Respond to Racism celebrates a year of creating change in Lake Oswego
Nearly 100 people gathered Monday night to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Respond to Racism, a grassroots group founded in July 2017 to address concerns about persistent racism in Lake Oswego.
"Who knew that one year later, we'd still be meeting here?" co-founder Willie Poinsette asked attendees.
Respond to Racism now hosts a content-rich website and boasts more than 300 members on its mailing list. Poinsette and co-founder Liberty Miller serve on a 13-member steering committee, and the group has become a key player in community conversations about equity, diversity and inclusion.
Just last month, Poinsette was one of 22 people named to the Lake Oswego School District's Equity Committee.
There were a few new faces at this week's anniversary event, but many of the participants were longtime attendees who date back to the group's first few meetings. Also in attendance: Lake Oswego resident and Portland Police Det. Nathan Sheppard, whose blog post about a racist road-rage incident led to the formation of Respond to Racism.
In the 2017 post, Sheppard described an incident in which he had encountered an aggressive driver and followed him to a nearby parking lot with the intention of telling him that his behavior was unsafe. The man, whose young children were in the back seat of his car, responded with a racial slur, telling Sheppard he didn't look like he was from Lake Os-
That and incidents in local schools prompted Miller to start a conversation on the social-networking site Nextdoor, which led Miller to Poinsette. The two then decided to invite the entire community to join them in person and have a more in-depth discussion about racism and how it relates to Lake Oswego.
"The problem was, I was the only one who responded," Poinsette told the group this week. "But I am from the 60s civil rights movement, and I don't give up."
After an initial meeting between just the two of them, Poinsette and Miller resolved to try to organize a larger discussion. They got permission from the leaders of the Lake Oswego United Church of Christ to host a meeting there, and they created a Facebook post about the event.
They were hoping for 20 attendees, Poinsette said. They got 66.
Poinsette said she worried that the group's ranks would dwindle in future meetings and eventually fizzle out. But that never happened; the group continued to grow until it reached an average of 90-100 people at every meeting, and that has remained steady month after month.
When a racist incident involving an African American eighth-grader rocked Lake Oswego Junior High earlier this year, attendance at the next Respond to Racism meeting ballooned to more than 200 people, including students from the school.
"They enjoy each other, and they bring serious concerns," Poinsette said of group members. "People are willing and wanting to make a change."
The group emphasizes three core areas: learning, dialogue and action, but the discussions at this week's meeting put a strong focus on action, with many group members seeking new ways to proactively confront racism.
That's also one of the goals of Respond to Racism's steering committee, Poinsette said. The organization is working toward becoming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which would allow it to apply for grants to fund more projects.
Respond to Racism also wants to play a larger role in shaping and influencing policy and discussions in Lake Oswego, Poinsette said. Another goal is to achieve greater minority representation on the Lake Oswego City Council and in city and school leadership positions.
"I'm looking to see Lake Oswego be an example of a diverse community — a majority white population, but honoring diversity," Poinsette says. "That would be wonderful."
Sheppard himself is not a regular meeting attendee, but he came to the anniversary event as a special guest to share his story. He spoke briefly about the incident described in the blog post, and discussed his own life as a Stanford graduate, Portland Police detective, Lake Oswego resident, husband and father of two.
Sheppard also talked about laws that were used in the past to oppress African Americans, and about the people who fought to have those laws overturned.
He referenced some of the government actions that perpetuated slavery and discrimination against African Americans, such as Federal Housing Administration policies that denied home loans to black families and created property deed restrictions to prevent black homeownership.
He then talked about some of the people who spoke out against those injustices, such as J.D. Shelley, Oliver Brown and Mildred and Richard Loving, who were each at the center of separate legal cases that ultimately led to Supreme Court decisions that struck down racial restrictions on housing, school segregation and prohibitions on interracial marriage.
"My history is about people speaking out," he said. "I am only here because I'm standing on their shoulders."
Sheppard said the parking lot incident wasn't the first time he'd faced racism, and that in the past he had refrained from speaking out. But in the current political climate, he said, it feels like civil liberties are increasingly coming under threat. And in that context, the parking lot incident reminded him of Martin Niemoller's famous poem, "First they came...", and so
he decided to write the blog post.
"Now is the time to speak out," he said, "and wherever you are, that's the place to do it."
For more information about Respond to Racism and how to get involved, visit www.respondtoracism.org.