The Journal Gazette
 
 
Sunday, May 30, 2021 1:00 am

Fighting injustice starts locally

United Front among groups helping raise awareness

LISA GREEN | The Journal Gazette

As a mother of three sons, Camille Curry is used to kids getting cuts.

The scrapes and small injuries from child's play, though, weren't as concerning as the cuts stemming from biases and racism – both of which Curry views as deep-rooted and systemic.

There's the time when two of her three sons, now all in their early 30s, told her their vehicle was stopped by police on the way home from a high school football practice. They weren't sure why. But it shook them.

And, when asked, Curry reflects back to a high school show choir field trip as one of her first realities with racism. She was with a couple of friends at a Tennessee restaurant, but unable to get service.

Curry tried to flag a waitress, but was ignored. She went to a counter to point out her group had been waiting awhile, but said she was still ignored. When the white male from the group went to ask for service, Curry said, he was told the staff would wait on him – but him only.

“That was the first time the wind was literally kicked out of me,” said Curry, now 50. “It was just mind blowing.”

Attention to racial concerns was renewed locally and nationally last year after George Floyd died in May last year, gasping for air as a Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee into his neck nearly nine minutes. 

After a video of Floyd's last breaths went viral, protests spread quickly over how police handled him – based on a grocery store's call that alleged he used a counterfeit $20 bill. In some cities, the National Guard was called to help quash rioting.

Locally, demonstrations lasted weeks and led to about 150 arrests, mostly on misdemeanor charges such as disorderly conduct.

On June 18, Mayor Tom Henry appointed a Commission on Police Reform and Racial Justice as part of a “Moving Forward Together” action plan. The commission issued a report in March with more than 40 recommendations, including for officers to be equipped with body cameras and the Board of Public Safety to be expanded to five civilian members.

By fall, local leaders announced United Front, a yearlong cultural awareness program to address issues of race, equity and inclusion.

Curry gave remarks at the end of the United Front session in April, which focused on stereotypes. In March, the program focus was biases and microaggressions. In brief closing comments then about the need for such training, Khalid Griffin, an assistant professor of education at Trine University, suggested that improving race relations requires acting on what is learned about valuing differences.

“What good is it to be inspired if we don't do anything with it?” Griffin asked, rhetorically. 

Much of last year's unrest after Floyd's death centered on Black minorities. Since then, and particularly in recent months, concern about hate crimes directed at Asians has increased.

Fort Wayne, in general, has room to grow. The city's Metropolitan Human Relations Commission investigates more than 300 discrimination cases annually, said Nikki Quintana, its executive director.

Of course, not every concern about injustice – regardless of nature – that may occur locally makes its way to the commission as a formal complaint.

Separately, Quintana was a member of the mayor's Commission on Police Reform and Racial Justice and said she was honored to be part of that process. And she is optimistic because thousands are engaged with United Front training.

“This response shows that our community members want to continue to improve, grow and make Fort Wayne a welcoming place for all,” Quintana said through email.

“I believe having honest conversations about race, diversity, inclusion and equity will help us move forward. When we begin to understand the struggle of our neighbors and the forces at play, it is then we can start working toward answers together,” she added. “It starts with acknowledging the problem and then looking for solutions. But it's also understanding that these solutions will take time implement.”

Realities, conversations

Griffin, who also pastors Redemption Church in Fort Wayne, has a son in kindergarten and a daughter in high school. His son probably isn't conscious about racism, but Griffin knows he may eventually have to have what many Blacks call “the conversation” with him.

Griffin, 33, has had his own encounters where race seemed to be a factor. They started when he was young and included microaggressions – the slights usually driven by race or gender, even if the offense is unintentional.

As a youth, Griffin heard comments from staff at a predominantly white school about how well he could speak – as though it were a surprise. But he also recalls being followed around in a store – as if he might steal. The irony is that Griffin said he and his siblings were raised to avoid suspicion, based on a simple principle: “If you ain't buying it, don't touch it.” 

As an adult, Griffin remembers one restaurant hostess who offered a “How can I help you all?” greeting that seemed more appropriate for a homeless person who had wandered in than someone with means to easily pay for the fine-dining experience. “It wasn't a 'Good evening. How many?'”

Griffin has two master's degrees on top of his bachelor's. Despite advanced education and career success, Griffin said he has still experienced the race-related “battle fatigue” that trainer Pascal Losambe has talked about in United Front presentations. The sessions are research-based, often diving into neuroscience as Losambe shares studies that document the negative impact of bias, stereotypes and lack of true inclusion.

Griffin believes the reawakening of the past year can lead to positive, lasting change – if structured and solution-oriented conversations with all the right people continue. Many of the issues that affect Blacks hinder other minorities.

“Whenever a pen has been stroked for a law to be changed or something to be shifted,” Griffin said, “you need white people at the table. It's this idea that we have to work together.”

Curry said Blacks deal with “constant little injustices” that can hobble the ambitions of youth. The injustices – or cuts, as she calls them – include the limited ways Blacks show up in school curriculum. The accomplishments of Black pioneers, for example, is typically relegated to Black History Month instead of regularly taught with American history, she said.

Curry is also concerned about mass media images, including what is portrayed as having “good hair.” When a Black 6-year-old wants a weave – artificial hair added – Curry believes that's a result of a cut that has affected how the child views herself.

Parents and mentors need to constantly reassure youth of their value and potential, including having them recite affirmations, she said.

Curry serves as a volunteer with the Art Leadership Center, LLC, founded by her son, Adrian L. Curry. He teaches youth to become leaders, using science, service and the arts. He also encourages them to focus on a formula he crafted called “The Five Wells of Leadership: Well Read, Well Spoken, Well Dressed, Well Traveled and Well Balanced.”

An Ohio native, Camille Curry has lived in Fort Wayne since her 20s. She was surprised at how Fort Wayne rallied to protest what happened to George Floyd and other injustices.

Curry hopes the outcry from the past year can “be a catalyst and help other families that haven't seen justice.”

But she also sees how the stories of injustice breed more fear and distrust, increasing the need for unification and training. United Front, Curry said, is a “really good start” toward providing the insight and understanding that comes through listening.

The cross-cultural conversations are crucial, even if not always easy.

“They're going to be difficult, but they have to take place. And they're not all going to be pretty,” Curry said. “United Front is on to something because it's actually bringing people to the table to have these conversations.”

lisagreen@jg.net


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