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ON THE SCENE: Keene town residents move forward with healing process

March 9, 2018
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

Following the revelation that a racist exchange by Keene resident Maria Gates had been posted on Snapchat, Jane Haugh, a local parent with a black son, has led two community discussions to address the question of what can be done to educate our youth about the extent and impact of racialization in America and foster a celebration of and respect for people who are different, be it of race, religion, sexuality, economic status, age, appearance, or culture.

Shocking though the Snapchat post was, for many the greater shock was learning initially from Corrie-Anne, a Keene Central high school student and friend of Maria, the extent to which racist and other forms of hate speech is communicated and shared by local youth, not just in Keene, but throughout the region including at SUNY Plattsburgh where Maria was a first-year student until recently.

The initial meeting was held on Monday, Feb. 26 at The Nature Conservancy with 48 in attendance. This session was led by SURJ, Showing up for Racial Justice, a national network of groups and individuals organizing white people for racial justice. Their goal is to undermine white support for white supremacy and help build a racially just society.

Article Photos

John Spear leads a discussion Tuesday, March 6 at the Keene Valley Library.
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

At the first meeting, much of the time was used to provide those in attendance the opportunity to share their feelings and concerns and answer the questions of what brought them to that meeting and what were goals they wished to take up. One outcome was a level of frustration by many who felt that their questions were not addressed, a reality caused by the large turnout and length of time it took for people to share their concerns.

A second meeting was held on Tuesday evening, March 6, at the Keene Valley Library with slightly over 30 attending, most have participated in the first meeting. This session was opened by Haugh, who recapped the previous meeting. This time, everyone present was able to voice their questions, and based on the feedback, two breakout sessions were formed, one to address racialization itself, and the other to address how to educate our youth about the impropriety of using racist and other forms of hate language. Haugh led the racialization discussion, and John Spear, of Northwood School and the parent of a black child, facilitated the other.

Here are some of the questions that were raised. How do we impress upon young people that they need to think before they speak, that what they may think of a joke can be very hurtful and jeopardize our societal well-being? How do we move forward in a sustained way to ensure that what we've just experienced isn't repeated? How can I help an openness to diversity move forward? How do we bring a community back together that seems pretty divided? How can we support and give voice to young people? Is racism really what we are dealing with, or is there some other large issue?

Spear said that Northwood School was working hard to create a culture that supports and values diversity, adding that the process requires courageous conversations, which he felt needed four elements.

The first was to stay engaged, meaning remaining morally, emotionally, intellectually, and socially involved in the dialogues. He said this requires an ongoing engagement and us paying attention to our words and behaviors. He said doing so, we have to be willing to experience discomfort, which he felt did not violate the importance of creating a safe space for dialogue.

He said that in a conversation about race, that discomfort is inevitable and such conversations were crucial to breaking down barriers that separate people.

He said the third aspect was to speak your truth, to be open about one's thoughts and feelings, and avoid saying what you think others will want to hear. Use "I" statements, such as "I feel this."

Finally, he said we should try to avoid trying to find quick solutions, which achieving understanding about racialization will take an ongoing dialogue, and a continuing effort to change behavior.

"We're not going to solve everything tonight," said Spear. "It's long-term. People, who are not as committed as you are will say, 'We're still talking about this?' That's going to happen and may already have happened. Understand that it's long work and it's going to take a long time. We're not going to have closure tonight, tomorrow, or next week. I don't think we're at the point of saying, this is what the school (Keene Central) needs to do."

People raised the question of all white people having discussions about racism, and it was suggested that if you have close relationship with a person of color, or had one in the past, an option would be to call them up and ask them if they would be willing to get together and share with you their experience of being black in America.

It was agreed that such conversations would be valuable to have with a person who practices Islam, or an immigrant, or in some who are or have been excluded aspects of life in America.

Amy Stoner said she had been speaking with many people in the community over the past week, and the common refrain was, "How did it happened that a nice person like Maria, who we know and love, could create such a racist Snapchat? They think if she could do it, my kid could, or some other young person they know." She wanted to know what are the motivators that allow kids to say outrageous things.

"We may be implicitly making assumptions about the answer to Amy's question," said Pete Nelson. "I'm convinced that the answer isn't obvious at all. I think we need to listen to this wisdom of younger people who understand more about the world in which they live and how it affects them."

One young man said that for people 20 and younger, they have grown up with social media as ever-present in their lives, and already you can find web pages and jokes about the shooting in Florida. He said adults no longer share similar experiences that they had when they were young with the youth of today as a result of the ever-present social media. Another likened social media to a mask behind which people feel free to use rougher and crueler language that they would in a face to face dialogue, an example being the harsh language some people use when responding to social media postings.

In the end, it was agreed that they desired a panel of students and parents to share their experiences. To that end, two high school seniors, Miles and Corrie-Anne, plan to share their experiences growing up black and mixed race in Keene. A date hasn't been set. First, they will be meeting with J.W. Wiley, director of the Center for Diversity, Pluralism, and Inclusion at SUNY Plattsburgh for his assistance and advice, but they plan to make their presentation sooner than later.

"I thought it was a productive meeting," said Dan Mayberry, Keene Central Superintendent. "I felt we had a very good dialogue about what the issue is and the need to hear the voices of the students and young people of the community."



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