"They started listening. And then engaging."
That said, my childhood had its share of troubles. My mother had been molested when she was a young girl, and because she was abused, she had a lot of issues and challenges as a parent. My parents got married young, and then, between my mom’s traumas and my dad’s drug issues, they got divorced very young.
I lived with my mom for awhile after the divorce, but she was abusive to me and my siblings. Luckily my paternal grandmother stepped in and played a really prominent role in my life. My grandmother became my biggest influencer. She was very old-fashioned, very classy and poised. She always cared about what she looked like and how she presented. Her house was immaculate. She was a big fan of jazz music and had been a dancer growing up. My grandmother spent a lot of time with me, and she ended up being one of my biggest protectors.
Around age 9, I got another protector. A close family friend recognized that I was motherless and really needed some direction. She took me under her wing. Her family adopted me, and I had a new sister, mother and father. I had a new start with them, and I still got to spend a lot of time with my paternal grandmother.
I was a very guarded child because of my complicated family life, but I can remember being 9 and finally realizing that my adoptive mother wasn’t going to leave me. What I had learned for myself is that people really had to prove themselves, and my adoptive mom stayed right in front of me and consistently invested in me and dealt with all of the anger and angst that I felt. I got to the point where I recognized that she loved me. I realized that she really had my best interest at heart. She’s very fond of telling the story of the first day I opened up to her enough to go lay down next to her. It was the first time that I’d really shown any kind of affection towards her. She was always assuring me that she would be there for me, and she never broke that promise.
I have good childhood memories with my adoptive family and my adoptive sister, Tia. We took trips together, and Tia and I played. I was kind of a tomboy, and loved to play sports; I still have a huge scar on my knee from playing football in an alley. As a teenager I was a cheerleader at school. I became a vocalist; I loved opera and 80’s pop music - kind of a strange combination, but it worked for me. I loved Prince and sang in a Prince cover band called ‘Thy Royal Court’. I had varied interests and the freedom to explore them.
I was also a teenage mom. I got pregnant at 15 — which is very common for abused children. Both my grandmother and my birth mother were incredibly disappointed. I was a really good student that had a lot of potential, but getting pregnant kind of changed things for me. Fortunately, I had enough credits at school to graduate a year early, and so I just started living life as a parent and tried to be the best parent that I could. I married my son’s father. We had two additional children, and raised them in the Hyde Park area of Chicago. My three kids, who are now young adults, have done really well in terms of avoiding some of the bumps that I hit and making sound decisions. They’re charting a really good path for themselves. I’m very proud of them.
My husband and I were together for a long time, but after our kids were grown our marriage fell apart. Before we split I had been running my own business, a consignment shop, but then I was on my own, and I needed a job with benefits and, I decided, a change of scenery.
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 some support - it seemed the right place to go."
“I moved to Oshkosh, and for a year I tried to find my footing and 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, helping them to document their stories, to connect them to their loved ones. Working with those seniors was some of the most rewarding work I had done professionally, and yet, my first year in Oshkosh I felt very alone. I didn’t see many people that looked like me. I kind of felt like I had landed on the wrong planet, to be honest. I enjoyed my job but personally 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 being consistently 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 senior center near Chicago, so I got up early to drive there for it.
I got up that morning, put on my business dress, I put my hair up in a bun, ready for work. I get in my car and I turn the corner and on the right side of the street was a police car. And 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 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, ‘So 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 by a certain time 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. So my white male friend could drive my car, but I couldn’t.
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.
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 40 or 50 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. I’d say the people in attendance were cautiously optimistic about the possibility of change. Most had enough life experience to know that dismantling systemic bias is a slow process, but we all saw the potential, and we were ready to do the work together.”
“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. I’d been attending all my life, usually with my aunts or other community members if my grandmother didn’t go.
At the time there was one African-American church in the city, Bethel Worship Center, 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 struggles 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 20 years, I’ve raised four biracial children in this community. I get it. 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 understood.’
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.’”
“Some people were kind of surprised to hear about Janine and I having open conversations about race and some of the challenges in our community. But they were also really curious and interested, so in 2012 we started inviting others to our table. We hosted monthly conversation events, at first in other places of worship.
What we’d do is 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 response was far ranging, from people thinking this wasn’t their work, to people really, really digging in. The events continued and were very well attended, about 40 or 50 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 my 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 more often than not, 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.’
Conversations about race can be really difficult to start. Without support, people don’t always know how to navigate a conversation on this. So our work is to sort of unfreeze people. To offer the community an opportunity and a safe space to engage. Because while we all know how to do the work ‘on the surface’ - what I mean by that is that we know the politically correct things to do and say, and how to be polite - but we don’t always know how to do the ‘deep work’. And we didn't want this to be just surface level work. We knew this work was going to be somewhat uncomfortable for all of us.
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, below the surface. 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 - we call them Color Brave Conversations - a woman approached me at the end of one. Her name is 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 to these 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.
Part of that was to develop a formal curriculum that groups can use to help develop racial competency. We decided we’d create a curriculum, the Racial Literacy Workshop, and the Color Brave Conversations and then reach 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 engaging.
One example is when we were doing a community wide book club with ‘Between the World and Me’, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. We said to the stakeholders, ‘We're gonna read this book, and we want to ask you to be a visible part of this conversation and invite the people in your networks to join us for this read.’
They did, and we had 339 people in Oshkosh Wisconsin, all reading and engaging with a book about the realities of being black in the United States. The stakeholders came and read a section of the book that resonated with them and why. And it was just amazing. Right now we’ve just started our fourth community read.
As part of our work with stakeholders we’ve also continued to be in dialogue with the police, creating ways to repair and build trust. We even organize and host an annual Kids and Cops Basketball game now. It's a day of engagement involving basketball with the youth in the community and the Oshkosh Police.
All this work has culminated in a formal organization, called FIT Oshkosh, and we’ve since received awards for this work, from UW Oshkosh and other places, and we’ve traveled to teach about what we are doing
One of the things I heard a lot from people of color during the Color Brave Community Conversations was, ‘After I complete school I’m out of here, because Oskhosh 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 ethnicity or gender or sexuality, fit in?
We know it’s uncomfortable to talk about race. We were raised to be ‘midwest nice’ and sometimes that means we’re ‘not going to see race’. But that isn’t helpful. If you don’t see race, you don’t see me or my experiences. What we really need people to do is to be brave, to step out and have those tough conversations. Yes, you’re going to say the wrong thing. We all do and it’s okay. We apologize, dust ourselves off, and try again. Our biggest growth happens in those times that we mess up.
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, Oshkosh WI