By Barb Arland-Fye
Four adults of diverse backgrounds set their audience at ease while discussing what could have been a tension-producing topic: racism. I left the “Encountering Racism” panel discussion at the DeWitt Opera House last Sunday afternoon feeling uplifted and eager to enter genuine conversations with individuals who are different from me.
The Franciscan Peace Center, established by the Sisters of St. Francis of Clinton, organized the event in keeping with its mission of promoting active nonviolence and peacemaking and advocating for social justice issues and care for the earth.
What a great way to begin the week in which the International Day of Peace is celebrated, on Sept. 21. That day provides an opportunity for all of humanity to commit to peace above differences and to contribute to building a culture of peace, as Lori Freudenberg said in her opening remarks. She serves as community outreach director for the Franciscan Peace Center.
Each of the panelists — Tahera Rahman, Bianca Sola-Perkins, Ty Perkins and Savannah Mussington — expressed appreciation to us, their audience, for showing up on a spectacular Sunday afternoon to address the challenging subject of racism. “You are here; you see that it’s important,” Bianca told us.
Tahera, employed by WHBF Local 4 News, is said to be the first woman wearing a hijab (a Muslim woman’s headscarf) working as an on-air reporter for American television. She experienced racism on the job for the first time, the day before the DeWitt event. While interviewing a man in Rock Island, Ill., another man called her a derogatory name after she made a comment about his music interfering with the interview. Her interviewee and another man chased away the individual who made the racist comment.
She said she learned a couple of things from that incident. “We live in times when people feel emboldened to speak out about people who are different from them.” Secondly, for every one person who is negative there are three or four people who are positive.
Bianca, director of adult education at Black Hawk College in Moline, Ill., talked about being the daughter of a Hispanic father and an Anglo mother. Spanish was spoken at home when she was a child. But another child’s discouraging comment extinguished Bianca’s interest to learn Spanish. She wanted to fit in, but has regretted her decision not to learn Spanish. Her 90-something grandmother from South America died recently. “I never had an opportunity to have a conversation by myself with my grandma,” she said. Their conversations required a translator. Bianca has found value in deciding, “I’m going to own who I am.”
Her husband, Ty Perkins, is the associate dean of students at Scott Community College. As an African American, he said hasn’t experience “overt racism” but rather “micro-aggression.” He attended elementary school in Chicago with children who were black and teachers who were white. He was an athlete in high school and college, where he encountered diversity but not racism. That’s because he and his teammates spent a lot of time together. “We broke bread together; we got to know each other. Even though we looked different, we enjoyed the same things. In athletics, people have the opportunity to learn about one another.”
Savannah Mussington is the partnership director for the Equal Opportunity Schools organization and also has worked in higher education. She chose not to describe her encounters with racism because she finds that traumatizing. Instead, she conducted an exercise on stage with audience participation designed to show how each of us perceives the world from our own lens. Afterwards, she asked us to think about our possible biases. Each of us was born into a situation over which we had no control, but now we do. We can expand our scope and our lens, she said. “Recognize that at this point, it’s our choice.”
Bianca encouraged us to go outside our comfort zone by attending activities where we might be in the minority. Tahera encouraged us to not be afraid to begin a conversation with someone of another ethnic group, race or religion. Ty encouraged us to continue the conversation on racism. Savannah encouraged us to be genuine in conversation and not simply check off a goal on our list.
I plan to take their advice at the 20th Annual Stop the Hate, Show the Love Event for Peace this Thursday, Sept. 20, in Clinton. Participants gather at 4:45 p.m. at Jefferson Elementary School, 720 4th Ave. S. If you can, join us — or look for similar International Day of Peace events in your community.
(Editor Barb Arland-Fye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)