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Several community leaders initiated a roundtable discussion about racism in Lebanon County in response to the protests in Annville, which have been occurring on a regular basis since June 5.
It was held on August 3 via Zoom, and it consisted of several panelists from a diverse array of racial, ethnic and career backgrounds.
The panelists included CEO of SARCC of Lebanon County Alissa Perrotto, Lebanon Valley College professor Michael Schroeder; Lebanon City Council member Amy Keller; Beth Aminov, who is working to found a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Lebanon; fitness and motivational coach Joshua Spaulding; Amanda Davis-Buie, founder of Strength, Love and Motivation LLC; loan officer for First Alliance Home Mortgage Jay Davis; and Hazel Diaz, who is a project manager for National Public Radio (NPR).
The discussion was organized and led by social worker and city council candidate Cornell Wilson, along with a few of the panelists.
A total of 44 people, including the panelists, attended the roundtable.
“In this day and age, with everything on Zoom, I did not expect all this, but I was pleasantly surprised by the audience and what I thought was a nice, decent balance from different ethnic backgrounds,” said Davis. “I thought it was positive.”
The roundtable started off with panelists and participants describing their personal experiences with race and racism. All of the panelists had either witnessed or personally experienced racism within their lives.
They shared stories of more subtle forms of racism, such as racial profiling by police and employers, being paid less than a white, non-Hispanic person in the exact same role, and not seeing themselves reflected in leadership, along with some stories about overtly racist comments and treatment they have received or witnessed.
“Hopefully this conversation will help us get to the place where there won’t be any more examples,” said Davis-Buie. “I think [after the roundtable] that, with racism, they may understand better that it exists within our community than possibly before, because there were some concrete examples given.
“I also think that it may have given some of the participants a clear understanding of how systemic racism affects our community as well. I think sometimes Lebanon is seen as an outlier because we’re a small community and they feel like it’s a protected community, whereas I don’t think that’s a reality for many of us.”
Although racism can be a difficult and uncomfortable topic, the panelists hope that having this discussion will create change and inspire people to take part in it.
“Talking about racism or discrimination is often extremely uncomfortable, especially for people who identify as white or maybe have not had the experience of racial discrimination or seen it in their own lives,” said Perrotto. “I think [the roundtable] will create some of that space for the community to talk about things that are happening, to talk about [what] aspiring white allies and people of color can do to make our community a better, stronger place all around.
“It just gives us space to start that discussion so we can do better and move forward.”
They identified some of the issues regarding racism that Lebanon County is currently experiencing, specifically racial discrimination by police and other entities and the lack of diversity in local government positions and local education.
Several people of color in the discussion described the negative interactions they have had with local police, such as incidents of racial profiling, verbal abuse and over-policing.
“I have to teach my children ‘if you get pulled over, this is what you have to do,’” said Davis. “White parents don’t have to do that.
“There are different rules for kids who are non-white when they get pulled over and that’s a shame.”
A few of the participants also said that schools in Lebanon School District, the most diverse district in Lebanon County, are the only ones in the area that have armed police officers waiting outside during dismissal. Diaz described these officers’ behavior towards Lebanon students as “bullying tactics.”
In terms of education, several people suggested that local school districts should add diversity and anti-racism education to their curriculum, particularly in the more rural districts.
They also expressed the need for more diverse faculty and staff in local schools and proposed that these schools should hire more people of color as teachers, professors and staff.
“The kids are not seeing teachers or staff that look like them,” said Wilson. “Sometimes they’re seeing the janitor or people serving lunch, but that’s not all the role models kids need to see.
“When you want role models, you want to see someone who looks like you.”
This lack of diversity is also present in educational leadership.
“We want more people to be aware of what’s happening so that we can have a lot of voice when it comes to our kids and what they are being exposed to in our school system,” said Davis-Buie.
One thing that some panelists are beginning to work on is forming a group of people to participate in school board meetings and advocate for anti-racist issues in education.
“We have to be really aware of what we are subjecting our children to and [work on] being anti-racist for them,” said Keller. “You can’t just be silent now.”
Keller has reached out to members of the public, asking who is interested in participating in school board meetings. Once there is a large enough group of people, they will break up into their respective districts and start organizing the specifics from there.
“I think a lot of people want to see change but feel isolated in wanting to see that change happen, so if we’re able to form groups, I think that will automatically empower people to actively do what needs to get done in order for them to make their needs known,” said Davis-Buie. “Having a group of people involved in the school board, that’s something that’s tangible — something that they can do right now.
“If we’re able to empower people and help them get with other people who are like-minded so that they can do something effectively in their own community, I think that’s powerful.”
In addition to advocating for a more diverse educational experience, the organizers hope to make change by having a more diverse group of people in positions of power.
“Lebanon is a diverse place until you get to positions of power,” said Davis. “I think Lebanon is a microcosm of the country and unless [change] is going to the top, it’s not going to happen.”
They suggested that the way to change this is to elevate the voices of people of color and other marginalized groups. They plan on finding ways to encourage people to get involved in their government and their community, whether they are voting, volunteering or running for a public office.
“Something else that came out of [the discussion] was really just emphasizing the need for people to step up and not only vote but recognize who [they] are voting for and why [they] are choosing to vote for those individuals and how those individuals’ actions really influence our community as a whole,” said Davis-Buie.
Several of the panelists have served in an elected position and they offered up their experience and knowledge to teach anyone interested in running the “ins and outs” of campaigning and being in a political office. As Diaz said in the roundtable, they will “make sure if (they) are the first person at the table, that (they) are not the last.”
“I think there is always power in numbers, so we need people to be able to come together and work together,” said Davis-Buie.
Following the roundtable, the organizers plan to have more educational sessions in the near future. Two anti-racism workshops, similar to the one in early June, are planned for September, and they hope to also hold workshops about civic education and discussions about the intersection between the black community and the Jewish and LGBT+ communities.
“I think somebody hearing something that really resonates with them, that’s usually what pushes them to take action,” said Davis-Buie. “That’s why these town hall meetings, workshops and things of that nature are so essential. People need to hear it and also need to recognize they’re not alone.”
Overall, this roundtable discussion was part of the larger conversation about racism that is happening across the country.
“There’s more conversation now than I’ve ever seen before, so we’re going in the right direction,” said Davis. “I don’t think [change] is going to happen overnight, but I do think that it’s going to happen and it can happen.”
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