Panelists tell of experiences with racism
BY GENA KAISER
Grand Haven Tribune
Stories of racial slurs, burned crosses' dead animals left outside homes and discrimination from local businesses opened the eyes of many of the people gathered at Grand Haven Outreach Church Thursday and gave them a different picture of the Tri-Cities community. Over 150 people of a variety of races came out for a town meeting at the church to share and hear stories of racism and voice their ideas for change.
"I think there was some real honest experiences shared by the people in the audience and the panelist," said Gail Harrison, executive director of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance (LEDA). "I'm only sorry that there weren't more people present to hear those concerns and experiences raised. But it's a start."
But, Harrison added, that the fact that about 150 people came put for the event "identifies that there is some recognition that we have work to do in this community'".
Three panelists set the tone for evening by sharing their own experiences with racism in this community.
Phyllis Howard, who has lived in Grand Haven for more than 35 years and was the 1977 Homecoming queen at Grand Haven High School, shared stories of finding two dead animal left in her driveway and having a racial slurs called out to her while she drove around town. She spoke about-being invited to Thanksgiving dinner by a friend and then later being told she couldn't come because one of the dinner guests was not comfortable with her race.
She said she doesn't understand how one person can feel he or she is better than another person.
"Because when it's all done, in the end everybody goes to the same place and answers to the same Person," she said.
Thomas Puleo Jr., a social studies teacher at Grand Haven High School and a founding member of the LEDA, said he has a different perspective on racism as the only Caucasian panelist. He said that people and even some of his students
have shared racist comments or jokes with him, thinking that because he is Caucasian he would appreciate them.
"They assume because you are the same color they are, you are their ally," he said.
Panelist Isabel Allen, who moved to Grand Haven directly from Colombia and has lived here since 1978, said that people assume that everyone from Colombia is a drug dealer. She said her children have been called racial slurs at school and told that their "type" doesn't belong.
After hearing about the problems, three other panelists shared their solutions.
"Just to be treated equal, normal, would make me feel comfortable," said Vince Allen. who said he often gets looks when he goes into local stores. Formerly with the Coast Guard, he came to the area in 1978.
He said that where he works in Holland, he is often the only African American person his co-workers have met and hears comments often like "You're not like the other black guys."
"We need to quit stereotyping people and get to know them before we judge them," he said.
As the youngest panelist, Denny Chan, said that right along with math, science and social studies, he would like to see acceptance and diversity classes taught in the schools. Chan, a freshman at Grand Haven High School, said he has
seen and experienced racism between students.
"If we can't get the point across to them that racism needs to stop, our society is inevitably doomed," Chan said.
Panelist Ortencia Ruiz, a violence intervention officer for Ottawa Community Corrections, said that she grew up in Alma,
Mich., but it wasn't until she attended Hope College that she felt people looked at her differently. She added that she makes herself comfortable in this community.
"I don't feel uncomfortable living here. I haven't experience the blatant racism I have heard today," she said.
Then it was the audience's turn. One woman shared how she lived in a community where there were no people of races other than Caucasian, and her neighbors feared that other races would move in. One man, who is Caucasians, aid he gets called names for simply being friends with African American people. Others talked about being stereotyped by police because of their race.
Lisa James spoke about how her family had a cross burned on their lawn in 1996. She said she continues to work hard at breaking down racial barriers and has no plans to leave Grand Haven.
"Even though we had a cross burned on our lawn, we are here to stay." she said.
Some audience members raised concerns about the lack of diversity among the teachers on staff in Grand Haven Area Public Schools.
Brian Wheeler, who is an African American working as co-director of technology for the school district, said that he was heavily recruited to come to the district. He said that he was also offered a job by Grand Haven schools three years ago, but didn't take it at that time because he didn't think he would feel comfortable there.
He explained people of other races will have to feel comfortable with the community, before they will come to work here.
"It's a change that does not just need to happen in the school district, and it does; it's also a change that needs to happen in the community," Wheeler said.
Assistant Superintendent of Human Services for, the district, Keith Konarska told the crowd, "It is an area we are trying to increase our focus on."
After the town meeting, Harrison said the next step will be a leadership conference, where 150 leaders from the community will hear the concerns raised Thursday. They will also be asked what role they can play in eliminating racism in the community.
"It's all about action. It's not all about talking," she added.
Then on Feb. 13, the Ottawa Area Summit on Racism will be held at Hope College and sponsored bv LEDA. The entire community will be invited to the summit to create strategies on how to stop racism.
"This is the beginning of a five year plan. Next year we will have summit two." Harrison said.
The panelists said they were pleased with the number of people who came out and the stories they shared on Thursday.
"This is very encouraging for me to see this. It's more than I expected to hear from everybody," Puleo said.
"Tonight is a good start, but we have a long way to go," Ruiz said