Santa Monica and surrounding Westside communities have grappled with issues pertaining to racial justice for decades. And local Black leaders feel the region cannot move forward without dialogue, so the public is invited to “Courageous Conversations: Why Black Lives Matter,” this Thursday at 6 p.m.

Tickets to Thursday’s event are free, but residents must register online at to receive a link to attend.

Along with a special spoken word performance by mental health entrepreneur, author and speaker Nakeya T. Fields, the community forum will feature a panel discussion with Los Angeles Times columnist Erika Smith and nationally renowned political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson.

During the two-hour conversation, Smith and Hutchinson are expected to discuss their experiences covering social justice issues and share how change can be made in local communities.

“I really want to promote understanding,” Smith said prior to the event. “I think a lot of people have a lot of feelings about things that are happening currently and things that have happened in the past… And I think other parts of the community don’t always know what their neighbors and fellow residents are feeling so I think any opportunity you can have that promotes a conversation to try to come to some sort of common understanding to move forward is important.”

Longtime Santa Monica resident and founding member of the Santa Monica Black Agenda Karen Gunn, who will chair the event, concurred in an interview Wednesday when she said attendees should also expect to hear some history about the Black community in Santa Monica as well as the city’s legacy of systemic racism, which is a concept that Gunn believes isn’t fully understood by locals.

“I’m not trying to be dismissive of our residents but I need to acknowledge that I think these kinds of things that have occurred over decades are just now getting their well-deserved spotlight,” Gunn said as she detailed the Belmar community’s destruction and local segregation efforts that forced young Americans like Nick Gabaldón to paddle all the way out to Malibu to surf.

“So, the Black Agenda has had a goal since it was recognized by City Council in September to highlight and bring to the fore an appreciation for the historical racism within the city of Santa Monica and also to bring awareness, reckoning, response and corrective action to address these things that have had an impact on our wonderfully progressive city… And this Courageous Conversations (event) is one opportunity to bring the community in and hopefully we can build an understanding and continue to share information from there,” Gunn added. “It’s absolutely exciting to know this is going to happen because it’s a great opportunity that I think has been well-planned — evident by some of our extraordinary presenters.”

Dialogue and engagement are the critical components in bridging the gaping racial gap in America, Hutchinson said in a statement And in a divisive and divided America it’s even more important to have critical engagement, which is why the famed author said he is eager to provide insight and perspective on topics related to police abuse, gang violence, and job and housing discrimination.

“Besides having a thought provoking stimulating experience on Thursday, I hope that people will walk away understanding the importance of what we’re doing,” Gunn said. “Where there are perhaps some members of our community who question the credibility, the rationale, the reasoning behind our effort — our hope is that this will create some common ground and allow the community to ask us questions and bring issues to our attention. I think they’ll come to see why we’re here and why it’s important.”