Editor’s Note: This commentary, the result of a collaboration between the Olean Times Herald and interviewer Marcia Kelly, gives voice to area residents with the hope of creating better understanding.
I am a lifelong resident of Olean. I attended Olean High School, graduated from JCC in Olean with a A.S. in human services and Empire State College with a B.S. in human services.
I have worked with a wide range of people and agencies over my career. I was a supervisor for a demolition company based out of Rochester for 10 years, I’ve worked for the past 14 years with individuals with mental health diagnoses, developmental disabilities and the elderly population. I have been blessed to have the ability to sit on several committees locally and on the state level. This has allowed me to see a wide range of life’s challenges and successes.
I have three grown children and two granddaughters who all live in Olean. One of my children is a business owner, the other works for the federal government and the youngest is in college at Niagara County Community College.
I was a coach of the area youth football league for a long time and coached an AAU basketball travel team in the area. The AAU team I coached was blessed with great, young, talented kids that had a chance to show their skills on a national level. A majority of these kids went on to college with three playing Division I basketball.
Being a coach in this area you quickly find there is a real financial divide in the community. I was grateful that over the course of a season the majority of the kids I coached were able to look at their teammates like family and as lifelong friends. This was probably the most rewarding feeling I had as a coach.
The biggest issue I see when it comes to the Black Lives Matter movement is the fight for fair and equal treatment for everyone. Until we can achieve this goal as a country, on every level, we will fail. Everyone likes to use Martin Luther King and his “I Have a Dream” speech to bring people together. The part they leave out is the whole first part of that speech where he spoke about all the inequalities in the country and the world — the same things we are still fighting for today. He also went on to say until these are fixed, we will never be one. We need clear leadership nationally and locally that supports equal rights for everyone.
The inequalities in the justice system are right in front of the world to see. African Americans make up about 14% of the population but make up around 80% of prison inmates. People say, “Stop committing crimes.” African American and white crime rates are about equal in this country. By that math it tells you that African Americans are being sent to prison at a much higher rate than white Americans for the same crimes.
Do you see the problem? Statistics show, based on the population, an African American male is more likely to be murdered by the police than their white counterparts. Do you see this as a problem?
There are two school systems in this country. If you are poor and live in an area that has been depressed, your education is less than that of your richer counterparts. If anyone has had the experience of walking into a school in a poor neighborhood you know what I am talking about. I have been in these schools on a number of occasions. They are underfunded, poorly staffed and can look like something out of a third-world country. Is this OK for our children?
“Move to a better neighborhood,” they say. The problem is they do not want you in the neighborhood. “They are trying to destroy the suburbs.” Do you know who says that? I will just leave that there.
Locally, we need to listen to the minority community. For some reason we as a community do not believe we face the same challenges as we do nationally. This mindset could not be further from the truth. Both nationally and locally the majority needs to listen to minorities.
We need more diversity and young people in the local and county governments. This is a big issue when it comes to policy-making locally. It seems like the same thing repeatedly locally and county-wide when it comes to the elected officials. This is a failure of both the Democratic and Republican parties. How can we say all members of our communities are represented when they are not? This goes for the city and county government employee base as well.
I HAVE EXPERIENCED a lot of racism and bigotry in this community. I think the people doing it are oblivious; they do not even realize they are doing it. Have you ever walked into a restaurant with a minority who was over 6 feet tall? I have. The first thing you see is people’s eyes go up. They want to know if that person is a threat or not. Walk into the same restaurant with a white man over 6 feet tall and no one blinks a eye. This happens to me all the time. Since I’m mixed race I see this when I go out to dinner with my family. It depends on what side of the family I’m going to dinner with as to what reaction we get.
In my career I have heard statements like, “You are not like them.” My response is always, “Like who?”
“You must have worked like crazy to get where you are.” My response is, “Didn’t you?”
“I would love to give you that promotion or have you sit on that board, but you do not talk like they talk or act like they act.” My response is, “So, who do I talk like and who do I act like?”
These are just a few examples of the many things I have heard or been through.
THE LOCAL WHITE majority is missing what the people are really asking for. What the protests are all about is equal rights. This is a civil rights issue and they have made it a political party issue. This is no different than what people were marching for in the Civil Rights movement — the only thing the people are asking for today are basic civil and human rights. Minorities in the country are not asking for a handout. What they are asking for is the right to be treated fairly under the justice and school systems and to have the same opportunities as the majority in this country.
What people here want is community engagement from their local officials, officers and community leaders. By engagement, what I mean is the ability to first recognize the issue and then help to solve it. Right now the majority of the community will not even say there is a problem. We want the police officers to be more engaged with the community. This is called community policing, to police in a way to understand the community and the people, not in a way that looks like a threat.
The fact that in 2020 this is even still a conversation and issue should be an eye-opener for people in America.
When the majority is ready to really listen and have the tough conversations, progress can be made. I think right now people are listening but they are listening to justify the normal everyday life as they know it and not listen to real life.
The local and county governments need to be open to new ideas and new people that do not look like them.
The minorities in the community need to stand up for the people. Some very powerful minorities in the community have become so comfortable with marginal success they have forgotten what it took to get that success. People dying, marching, being tear-gassed, beaten up, fighting government policy. Does any of this sound familiar? We as minorities cannot be afraid of losing a few friends, or fear losing a job to stand up for the rights of our people. The generations before us did it for us. We owe it to them to repay the favor they gave us. Would MLK or Malcolm be proud of the majority of local minorities in this community? That’s questionable.
People need to start being comfortable with being uncomfortable when conversations about diversity, racism, and bigotry come up. These need to be open and honest conversations.
People need to listen to the challenges that are being expressed right now from the perspective of minorities. If you have never lived these challenges you can’t understand them. There is a way to listen with empathy, understanding and a wilingness to learn. There is no better example of that than Cattaraugus County Sheriff Tim Whitcomb, while Olean is taking a step in the right direction by forming the Diversity Inclusion Board. If people would follow these examples, they would be able to understand and learn. Not all conversations and situations are comfortable, but we learn from the challenges we face and the success we have as a community.
People need to open their minds to maybe what they have been taught their whole lives in history class is not always the true story of America. Open their minds to learning the true facts about minorities in America and how that shaped America to be the nation it is today. I was blessed to have a grandmother who was an African American history teacher at the University at Buffalo, so I not only received the watered-down version of African American history but the whole and complete picture.
We need the local churches to step up like they did during the Civil Rights era. There is a big place for them in this civil rights movement of 2020. They need to bring people together and not put dividers up between them. I keep waiting and watching to see what church is going to take a step out of its membership’s comfort zone and do what is right and what is just.
THE QUESTION I have for the community is if you stood with the Civil Rights movement and all it stood for, how can you be against civil rights now?
I would encourage all white people to look inside themselves and be honest with themselves. What are the biases you have toward people who are not white? How does this affect the way you view the 2020 civil rights movement? Do my political biases get in the way of fighting for civil rights?
Ask yourself these questions and be honest with yourself about the answers, and make a change.
Minorities in this country should not have to explain to the majority why they are not looked at as equal. The conversation should be between the majority in this country as to why people are still not equal in 2020. The majority in this country need to start having this conversation between themselves before anything can change.