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Let's have a conversation


Teresa Miller, Secretary of the Department of Human Services, reflected on “the demonstrations held around Pennsylvania and the country in response to the murder of George Floyd” in the department’s June 11, 2020 newsletter, The Impact.  She acknowledged that “As a white woman, I have never experienced the anxiety, fear, and generations of collective, community-wide trauma that many Black, indigenous, and people of color face every day….”  In the midst of offering observations on the disparities, inequities, structural discrimination…and the commitment of the department to “correct them” Secretary Miller speaks of  conversations.  Conversations that are “difficult but very overdue”.  Conversations that “create a necessary opportunity to understand…”

As a contractor of the Department of Human Services Saint Benedict Education Center is attentive to the words and message of Secretary Miller. How are we to respond?  For the many volunteers, supporters, and friends of SBEC– wanting to further understand the back story of the work done here, the challenges faced by participants, a context within which to call for needed social and political changes – how to respond?

Secretary Miller speaks of engaging in “conversations”.  There are so many possible conversations waiting to be had.  What might be some to pursue?  

The death and “Celebration of Life” of John Lewis offered an opportunity to see and hear selected moments from the Civil Rights Movement.  One couldn’t help but think of comparisons between then and now.  What does this conversation need to be?  

Locally, “meet” Howard R. Horton, an Erie civil rights activist throughout the 1960’s and beyond at the Hagen History Center.  Or Erie native Harry T. Burleigh, a highly respected arranger, composer, and singer in New York.  Burleigh saved from extinction many of the spiritual and other African-American music that was sung on plantations.  Explore the New Jerusalem neighborhood in Erie, and the hope it held out for runaway slaves. (See “Documents, artifacts detail Erie’s African-American history” by Ron Leonardi, Erie Times-News, July 30, 2020) 

While you’re at the Center see the Justice Bell, which puts you in touch with the struggle for women’s suffrage and passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.  Be attentive to the recently completed mural on the Hands Building, corner of Seventh and State Street, commemorating the 100th annniversary.  Where are women one hundred years later? The women of SBEC?

The extreme disparities that exist in school districts have been thrust before us.  Disparities between urban and rural schools and the wealthier districts and private schools in equipment, materials, resources, internet access, and opportunities.  Some schools are able to adjust and respond to the current challenges and needs in ways poorer schools cannot.  The schools used by SBEC clients are those in need.  

Religious and ethnic diversity can expand one’s perspective.  Working with someone who is keeping the Ramadan fast, especially in very hot weather, is a humbling experience.  Sharing the excitement of another SBEC staff member or participant as they prepare for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights – celebrating the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance -- gives one pause.  What conversations can help one share in this wisdom rather than fear it?     

It may be that conversations of a different nature -- more challenging -- are needed if structural and systemic changes are to occur.  Consider how centuries of slavery and oppression have impacted people of African descent in America.  What are the lingering effects?  Member of a book club? Two suggestions:  (1) Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome:  America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing by Joy DeGruy, Phd., MSW.  (2)  An article, “Corporal punishment in black communities: Not an intrinsic cultural tradition but racial trauma” by Stacey Patton, PhD.

Secretary Miller speaks of the need for conversations – “difficult but very overdue conversations.”  In one such conversation at SBEC a staff member spoke of the need for conversations among white privileged people in terms of using their privilege to bring about substantive change.  Another reflected on the need for people to recognize and embrace their privilege and then consider how that often skews their attitudes and assumptions about people of color, different cultures, and those living in poverty.  

The possibilities for conversations are endless.  Where will you begin?