Residents tell of racial problems, discrimination
Stories of racial slurs, burned crosses, dead animals left outside homes and discrimination from local businesses opened the eyes of many people gathered at Grand Haven Outreach Church on Thursday and gave them a different picture of the Tri-Cities community.
More than 150 attended a town meeting at the church to share and hear stories about racism and voice their ideas for change.
“I think there was some real honest experiences shared by the people in the audience and the panelists,” said Gail Harrison executive director of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance. “I’m only sorry that there weren’t more people present to hear those concerns and experiences raised. But it’s a start.”
Three panelists set the tone for the evening by sharing their own experiences with racism in the 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 animals left in her driveway and having racial slurs called out to her while she drove around town.
She spoke about being invited to Thanksgiving dinner by the 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 her or she is better than another person.
Thomas Puleo Jr., a social studies teacher at Grand Haven High School and founding member of the alliance, 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 for jokes with him, thinking that because he is Caucasian he would appreciate them.
Panelist Isabel Allen, who moved to Grand Haven from Colombia in 1978, said the people assume everything from Columbia 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 other black guys.”
“We need to quit stereotyping people and get to know them before we judge them,” he said.
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.
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.
On Feb 13, the Ottawa Area Summit on Racism will be at Hope College and sponsored by the alliance.