Racism, violence, and preparing youth for the future are topics that have sparked recent conversations all across Knoxville.

Tuesday night, they came up again—all because of a book.

It's part of the Big Read program that encourages communities to read and discuss certain books. A panel of Knoxville leaders and community members came together to discuss “A Lesson Before Dying” by Ernest J. Gaines.

The book is set in Louisiana in the 1940's, it's the story of a young African American teacher who is sent by some of the elders in the community to talk to a young man who is in jail facing execution.

While it’s a fictional and set in a time period more than eight decades ago, attendees learned that many of the themes resonate today.

"The hole book is shot through with questions of race and how we treat each other racial lines and even the boundaries that separate us as people, and I think that is current one today and one our community wrestles with in Knoxville,” said panelist Ralph Hutchison.

Both main characters are on a journey to discover what it means to be a man. A similar journey to the city of Knoxville, as it seeks to empower youth and redefine what life can look like.

"In a society or nation, it takes a lot of different people,” said panelist Reggie Jenkins, “You can be a janitor you can be a carpenter, a plumber, you can be an electrician. I want children, particularly African American males to aspire outside of the norm, I want them to become entrepreneurs, become CEOs.”

While a forum initiates conversation, attendees agree the next step is action.

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"You think about how many people are in Knoxville, and how many people are here at this forum, we need to spread the word in other ways, I don't know how but it needs to get out,” said Isaac New, a student at West High School.

"The biggest take away is how far we have to go still,” said West High School student Katherine Wilhoit, “We still have much we can do with the community, and it will take everyone to make this change happen.

Starting Wednesday the book will come to life on stage. Clarence Brown Theater is teaming up with the Knox County Library and will have performances of A Lesson Before Dying through March 13.