On Sunday, May 1st, the fifth annual Stand Against Racism workshop took place at the YWCA in Lewiston, ME. This year’s event focused primarily on females of color.
The event began at 12:30 with a keynote address by Shay Stewart-Bouley, the executive director of Community Change, Inc., a 48 year-old Boston-based organization fighting racism. Stewart-Bouley is also the author of the blog, Black Girl in Maine.
Moving from Chicago to Maine in 2002, Stewart-Bouley explained, felt like moving to another planet. What started out as a joke, her blog became a way for her to deal with the frustration she felt on account of her race, gender and geographical location. Living in Saco, Maine, days would pass without her seeing another person of color.
Stewart-Bouley started her address with two sobering statistics: black girls are suspended six-times more often than white girls are and black boys are suspended three times more often than white boys are. Although there is clearly still racial inequity in this country, Stewart-Bouley explained that many people do not have the language to talk about race and racism. She feels that the intersection between race and gender is imperative to discuss and that girls and women of color face very different realities than other groups do.
Following her short introduction, Stewart-Bouley sat down alongside a group of Lewiston High School’s 21st Century Leaders and engaged in a moderated discussion. The 21st Century Leaders is a fifty-student group that meets weekly to develop leadership skills and to mentor elementary students at Lewiston’s Longley Elementary School. This year the group also conducted a year long research project on school disciplinary policies in the Lewiston School District, urging the administration to move from punitive policies to more restorative practices.
The 21st Century Leaders on the panel were all black Muslim girls. Throughout the discussion, which consisted of a question-and-answer dialogue within the panel and with the audience, the girls revealed their experiences with racism. One such anecdote a student disclosed occurred when she was walking down a Lewiston street, minding her own business, when a white adult male yelled at her to “go back to her country.” Other girls said that people are skeptical when they say they are from Lewiston, even though they were born here.
Another powerful and emotional incident was one that Stewart-Bouley herself recounted. She was in the car driving at night in Chicago with her then husband, a white man. They were pulled over by a cop, which she assumed was for random inspection. But, it soon became clear to her that the policeman had other assumptions. He thought she was a sex worker, even after her husband introduced her as his wife. This event profoundly changed the way she saw herself, and still affects her more than twenty years later. She feels self-conscious about what she wears and how she presents herself, trying hard not to live up to stereotypes. This incident even affects how she parents her daughter.
When asked whether racism is based on one’s culture or color, Stewart-Bouley replied that racism is based on a culture of discrimination. According to her, there is a dominant culture in this country that black people are just not a part of.
The girls also asked Stewart-Bouley what she thinks they should do if they experience racism in school. She said “no one has to fix a problem they did not create.” She then explained that every teacher in Maine should have anti-racism training so that they are adept at handling those types of situations. Applause erupted. And after the keynote address and the moderated discussion, Stewart-Bouley received a standing ovation.
At 1:30 p.m., workshops were led by the Neighborhood Housing League, the Lewiston High School (LHS) Civil Rights Team, the LHS 21st Century Leaders and the Southern Maine Workers’ Center. They presented on such topics as racial justice and its relation to housing conditions, the school to prison pipeline, access testing, and redistricting. Another workshop discussed the role of white people in creating an anti-racist future and another allowed participants to interact with members of the Muslim community and to try on a hijab.
The day ended with an anti-racism march through the neighborhood and an official stand in front of the YWCA.
In closing, Stewart-Bouley addressed white people specifically: “You have to do this [anti-racism] work in your own communities and be relentless in that work.”