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Group addresses race issues

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Are people of color targeted by police here? Are African-American students in school punished worse than their white counterparts? Are racial minorities discriminated against in downtown stores? Is local black history being lost?

A community discussion on race Saturday may have raised as many questions as it found answers, but participants felt the conversation was a good first step to addressing issues of race, discrimination and inequality in Yellow Springs.

Organized by the 365 Project, the event attracted about 25 villagers who shared their personal stories, ideas for action and lingering questions at the forum. For many it was the quality of the conversation in the diverse group, which included 15 white residents, nine African Americans, and three who identified as mixed race, that made the event worthwhile.

“The fact that we could have that open, honest and direct of a conversation without people feeling upset or defensive or accusatory, was great,” said John Gudgel, an organizer with the 365 Project, a group whose goal is to spark courageous conversations locally about African-American heritage and culture. He added the village “has a long way to go.”

“We’ve been remiss in addressing these issues, because they are happening here,” Gudgel added. “We need to get beyond the complaining phase and start looking at some progressive steps.”

Next steps identified at the forum include encouraging local police to speak to students in the schools about their rights, providing resources to local parents to help black and mixed-race youth learn about identity, working with the schools to develop curricula that focus on the relevance of people of color in American history and gathering up-to-date data on the racial achievement gap in Yellow Springs schools.

Longtime local resident Al Schlueter, who participated in the forum, said the event was a good first step, but more needs to be done to address racism in Yellow Springs, including sharing strategies to “counterbalance” the prejudice that many villagers deny they act on.

“In my opinion too many white people say, ‘I’m color blind’ and they feel that absolves them from the need to do anything,” Schlueter said, adding that he has been unable to completely eliminate his own racism.

While many participants talked about the fact that the village has lost racial diversity over the last few decades (according to the 2010 census, Yellow Springs has 40-percent fewer people of color than in 1970), other factors have contributed to problems here. For example, Schlueter, who raised an adopted black son in Yellow Springs in the 1970s, said the village today has fewer African-American role models in positions of leadership. During that time the village had a black police chief, black principals in the elementary school and high school and many African American teachers and Ph.D. academics who taught at nearby Central State University and other colleges, Schlueter said.

“[My son] had lots of role models and I don’t think we have the role models today especially in the schools,” Schlueter said. “It is much harder for African-American kids here generally.”

The decline in the number of African-American teachers was noted by several participants. Gudgel, who is the only African-American male faculty member in the district, agreed, saying there are relatively few black teachers compared with previous eras. He added that according to a study he completed at Yellow Springs High School six years ago, students of color had lower GPAs and less participation in AP classes and the National Honor Society Honor Roll than white students. That issue needs to be revisited, he said.

Much of the forum’s discussion was focused on how to talk to African-American and mixed-race youth about police violence. One participant described the difficulty in being honest about police violence towards black people while not making them afraid.

“You want [your child] to grow up feeling safe but you have to tell them about the police and how it’s important to do what the officer says and be polite,” the participant said.

Another participant worried that African Americans today are facing more discrimination from police officers because the officers mostly live outside of the community.

“Growing up here you knew the police — they lived in your neighborhood — so you didn’t fear them,” one participant said.

Several participants were struck by their own lack of knowledge of local black history, including the stories about landowner and freed slave Wheeling Gaunt and housing developer Omar Robinson. For one, facilitator Basim Blunt, who moved to the village three years ago with his family, wasn’t aware of much local black history and hoped that the stories could be shared more widely, in part to increase the self-esteem of local African-American youth. But Blunt has also been impressed with the villagers’ involvement in seeking justice for John Crawford, and in addressing local issues affecting people of color.

“The event definitely made me feel like the people of this community care,” Blunt said. “We all want to make the community better, and that’s why people were so forthcoming [at the event.] I thought that was very positive.”

While many lamented that Yellow Springs has much to do to address inequality and discrimination, others said there has been some progress. As one participant noted: “This is not the utopia we believe it is, but it is also not the KKK.”

In a follow-up survey, some participants thought there needed to be more youth and young parents in the conversation and that the event should have been more action-oriented and less vague. But most participants were pleased with the productive dialogue and admitted to learning a lot while leaving with a strong determination to take action for diversity and equality in Yellow Springs.

“Racism and bias does exist here,” one participant said. “We have to address it because we could lose what we are.”

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