Tuesday, August 29, 2017

About 50 attend mayor's 'Peace in the Park' and many offer views on issues of race and diversity

Many in the crowd remained in the park's quarry area to talk after the "Peace in the Park" event concluded.
Story and photo by Sarah Landers
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

About 50 Midway residents responded to Mayor Grayson Vandegrift’s call of a meeting Sunday afternoon in the recently opened quarry area at Walter Bradley Park, where the serene nook set the tone for a peaceful and unifying discussion on race and diversity. Many offered their own sentiments on how to make Midway a home to everyone.

Vandegrift said in an interview before “Peace in the Park” that he was inspired by the recent violent white-supremacist protests in Charlottesville, Va. In opening the meeting, he said Midway has an annual unifying celebration for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, but race isn’t discussed enough, and he believes it is the duty of political leaders to hold such events, to open the discussion on diversity.

“Race is a moral issue, and I think we all have a moral obligation to do the right thing and to say the right thing,” he said.

During the open discussion, Helen Rentch told the crowd that the number of African Americans in Midway has declined due to the job market and housing availability, a perspective on the issue that many may not have considered.

With hundreds of jobs coming to Midway Station, Rentch said the town could be “in danger of becoming an exclusive little enclave,” instead of a place that all can enjoy. “I think the issue of housing is something we need to talk about if we want to become a diversified community,” she said.

After the meeting, Vandegrift said Rentch’s comments were an interesting point that he would like to address further.

The Rev. Dr. Sheila Harris, one of two scheduled speakers, asked the audience powerful questions in her opening. “When you see me standing here, do you see me as a person? Do you see me as an American? Do you see me as a woman?” she asked. “Or do you put a label on me, and say that I’m an African American female? What do you see?”

Instead of moving forward, she said, it appears time is moving backward in regards to the issues of racism. “The time now is that we stop pushing it under the covers. The time now is that we stop just having the community gatherings and talk about it,” she said, calling for “action behind the words.”

During the open discussion, Sally Kinnard recalled a conversation she had last year with an African American friend, in which they discussed what they could really do about race issues. “We all love each other and that’s fabulous, and then what do we do now?” she asked. “Do we have dinner together?”

Kinnard asked how the community would respond if a hate group visited the town, and offered some entertaining solutions. “I hear things like somebody says, ‘We’re going to throw glitter on them, ’cause it’s really hard to get rid of glitter’,” she said, adding that staying home would be too passive.

Kinnard said she wants community members to think about how they could protect each other if that ever occurred in Midway. “I sort of say let’s leave that to Grayson,” she said, provoking more laughter, “but that we need to have community conversation around that, so that we’re not caught like Charlottesville was caught in a hateful situation that just deteriorated.”

Angela King-Belleville also brought up questions, about how to effectively denounce racism on social media. She also asked how she could be more expressive of her feelings.

Liles Taylor opened a conversation on being an ally to minority communities as a white man. Taylor said that “not being racist” is too low of a bar, and he wants the community to be more proactive and intentional in loving others.

The other scheduled speaker besides Harris, also African American, was state Sen. Reginald Thomas, a Lexington Democrat who is running for Congress. In a two-minute speech, he said of the events in Charlottesville, ”We thought those times were behind us.” But he added, “It’s gatherings like this that help lead us back, to a path forward of togetherness. . . . We all have to have those conversations because we all have to understand that in the end, the only way that we are going to become a stronger, better nation, and a more cohesive community is when we come together as one and realize that fundamentally, we are the same.”

Thomas also said the bounds of diversity can stretch to include language, gender, and LGBTQ populations.

Two pastors from Midway shared stories of inspiration from Dr. Kevin Cosby, senior pastor of St. Stephen Church in Louisville, who visited Midway Baptist Church last year for a “Reconciliation Meal” and spoke about overcoming the culture of conflict from segregation.

Steve Hadden, pastor of Midway Baptist, offered an opportunity for audience members who wondered what they could do to help stand against racism. He said that on Sept. 11 at the Galt House, there will be a meeting with an emphasis on education in black colleges and universities, inspired by Cosby’s position as president of Simmons College of Kentucky. Next year, the meeting will cover economic empowerment.

“What I’m learning is there can be no reconciliation without reparation,” Hadden said.

Pastor Rick Smith of Second Christian Church shared one of his core values with the audience. He referenced Cosby’s eulogy of Muhammad Ali, saying forgiveness, truth, reparations, and reconciliation are all necessary steps to overcome conflict and heal from transgressions. Smith asked that community members raise their children to be “strong advocates for their neighbors.”

Sarah Wilson made a similar request. “I work with children on a fairly regular basis, and you would be shocked to hear some of the things that come out of their mouths,” she said. “They’re just repeating what they heard at home.”

Wilson said that while it is difficult to change the opinion of adults, it is important to teach children to love their neighbors. “When you don’t think about what you’re saying in front of children, you’re going to cause some problems down the road,” she said.

Vandegrift said after the meeting that he hopes to inquire more about ideas and concerns that Midway residents have about their community, and would like to continue the open discussions of diversity. Vandegrift also said he believes Midway could serve as an example to other communities.

Al Cross, editor and publisher of the Midway Messenger, told the crowd that the state’s relatively small African American population means that many Kentuckians do not even know a person of color, so change needs to come “one relationship at a time.”

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