As the number of hate crimes rose across the United States last year, Muskegon had to face its own series of deeply troubling incidents in August 2017—including a noose being found at Glenside School and racist graffiti being scrawled on a Muskegon High School statue and at the Glen Oaks Apartments.
Immediately after these incidents occurred, community leaders vowed not to turn a blind eye to the hate but instead began to ask difficult questions about racism and prejudice in the city. In turn, these original acts of hate have prompted important conversations about systemic racism and racial segregation in Muskegon and West Michigan—and what people and organizations throughout the region need to do to ensure all residents feel safe, secure and supported, no matter their skin color.
To address racism, bias, and more, the Muskegon Rotary Club’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, led by Rotarian and local attorney Brianna Scott, launched a “Love Lives Here” campaign to renounce hatred and bigotry in Muskegon (and across the globe) late last summer. This past Monday, Sept. 17, Rotary members, elected officials, and other community members came together for the second annual Love Lives Here rally at Hackley Park in downtown Muskegon. There, individuals reaffirmed their goal of eradicating hate and racism in the community—even when that means having often difficult conversations about one’s own role in perpetuating racial biases, discrimination, segregation, and more.
“We are so proud to live, work and play in this beautiful, diverse community we call home,” Rotary members Asaline Scott and Kate Kesteloot Scarbrough said, reading from a Love Lives Here statement that 107 community leaders, area organizations, and local businesses signed last year following the hateful incidents. “However, recent events at local schools and an individual’s home reflect a sad and shameful time in our history, and they point to a disturbing realization that we are not as far along the path of reconciliation and unity as we had hoped.”
“Sadly, for some members of our community, what others might view as isolated incidents represent a sentiment they frequently experience in their daily lives,” Scott and Scarbrough continued. “These symbols of hate hurt those targeted and our entire community. These overt acts by individuals acting in a hateful way or by hate groups must be rejected; they do not represent who we are in Muskegon.”
To fully reject this hate, it’s crucial that people understand their own biases and how they impact their lives—and the lives of others, the rally’s keynote speaker, Molly Barker, said. The founder of Girls on the Run, a national nonprofit that aims to empower pre-teen girls, Barker now runs The Red Boot Way, an organization that works to bring positive change to communities through communication.
“The narratives I was raised with were not the truth; they were just my narratives,” Barker said after discussing her childhood in North Carolina, including notions of southern femininity and her parents placing the now 58-year-old in a private school after public schools were desegregated. “I began to see all those narratives were in place for a reason. They allowed some people to stay in power while others were not.”
While that realization is not always easy, Barker said it has propelled her into a world focused on addressing racism, classism and sexism through communication and people with privilege and power being intentional about listening to those who have been marginalized and oppressed for far too long. [To see Barker’s entire speech, click here.]
For many attending Monday’s rally, these ideas—ones of tackling deeply rooted problems that have forever plagued our country, like racism, with communication are of significant importance and can be a matter of life and death.
“I’m president of Congregation B’nai Israel, and I’m here today in the United States because of the discrimination, and, worse, pogroms and massacres that caused all of my grandparents to leave Russia and eastern Europe in the late 1800s,” County Commissioner Bob Scolnik told the crowd gathered in Hackley Park.
Scolnik went on to say that individuals must call attention to acts of hatred and bigotry, with the hope that we can learn from our past and not repeat a tragic history. This is a sentiment that the Love Lives Here statement from last year emphasized with a quote from Elie Wiesel, an author and Nobel Peace Prize winner who survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps during World War Two.
“We remember and affirm Elie Wiesel’s words: ‘We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented,’” Scott and Scarbrough read from the statement.
Following the inception of the Love Lives Here campaign, community leaders have implemented a number of concrete initiatives to address issues like racism and racial bias, including what are known as “community gathering initiatives.” Members of Speaking Down Barriers, a national nonprofit dedicated to promoting racial equity throughout the country, came to Muskegon in March to train a group of local individuals to facilitate conversations about race and racism throughout Muskegon and the surrounding area. In addition to the trainings, Speaking Down Barriers helped to kick off a series of community discussions about race—the community gathering initiatives.
Nancy McCarthy, a Rotarian and one of the individuals who was trained as a facilitator, spoke at Monday’s rally and encouraged the crowd to attend the next community gathering, which will be held Thursday, Oct. 25 from 6-8:30pm at the Women’s Club in downtown Muskegon. The event is free and open to the public, but registration is required. To register, please click here. More information is available here.
“We’d encourage all of us to examine our own unconscious biases,” McCarthy said. “…We need to use our voices to speak up when we hear someone speak in a disrespectful manner.”
Another event meant to encourage dialogue about race is the upcoming community gathering with Dr. Joy DeGruy—a nationally renowned researcher, educator and author—on Tuesday, Nov. 6 at the Frauenthal Theater. DeGruy will present “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing,” during which she will examine “the conditions that led to the Atlantic slave trade and allowed racism and efforts at repression ton continue through to the present day,” wrote the Community Foundation for Muskegon County, which is sponsoring the event.
“She looks at the seemingly insurmountable obstacles African Americans faced as the result of the slave trade, the adaptive behaviors they developed and strategies to promote healing,” the Community Foundation continued.
All of this—addressing racism and bias and prejudice—is messy, those attending the rally emphasized. This is a conversation that will be ongoing; it will be, and has been, challenging and often fraught with tension. But that tension–that’s positive, even if it doesn’t always seem like it. That means wheels are turning, that people are potentially confronting deeply problematic beliefs or unrecognized biases. After all, change doesn’t come from silence. It comes from the ability to listen to the voices of those who have been, or continue to be, silenced. It comes from speaking up when faced with hate. And that, Muskegon Police Chief Jeffrey Lewis said at Monday’s rally, is exactly what the city is doing.
“Our citizens shouted: hate does not reside here,” Lewis said. “Love lives here became the message.”
[Click on any of the images below to start the photo slideshow.]