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Forum addresses race, culture

A standing-room-only crowd attended a community forum on racism, poverty and understanding Tuesday in the Superior Public Library. "When I saw the size of this crowd gathered in this room, I started to get really nervous and I was almost on the p...

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Facilitator Tim Davis speaks to participants in a forum on racism and cultural understanding Tuesday at the Superior Public Library. The event brought people from many walks of life together to discuss cultural bias, systemic poverty and racism. They whittled down the issue to a list of key points to work on. Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com

A standing-room-only crowd attended a community forum on racism, poverty and understanding Tuesday in the Superior Public Library.

"When I saw the size of this crowd gathered in this room, I started to get really nervous and I was almost on the point of tears," said Kym Young, co-founder of the Superior African Heritage Community, which organized the event. "I was so joyful that so many people turned out and thought enough of this that it was important enough in our community to come out for."

The crowd included people from all walks of life - students from area colleges, government officials, non-profit organization representatives and local residents.

"I think in the room right now we have one of the best representations of everything that is good in our Twin Ports community," Young said. "We’ve got from babies all the way up to senior citizens. I think that’s beautiful."

Held on the second day of Black History Month, the forum came in the wake of controversy several weeks ago when online comments made by a couple of elected city officials came to light and drew criticism.

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After a brief introduction and some food, forum participants split into two groups. In one room, they role-played scenarios and discussed cultural bias; the other group defined systemic poverty and hardship, bringing up local examples.

"It takes 45 to 90 days to find an apartment," Young said, although having a home address is critical to getting a job or receiving student financial aid. "Landlords are also charging anywhere from $20 to $75 per person per application fee."

They whittled the issues down into a list of problems to focus on, from improving housing and decriminalizing minor drug offenses to promoting equity.

Cultural bias is not just a law enforcement problem, said Tim Davis of Duluth, who led one of the breakout sessions. By understanding the past and present, we can make a change in our future.

"We can change the Twin Ports; we can change Superior; we can change Duluth," Davis said.

Jan Provost of Superior was part of the discussion.

"It’s right up our alley," she said, nodding at her Grandmothers for Peace sweatshirt. "I think it’s important for us to be here and to listen to all these different opinions; it’s wonderful. I think it’s the beginning of something big in this town."

Karen LaBare, parent involvement coordinator for Northern Lights Elementary School, came to learn more about the hurdles families face because of racism and poverty.

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"I want to hear what the community has to say. I’m trying to learn from the community," LaBare said. "I can’t promote change unless I know what change is needed."

It’s easy to walk away from a problem, said Carl Crawford, intercultural center coordinator for Lake Superior College.

"While we were in here gabbing together and eating and sharing time, someone felt the sting of racism today - someone was denied - in the little time we were in this room already," Crawford told the crowd. "If you agree, that can’t happen anymore. So although we’ll leave here today maybe not with all the answers but hopefully on the way to some new ones."

There is strength in numbers, said Kay McKenzie of Superior: "You know you’re not alone."

"I think people are going to take away from this that they’re not alone; they can make a difference," Young said. Additional cultural awareness forums are being planned to keep the discussion going.

The problems identified by the group can be tackled if we work together, talk about it openly and are aware of the need for change, said University of Wisconsin-Superior student Katie Wilke.

"If it’s important enough to our community, and apparently, it is very important to our community because I’m looking at the number of people that are here today, it’s important enough to take one hour a month," Young said. "That’s all it could take, one hour a month from a volunteer to help make a change."

She encouraged people to volunteer at a school, spend a few hours driving seniors to appointments or the grocery store, start a book club or attend community meetings.

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Mike Almond of Superior suggested people of color sign up for the Superior Police Department’s Citizen Police Academy.

"You would learn a lot more than you thought," he said.

Young said she was overwhelmed by the turnout at Tuesday’s event.

"This gives me the impetus to know we’re on the right track," she said. "It may be slow going but we’ll get there."

For more information on the Superior African Heritage Community or the organization’s upcoming events, look them up on Facebook.

Related Topics: DOUGLAS COUNTY
Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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