Community members address racism at separate events

Members of both the Bowling Green and WKU communities gathered Thursday night at two different events to address the nation’s on-going racial tension.

On campus, a crowd of around 200 students, faculty and staff gathered in Centennial Mall to participate in a unity walk in an effort to bring together WKU students.

The unity walk was led by Iesha Sanchez, a junior from York, Pennsylvania. Sanchez said the idea for the walk came to her last semester when she attended the Multicultural Student Leadership Retreat hosted by WKU Student Activities. During the retreat, Sanchez and other students were asked to participate in a variety of activities including creating a vision board.

“I just envisioned all blacks, all gays and lesbians, members of the LGBT community and different socioeconomic classes and religions to come together and realize that there’s one race,” Sanchez said. “It’s the human race.”

After the retreat, Sanchez said she wanted to turn her vision into a reality. To do this, Sanchez said she met with a staff member who worked with her to plan a campus-wide unity walk.

Sanchez said this felt like the right time to have the walk especially in light of current campus events. Earlier this semester, a faculty member received racist notes in her office, and a student’s car was vandalized with a racial slur. September is also Campus Safety Awareness Month, and Sanchez said she believes September was an appropriate month for the event because many students do not feel safe on campus.

“The timing just felt perfect with all the racism, and all the banners of Vanderbilt and the rape victims and the insults towards that,” Sanchez said.

The unity walk started at 6:30 p.m. in Centennial Mall. Participants then walked down to Pearce Ford Tower, around Douglas Keen Hall and back to Centennial Mall where they gathered to listen to several speakers.

Sanchez said the event went better than she had imagined, and she was happy to have such a large number of participants. She said the one disappointment, however, was the lack of support from the Panhellenic Association sororities and the Interfraternity Council fraternities.

“I did reach out to each and every president; I sent it to their email,” Sanchez said. “I’m not sure if anyone showed up.”

Louisville sophomore Ashya Watkins was one of the participants in the walk. She said she decided to participate because of recent race-related events in Louisville and on WKU’s campus.

“I just want to take a stand for it,” Watkins said. “It’s getting pretty ridiculous.”

Watkins said since her time on campus she has experienced one instance of racism. She said the incident occurred when she moved into Douglas Keen the first semester of her freshman year. Watkins said she was standing in a room when a fellow student entered the room. Watkins introduced herself and the girl ignored her.

“[The girl] walked out, and she was talking to her mom and she was like, ‘There’s black people going to this school,’” Watkins said. “I didn’t make a comment back to it. I just walked off from it.”

Watkins said she thinks the campus needs to have more events like the unity walk. She said some people do not know what is appropriate to say, and events such as the unity walk can help with that problem.

Denise Smith, program coordinator for Cornerstone, also participated in and spoke at the walk. She said she enjoyed the event and was impressed with the number of students who participated. Smith said she was particularly impressed by the number of African American students who attended the walk.

“It’s very difficult to get some of our minority students out in the effort to want to work towards change,” Smith said.

Following the walk, students were invited to attend a forum called Racism on the Hill. The forum was hosted by Smith and was part of the Speak Your Truth Series, which is an ongoing series focused on topics relevant to college students. Around 30 students mainly from minority groups gathered in Downing Student Union to listen to the panel discussion.

The discussion topics ranged from how to unite the campus to personal stories of racism. At one point, Smith asked the audience members to raise their hands if they had experienced racial profiling. Nearly everyone raised their hands.

One student spoke about a time when members of a fraternity called her racial slurs. Another student spoke about being followed in a store. A third said he felt people viewed him as a monster, even on campus. He said he often notices when white girls speed up their pace when they walk by him.

Several of the other speakers encouraged students to take action instead of waiting for something to change. They stressed the importance of actively participating instead of only sharing posts on social media.

Smith said she thinks the right steps are being taken to promote change. She said she encourages students to raise awareness and educate their friends and family.

“It’s a slow fight, but it will triumph in the end,” Smith said.

Across town, another group of over 50 people gathered in front of the Warren County Justice Center for a candlelight vigil in honor of lives lost to racial violence.

Veronica Reed, 34, a community service worker and founder of the local chapter of Black Lives Matter opened the evening by asking for the event to remain peaceful.

“If something happens, please refrain from anything negative so that we can have a peaceful moment tonight and honor the people we’ve lost,” Reed said.

Last week, protests erupted in Charlotte after police fatally shot Keith Lamont Scott, a black man who, according to police, was armed at the time of the shooting. In recent months, other racially charged incidents across the nation and here in Bowling Green have sparked controversy and conversation.

Brandon Render, 27, Bowling Green, said the candlelight vigil Thursday night was meant to be about inclusivity and stepping out of one’s comfort zone to make change possible.

“As an individual you can do something, I can do something, but together we can do anything,” Render, a housing case manager at Life Skills, said.

Latrese Bryant, 37, of Bowling Green was one of the main speakers for the night. Bryant, who works at the Warren County Justice Center as a paralegal for the department of public advocacy, spoke about the death of Terry Alexander, the father of her children. Alexander was shot multiple times in a black-on-black incident in August 2013.

“People say that we live in a violent time but the truth of the African American is violent,” Bryant said during her speech at the vigil.

Bryant went on to explain the violence of black history in America before turning the attention back to current events.

“The people who have fought hard to be recognized as human beings are being killed in the streets like disposable goods,” Bryant said.

On Tuesday, an unarmed black man was fatally shot by police in a strip mall parking lot in El Cajon, California.

“I want our community to realize that there is a disparity,” Bryant said in an interview after the vigil. “Instead, people want to dismiss it as something that happened long ago.”

Claudia Hanes, 65, a retired teacher from Bowling Green was one of several white attendees who came to the event.

“We don’t understand the black experience because we aren’t black,” Hanes said, addressing other white members of the community while holding an American flag with stars in the shape of a peace sign and a sign that read “All Lives Matter When Black Lives Matter.”

Briana Phillips, a WKU senior majoring in psychology and the founder of the SOKY Riot Grrrls also spoke directly to the white community during the vigil.

“It’s not our place to tell people when and how to grieve,” Phillips said. “It’s our job to be there and support them.”

After Phillips spoke, candles were lit and Veronica Reed addressed the crowd again.

“Just because we say our lives matter doesn’t mean your lives don’t,” Reed said. “Our lives matter too. There should be no counter to that statement.”

Reed said she hoped the event would “shush all the naysayers” and help increase the following for future events.

“We are not here to cause damage, we are just looking to make people uncomfortable, because you can’t grow when you’re comfortable,” Reed said.

As the crowd slowly dispersed for the evening, Reed called over a girl wearing a sweatshirt from the local chapter of Black Lives Matter, pointing to a quote on the back of the gray hoodie.

The quote from Martin Luther King Jr., “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter,” was printed on the back of the sweatshirt.

Reed gazed at the quote before continuing.

“No civil rights movement is going to happen overnight, that would take a miracle,” Reed said. “But I believe we can eventually get the community where it needs to be.”

Reporter Emma Collins can be reached at 270-745-6011 and [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @thebest_dilemma.