More than 50 residents gathered at the Lake Oswego United Church of Christ on Monday for a heartfelt discussion about racism, discrimination and how those forces impact Lake Oswego.
Organizers Willie Poinsette and Liberty Miller hoped it would be the first of many community meetings, and most of the audience appeared to agree.
"When we put the announcement out, I said it would be great if we could get five or six people," Poinsette told The Review. "And then suddenly, responses started coming it. It's overwhelming."
Miller and Poinsette organized the event in response to a series of recent discussions about racism in Lake Oswego on the neighborhood social network site Nextdoor. The online conversation was initially sparked by a blog post from Lake Oswego resident Nathan Sheppard, in which he talked about a recent encounter he'd had with a racist driver. (For more on that incident, see The Review's story online at http://bit.ly/2sMZlW5.)
But the conversation Monday evening took on a broader feel, addressing the presence of racism in Lake Oswego and how it connects to the city's well-known demographics and reputation as a rich, white suburb. Miller and Poinsette met through the online discussion, and decided to try continuing the conversation offline.
"On Nextdoor postings, a lot of emotions were coming up, with heated feelings," Miller said at the start of Monday's meeting. "But we weren't looking (at each other) face-to-face."
The pair scheduled the forum and created a Facebook event to invite others, and the guest list quickly grew to fill a church meeting room. The crowd included both new and longtime city residents, although an informal show of hands indicated that a majority had lived in Lake Oswego for fewer than 20 years.
Many of the attendees also indicated that they had prior experience working to support anti-racism causes. Several cited the current national political climate and said the timing was appropriate to pursue a conversation about race in Lake Oswego.
One of the attendees, Nancy Thorington, said she appreciated the opportunity to further a dialog about racism and prejudice, particularly in light of the recent attack on a MAX train that shook Portland. Thorington was a coworker of Ricky Best, a City of Portland employee who was fatally stabbed when he and other passengers intervened to stop a man who was screaming racist epithets at two teenagers.
Attendees at Monday's gathering included Lake Oswego City Councilors Theresa Kohlhoff and Jackie Manz, along with Lake Oswego School Bard member Rob Wagner. Amy Waterbury, who leads the group LO for LOve, also was in the audience.
Attendees were divided into groups of four or five at tables throughout the room, where they held smaller discussions that were then summarized for the rest of the room. Miller and Poinsette began the discussion by asking the groups to talk about what they wanted to get out of the meeting.
The responses were varied, but nearly all of them involved a desire to expand the discussion and translate the conversation into meaningful action. One person wanted to see space for similar conversations in the city's schools. Another asked about how to make sure employers create working environments that discourage racism and allow people to speak out against it.
"I'd like to find a way, as a community, to respond to incidents of hate (in Lake Oswego)," said one person.
Miller then asked each group to discuss the definition of racism. The responses were varied — some groups focused on individual beliefs in racial superiority, while others focused on systemic bias and another defined racism as "when the color of your skin determines the outcome" in various situations.
Poinsette suggested one more component of the definition: Racism always involves power, she said.
The discussion also looked at the topics of white privilege and macroaggressions. The former term refers to the ways in which white people exclusively benefit from systemic norms and assumptions. Audience members offered some examples: a higher likelihood of being accepted for an insurance policy or as an apartment tenant, or an expectation that a person will be taken at their word when interacting with police.
Conversely, attendee Paul T. Miller highlighted what life can be like in the absence of white privilege, with a story about how he had to make sure his 11-year-old son, who is black, carried his baseball bat and other practice equipment in a bag in order to avoid being perceived as a threat by law enforcement.
The discussion also turned to less-overt forms of white privilege, such as the fact that white people can always count on seeing their race represented in movies and other media, or that white people more often have the opportunity to be in communities where they'll typically only encounter people of their own race — a notion that rang close to home for the mostly-white group of Lake Oswegans at the meeting.
"When I want to go to the store, I rarely find anyone who looks like me," said Poinsette, who is African-American.
Microagressions are statements directed at people of color that reinforce racist themes and negative messages, Miller explained — even if the speaker intends the statement to be innocuous or complimentary, such as questioning where a person was born or is "originally from," or complimenting them on their proficiency at English.
Those comments have the effect of sending the message that the person is foreign and not truly American, Miller siad. One of the attendees, Karen Bromley, said she regularly encounters those kinds of questions with regard to her Filipino heritage.
"I always have to prove I'm American," she told the group. "Not an immigrant — I was born and raised here. I'm an American."
The meeting lasted for more thanr two hours, and the conversation continued right up until the end. Several attendees clearly had more they wanted to say, and everyone in the room expressed strong support for turning the event into the first in a series of regular monthly meetings.
Miller and Poinsette both said they were happy with the results and eager to see where the discussions would lead. In particular, both organizers said they were glad to see the discussion focus so much on the personal experiences of the people who spoke.
"The storytelling aspect is key," Miller said. "The stories are a springboard to get connected to actions."
"This is just the beginning," Poinsette added. "I heard excitement — there was energy in the room. I didn't hear any debating, I heard dialog. They look and sound like people who want to do something."