"They started listening. And then engaging."
I had a friend who lived in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and my children and I would visit her all the time.
When the time came to make a move, Oshkosh seemed like a place where I’d have some familiarity and support. It seemed the right place to go.
I moved, and for a year I tried to find my way into the community. I was working for a company that taught computer literacy skills to seniors. It was a very rewarding job: helping seniors learn digital skills, document their stories, and connect with their loved ones. And yet my first year in Oshkosh felt very lonely. I didn’t see many people who looked like me. I kind of felt like I had landed on the wrong planet, to be honest. I enjoyed my job, but I really struggled to find my footing here.
Part of it was that as soon as I arrived people would ask me absurd things, like, “Did you move here for the prison?” or they would say other racist comments to me. My daughter moved here a year later, and we were both consistently being pulled over by the police without due cause. I’d been stopped six times within the first year and a half of living here. I was never ticketed, never cited. Just stopped. I remember one time in particular: I was working for the computer literacy skills company, and that morning we were hosting a course graduation for our seniors at a center near Chicago.
I got up early that morning so I could get there on time for the graduation. I put on a business dress, and put my hair up in a bun, ready for work. I got in my car and I turned the corner and on the right side of the street was a police car. I said to myself,
“They're going to stop me. She's going to stop me.” I just felt that it would happen today, when I really had to get to work on time.
Sure enough, I got pulled over. When the officer got to the window I asked, “Why did you pull me over?” The officer said, “Oh, you resemble a suspect.” By this point, I had been pulled over multiple times without due cause. I said,
“So you're telling me that there are a bunch of middle-aged, overweight, black women in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, committing crimes?”
She said, “Let me see your driver's license and registration.” I handed her my driver's license and my registration. My license was a Wisconsin driver's license, and my plates were from Illinois, because I had a few months left on the stickers.
The officer says, “You can't live in Wisconsin and have Illinois plates.” I didn’t know that was a problem, I thought I could get the use out of the sticker until they expired. But something seemed off to me, so I asked, “You stopped me because I had Illinois plates?” And she said, “Yes.” I said, “Okay. Are people from Illinois not allowed to drive here? That’s not a reason to stop someone.” She says, “Where are you going?” I explain that I’m going to work, I have to get to Chicago for this event for our seniors. She says, “Well, I can't let you drive your car.” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “You can't drive your car in Oshkosh because you have Illinois plates.” I asked if my daughter could drive me, she said no.
I ended up having to call a friend—a white male friend—to drive my car around the corner, back to my house and park it because I wasn’t permitted to.
“After that, I had had enough. I went with two of my white friends (who had heard many similar stories, and shared similar concerns) to meet with the then Chief of Police. We talked to him about my experience and others’ experiences—incidents that I call microaggressions. I spoke about the experiences I’d had with the police, that my daughter had, and the collective experiences of people of color that I’d met in the community.
The then Chief of Police said, “Well, why didn't the other people of color come to the table to with you?” I had to explain to him about the fear: how there are many people in our community who are fearful of the police—and why.
It was the beginning of a relationship. It took time to build that relationship, but eventually I organized another meeting and about forty or fifty people of color showed up to voice their experiences with and concerns about racial profiling.
The Chief of Police came—out of uniform—and he listened to all of the concerns that we'd had, and he began to address them, one by one. We were cautious, but optimistic about the possibility for change.
One of the first things I did when I moved to Oshkosh was find a church. Growing up, church was a sanctuary. I think it’s true of most African-American communities that church is a staple, and I’ve been attending all my life.
At the time there was one African-American church in the city, and I immediately got plugged into it. It had an eclectic congregation, largely African-American, and was pastored by an African-American couple. I felt like it was a place to go to connect with people who would understand some of the challenges I was having.
One evening, I was talking to a women’s group at church about how I was struggling here. Afterward, a woman named Janine came up to me and said, “I’ve lived in this community for twenty years, I’ve raised four biracial children here. I understand how challenging this community can be for a person of color and certainly for an outsider.
If you’re willing, I would love to meet with you and talk to you, and then you’d at least have one person who understands.”
After that, I had had enough. I went with two of my white friends -- who had heard many similar stories and shared similar concerns -- to meet with the then Chief of Police. We talked to him about my experience and others, experiences that I’d call ‘microaggressions.’ I brought the experiences I’d had with the police, that my daughter had, and the collective experiences of people of color that I’d met in the community had.
So Janine—who is a white woman married to a black man—and I started getting together once a month and having really meaningful conversations about race and how it plays out in our community. It was really helpful, for both of us.
After awhile, we started telling people about the conversations we were having.
Some people were kind of shocked to hear about this white woman and this black woman, talking about issues of race so openly, like, “You two talked about THAT?”, but lots of people said, “Gosh, I’d really like to be a part of that dialogue and learn for myself.”
So, in 2012 we started inviting others to our table. We hosted monthly conversation events in different places of worship around town.
“We’d invite people in, and then engage with a film or media clip or other content that brought up issues related to race. Then, we’d have a facilitated conversation about it. The responses were far-ranging: from people thinking this wasn’t their work, to people really digging in. The events continued and were very well attended: about forty or fifty people every month came. A lot of the attendees were white. We had some really direct conversations about race, and we found that people really wanted to talk. They wanted tools to help make their community better.
In one of our early conversations we were talking about privilege, and this woman said, “I don’t have any privilege.” So I told her an anecdote. I told her about how our family gathers around the table for dinner every night, just like any other family. She said, “Yep, we have dinner together every night too.” I went on to say how there are the typical questions about how your day went—and so on—but also, my husband would be saying to our kids, “Okay, so when you get pulled over by the police, what do you do?” It wasn’t a question of if—it was a question of when you get stopped by the police—and we wanted them to live to tell the story.
I looked at that woman and said, “Have you ever felt compelled to have that conversation with your children?” There was a pause. I said, “If not, that’s a privilege.”
She actually started crying. She said, “Oh, I get it.”
One of the biggest fears that some people had starting out is that they were going to be called racist. And so we’d say to people, “These are new conversations. We know you've been told not to have them, to not ask, to not ‘see color,’ to be ‘Midwest-nice.’ No one gets up in the morning, looks in the mirror and says, ‘Okay, who can I oppress today?’ It doesn’t happen like that. It’s more based on what we’ve seen, what’s been normalized, and most of it is unconscious. So what we're going to ask you to do is to be brave, and engage.” We told the folks at our conversations, “It’s okay when we mess up. We all do. Just dust yourself off and try again.” To really step out and have those tough conversations—that’s the work to make this a better place for all of us.
Right around our second year of hosting these events, a woman approached me at the end of one. Her name was Dr. Jennifer Chandler, and she said, “These events are great. My son is biracial and we’ve both been coming, and these have been really rich and important conversations for us. But what’s next?” I was like, “What do you mean, what’s next? This is it: this is what we’re doing.”
“She said, “I’ve been coming for about three years. I’ve seen the same faces. At this point, you’re preaching to the choir.
If you really want to make a change in the community, we need to have some thought leaders, some stakeholders in the community coming to these events.”
It hadn’t occurred to me, but Jennifer was right. If we wanted to effect real change, we had to bring stakeholders to the table. So, soon after, Jennifer and I sat down at my dining room table and began to develop a way to formally engage the leadership in Oshkosh.
We decided we’d create a curriculum—the Racial Literacy Workshop, and the Color Brave Conversations, that groups can use to help develop racial competency—and then we reached out to stakeholders who needed to be a part of this important dialogue.
We went to the head of our schools. We went to our city manager. We went to our Chief of Police. We went to our representatives, to the chancellor of our university, and to our community leaders and we said, “Engage with us in this conversation.”
They started listening. And then they started engaging.
“As part of our work, we’ve done community-wide reads, hosted conversation groups, developed curriculum, run workshops, and organized connecting events—like our annual Kids and Cops Basketball Game. All this has culminated in a formal organization, called FIT Oshkosh. We’ve since received awards from UW-Oshkosh and other places for our work. I’m now being invited to speak about it in our community and beyond.
One of the things I heard a lot from people of color during the Color Brave Conversations was, “After I complete school, I’m out of here, because Oshkosh is not a place that I fit in.” So it was with those conversations in mind that we decided to frame our work around “fitting in.”
How can we make our Oshkosh community a place where anybody, no matter their race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality, fit in?
I look at my grandson, a black child growing up in this community. My hope is that this work will be part of the solution that will allow him—and every other black and brown child in this community—to live in a space where he is treated fairly. Where he has the same opportunities as everyone else. Where he can walk around with his head up high and that he can find some black role models. We’re not there yet, but as long as I have breath in my body I’m dedicated to this work.
- Tracey Robertson | Oshkosh, WI