-to-action for activists, grassroots organizers, urban educators and other individuals with the desire to make a difference.
“The Urban Servant Leadership Un-conference was the vehicle that we put together a year later, in 2016,” said Girton, founder of Unite for Change. “It was designed to say, ‘Look, these people have dreams, passions, ideas, creativity. They have a voice. They have all the things necessary to lift up these communities, but what they’re not getting are the opportunities.’”
Girton says the Un-conference gets its name from the unique structure of the event. Many conferences are organized in a way that attendees learn from a subject matter expert, but at the Un-conference, many attendees are equally experienced and contribute to the conversation.
Though the focus of the event has always been to address community issues, Girton believes leaders are needed this year more than ever, with racial uprisings and the COVID-19 pandemic as added concerns.
“If we don’t strategize about the demands, agendas and things we want to see happen in our community, once the energy runs out, things that are important don’t get done,” he added. “This would simply be because we weren’t strategic in our communication with one another.”
Set for Aug. 15, the theme of Unite for Change’s sixth annual Urban Servant Leadership Un-conference is “Navigating The New Normal: What Now?” The event will be virtual and offer networking opportunities, speakers and a variety of breakout sessions for attendees to learn from and enjoy.
Memphis activist Theryn Bond will lead the breakout session, “The Protest and the Process.”
“Pastor G. has been my mentor since my freshman or sophomore year of college,” Bond said, laughing. “That’s been, gosh, over 15 years. He was a professor at my university.”
Similar to Girton, Bond’s career has shown a lifelong commitment to community activism. Aside from being at the front lines during protests, Bond also ran for city council in Memphis in 2019, losing in the general election.
“Since I’ve worked in all of these different spaces, I understand how they all work together and can effectively explain to others, ‘I understand why you may not think voting matters, but it does, and let me tell you why,’” she said.
The way Bond sees it, the Black community has made some detrimental mistakes in the past, in relation to upholding a unified agenda. From her perspective, people need to get past petty differences to effectively achieve a common goal.
Girton also stresses the importance of a collective, forward-thinking attitude.
“This is not just about bringing together the strong organizations,” he noted. “It’s also about empowering the weaker, underfunded or undercapitalized organizations so that we can fill in those blanks and address all of the issues.”
Attend the Un-Conference
What: The sixth annual virtual Urban Servant Leadership Un-conference
When: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Aug. 15
Where: Online. Register at www.uniteforchange.org/un-conference
For more information, visit www.uniteforchange.org.