Two Lebanon men are using social media to try to get to the root of racial tensions in Lebanon County and beyond.
Ryan Boddy and Justin Ryan Boyer in April unveiled the first episode of Platform Lebanon, a podcast that was born of the idea that people could better understand the reasons behind racist beliefs and attitudes if they knew each other’s stories.
The intent, according to promotional materials, was “elevating the conversation, breaking the bullhorn and listening to one another.”
“With everything that happened last year, everything was such a mess,” Boddy told LebTown. “Being a black man, the race issue really hit … hard last year – harder than ever before. Out of all of that, I really started to see people for what seemed to be what they really were. The raw side of people came out, in the form of opinions and things like that, and I started wondering, what drives those opinions? There has to be a lifetime of experiences that drives the way people think about things.”
“I wanted to start listening to people’s experiences – not their opinions. Then, when opinions do come out, I have a basis to understand why they think the way they do,” Boddy said.
Boyer said Boddy “was the spark” behind the idea, and Boyer refined it.
“He was trying to do something on Facebook, trying to give people a space to share with one another and listen to one another,” Boyer explained. “There was a lot of noise, which is often the case with issues like racial injustice. People were talking at the same time; they weren’t listening.”
Boddy had “a great idea,” Boyer said. “Rather than adding to the noise, try to have a civil conversation. People could share their stories – not their opinions on how things should change, but stories on how things have informed them, shaped their opinions on racial issues.”
Unfortunately, Boddy said, the Facebook page wasn’t getting much traction.
“I wanted people to post experiences,” Boddy said. “I didn’t want anyone to like the stories, or comment on them, just read them.”
But, while a lot of people said they liked the idea of the page, “only one or two people actually engaged in it,” Boddy said. “That very much illustrates the issue. People might love the idea of racial harmony, but nobody wants to sit down and talk about why they have the views that they do.”
Then Boyer came along “and said he thought it was a great idea, but he wanted to put it in the form of a podcast,” Boddy said.
“I’ve been doing little media creation projects for a while and thought a podcast might be a good medium for listening,” Boyer explained.
They described the project as “a collection of stories on racial tensions from the community of Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Our hope is that by providing a leveled platform of listening, we can better understand where others are coming from and elevate the conversation in our city.”
They started work on the project around the end of last year, and they released the podcast to the public in April.
The resulting podcast, just shy of 25 minutes long, gives people a platform to discuss, anonymously, their own run-ins with racial attitudes – sometimes as the victim, at other times the perpetrator and, in a few cases, a bystander. They discuss issues with socializing, casual encounters, a harsh word, run-ins with justice (“guilty until proven innocent”) and bonding over a video game.
One man, white, expresses regret over his own youthful biases. “It was just in me. It was around me. It was the water that I swam in,” he says.
Another man, black, discusses the frustration of being told somewhat frequently that he looks like other black people. “I’ve been told that I look like … a bunch of guys that don’t even look alike, just further perpetuating the idea that all black people look alike. It couldn’t be farther from the truth,” he says.
A black woman describes an incident when she overheard a man using a disparaging word to describe her race, and his seeming embarrassment when he noticed her sitting within earshot. “Did he feel bad because of what he said, or did he feel bad because he got caught saying it?” she asks.
The producers of the podcast have mixed emotions about the results.
“The responses that were given were good, but I was hoping there would be more, and more of a diverse group,” Boddy said. “What we got was good, but I was hoping more people would engage. Baby steps, I guess.”
“This was more of a thermometer than a thermostat,” Boyer added. “Are there people who are willing to talk about this? If it’s just this little circle in Lebanon – that’s good, but I want it to be broader in the community.”
Feedback so far has been positive, they said.
“Lots of people have commented on it,” Boddy said. “They heard it and … were encouraged to have those talks more often. It’s a painful talk to have, for anybody.”
“This is specifically about race, but this is life in general,” he added. “We should be doing this. We should be listening to each other. It would alleviate a lot of the assumptions that we put on people. … So, I’m for continuing with the idea of the Platform, but broadening it to life in general.”
Making the world better
Boddy, 42, and Boyer, 40, have known each other for more than 20 years.
“I’ve known Justin since – oh my gosh, I had gotten a job at Staples on Quentin Rd., and Justin was still in high school. We met there,” Boddy recalled. “We laugh about it now – we met at an office supply store as teenagers, and now maybe we’re doing something to make the world better.”
“Ryan and I have been in and out of each other’s lives for the past 20, 25 years,” Boyer agreed. “We met when we were both working at Staples in Lebanon. We met again on a church outreach in Lebanon, giving out hot dogs and Cokes.”
Boddy is a paint contractor, and Boyer is a pastor. Both men were troubled by racial issues that have been building, locally and nationally, in recent years. Things came to a head after the death of George Floyd, who died on May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis, after a police officer knelt on his head and neck for more than nine minutes.
Boyer admitted he doesn’t have a lot of African-American friends, and he “wanted to sit down” with Boddy to get his perspective.
When he learned about Boddy’s efforts to discuss the issue on Facebook, Boyer suggested a podcast to “capture the community’s voice,” and things blossomed from there.
“I don’t know how to answer these bigger questions,” Boyer said. “So let’s do this, and see where it goes. It’s not going to change the world, but it might open up some conversations.”
It doesn’t make you a monster
So, what has the podcast accomplished?
“For me, the hope is that people will be more vulnerable, and realize that we all have experiences that shape who we are today,” Boddy said. “It’s important, not just for other people to hear it, but to know that about themselves.”
“Sometimes I’ve wondered, why am I like this? I can look back on my life and start to put the pieces together. It’s not the worst thing in the world. Okay, you have some racist tendencies in you. Now, what can we do with that?” Boddy said. “It doesn’t immediately make you a monster. We can start navigating things and stop putting labels on people. What can I do to help? Maybe I can be a healing agent.”
“We’re setting the atmosphere,” Boyer said. “There is a better way than just to go off on Facebook with a rant. I would desire for this … to lead to more one-on-one conversations: face-to-face, flesh-to-flesh, heart-to-heart. The podcast format is helpful as a step toward that. It’s not the end result, it’s a stepping stone.”
Boddy noted that Lebanon is growing in diversity, which can improve residents’ appreciation for the differences between them.
“People who like living in Lebanon will find some commonality among themselves,” he said. “It’s not a thriving metropolis, but it’s not some podunk town, either. I like it, and I want to see the people in Lebanon band together and get past the nastiness.”
It’s hard, but not impossible
The two men haven’t decided yet how the platform will evolve.
“The hope would be that there will be a seasonal effort to do this. I don’t think anything’s resolved. We might be moving toward something, but there will always be something that will cause another catalytic event, like George Floyd,” Boyer said. “I don’t hope for those [kinds] of moments, but racial reconciliation needs to be something … we’re always thinking about.”
“I would like it to be an ongoing series, perhaps on a seasonal basis. It depends how many stories we get,” Boyer said.
He hopes to gather more interest over the summer, with an eye toward another podcast in the fall.
To that end, he hopes people will call the podcast hotline – 717-673-8813 – and leave their stories before Labor Day weekend.
“You can see what it’s about now. You can listen to it,” Boyer said. “People can call the number whenever they want. People can call now and start leaving stories about their experiences with race. … Just get your stories in by Labor Day weekend.”
“Everyone has an opinion on racial tensions, but we’re looking for the foundational stories and experiences that have influenced those opinions,” they state in their promotional materials. “Stories of good and bad and misunderstanding. Stories of pain and redemption and hilarity. Our hope is that by providing a leveled platform of listening, we can better understand where others are coming from and elevate the conversation in our city.”
Participants can leave just a first name, or a nickname, they noted.
Anyone who calls the hotline should leave a message that’s under five minutes long, the statement continues. “Make sure it’s your own story, not someone else’s. We’re not looking for your philosophy or opinion on racial issues. Share an experience, how it made you feel or think in that moment, for better or for worse. Let’s keep story entries from people who live or work in Lebanon County. The stories don’t have to be about Lebanon, but we want Lebanon citizens, past or present, to contribute.”
In future podcasts, Boyer said, he would like to hear more from the local African-American community, as well as the large and growing Hispanic/Latino population.
“I really want to tap into that, too,” Boyer said. “I don’t just want it to be a black and white conversation.”
The pilot episode gives him something to point people to, as an example of what they’re looking for, Boyer said.
“We’re looking for stories more than opinions,” Boyer explained. “We’re not looking for solutions.”
“I want to keep the conversations going, get people to open up and share, so we can actually be a community together,” Boddy added. “I just want to see people come together, and it’s not some impossible thing. It’s hard work, but it’s not impossible.”
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