2003-11-19 Lakeshore Press 'HOPE ABOUT CHANGE' Town hall meeting on racism looks to open doors

Town hall meeting on racism looks to open doors
Lakeshore Press

Although he has been in the United States since 1983, emigrating from Laos with his parents, Danny Sphabornixay stills feels the eyes of discrimination and racism every day. But now he fears those eyes have been directed toward his children.

During a town meeting on racism Tuesday night, Sphabarnixay told the large audience gathered in the basement of St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church that he believed the ways to defeat racism lie in the ability to educate people about other cultures and their plights. “I do see my share of racism and discrimination and not just myself but my friends and families. When I was in my teen, people kept telling me to go back to my own country,” said the 30-year-old Holland resident, who is president of the Laotian-American Organization of West Michigan

“Now, my daughter and son are going through the same situation my goal is to help my daughter to become educated and try to send a message to our children. “I truly believe racism is because of people being uneducated. I can’t get rid of the color of my skin, the way I look or dress. People need to be educated so we can all be a big, happy family in West Michigan.”

The event, sponsored by the lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, brought together community members including Mayor Al McGeehan, state Sen. Wayne Kuipers, R-Holland, and various school officials. The Alliance held the first town meeting on racism three years ago to gain information to shape the agenda for the Ottawa Area Summit on Racism.

Tuesday’s town meeting will provide a second barometer on the issue, and help define the agenda from the annual summit meeting, to be held March 20 at Hope College. The Rev. Andres Fierro, who returned as moderator of the event, told the crowd it is essential there be dialogue in the community on the issue of racism because whites’ privileged position in society often blinds them to the racism minorities’ experience.

“Three years later it was really time to come home and see what the movement is,” Fierro said. “We want to give hope about change and give hope about how Holland is moving, especially about this issue of racism…Tonight we are going to talk about our own journey of making ourselves a home but also making it a home for everybody else.”

In addition to Sphabarnixay, panelists at the event included Lorna Hernandez Jarvis, a Hope College psychology professor from Mexico; Kristina Kyle’s, a senior majoring in education at Hope College , who is black: Vietnamese refugee and Holland business owner Hoa Huynh: and Sister Pat Lamb of St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church, who is white.

A similar town meeting will be held in north Ottawa County in January. Videotape from each town meeting will be compiled into a presentation at the summit. According to Jarvis, who has been a resident of Holland for 10 years, a report based on the 2000 Census, ranked Michigan as the most racially segregated state in the nation based on housing patterns. “I have experienced racism firsthand, when I tell people I work at Hope College, they expect that I work in the dinning services,” Jarvis said. “A lot of work has been done in the last 10 years, but we still have barely scratched the surface…as long as racism is part of our lives and present in our community, we will all suffer.”