This year, weâ€™ve heard too much about the widening racial divide in our country and local communities, and the headlines have not been heartening.
But there is some good news locally. Folks in mostly white South Berwick, Maine, arenâ€™t running away from the problem. They are taking action against racism by establishing a sister-city relationship with Tuskegee, Alabama.
It may seem like a small gesture compared to the scope of the problem. Racial justice seems more elusive than ever in our country and communities.
This year saw more shootings of unarmed black men by white police officers. NFL player Colin Kaepernick famously took a knee during the national anthem to protest racial inequality in America. Many NFL players followed Kaepernick while politicians, talk radio hosts and the president, himself, condemned their actions as un-American.
The national headlines filtered down to local athletes, too. Girl soccer players at Traip Academy in Kittery, Maine, followed Kaepernickâ€™s lead and took a knee to show their solidarity and support for racial justice.
There was plenty of racial hatred on display in other local communities, too. The University of New Hampshire in Durham had a spate of racial incidents that prompted the university to hold a forum to address some ugly behavior.
The Oyster River School system had several racist incidents, including one in which an elementary school boy was the target of racial taunts on the school bus and a middle school student reported racial jokes at school. Those incidents galvanized the community and led to a school-sponsored forum to address racism in the community.
South Berwick also had a racial incident on the school bus this year. During a community forum on racism in October, a Marshwood High School student told the audience of about 100 that she had repeatedly been the victim of racial slurs and threats by her peers on the bus. Sixteen-year-old Jalion McLean urged parents to teach their children to call out those using racial slurs.
â€śTeach your kids to stand up. That bus ride still sucks every day and it gets worse,â€ť McLean told parents at the forum. â€śTeach them that they will get a lot of backlash, people are not going to be happy if they are standing up for someone, but it has to be done.â€ť
The forum is only one of the ways South Berwick residents are working to combat racism and promote understanding. Nine South Berwick residents recently traveled to Tuskegee for the first face-to-face meeting as sister cities.
The two communities couldnâ€™t be more different. South Berwick is 95 percent white, while Tuskegee is 95 percent African-American. The northern contingent met with Tuskegee Mayor Lawrence â€śTonyâ€ť Hapgood, visited schools, toured museums and participated in dialogues about race.
Members of the South Berwick group were Sister City Steering Committee Chair David McDermott; South Berwick Public Library librarian Karen Eger; School Administrative District 35 gifted education specialist Grace Jacobs; First Baptist Church of South Berwick Pastor Scott McPhedran; Heidi Early-Hersy, SAD 35 director of teaching and learning; Vicki Stewart, district director of communications; Julia Ouellette, representing the First Parish Federated Church; Rachel Martin, a board member of the community nonprofit SoBo Central; and, freelance writer Amy Miller.
One Tuskegee experience in particular moved members of the South Berwick delegation to tears. They visited the Tuskegee History Center where the plight of those involved in the Tuskegee syphilis student study is commemorated.
In exchange for taking part in the study, the men received free medical exams, free meals, and burial insurance. Although originally projected to last 6 months, the study actually went on for 40 years.â€ť
And, hereâ€™s the real kicker: When penicillin began to be used routinely in 1947 to cure white people suffering from syphilis, researchers did not offer it to the Tuskegee men. The story is so bad, it almost sounds like fiction, if not for all the well-documented government research.
There is so much more to learn about racism in this country and in our communities. One trip to Alabama canâ€™t cure all of the ills we face surrounding racial prejudice, but itâ€™s a start.
The delegation from South Berwick deserves to be commended for starting the dialogue. Change can happen if we make connections and work toward real understanding.