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Tre Hester and Leticia Perez organize community meetups to discuss pressing topics

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Tre Hester (front) and Leticia Perez are organizing 'Conversations With the Community' events for Wilsonville residents to talk about race and policing.

This story was updated from its original version

Villebois residents Leticia Perez and Tre Hester want to get the community talking about systemic racism and policing.

So they've started an ongoing event, "Conversations With the Community," to allow residents to listen to one another, hear from those who have been oppressed due to the color of their skin, and potentially mobilize to push for reform.

The first such meetup was held a few weeks ago and the next will take place 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 15, at Montague Park in the Villebois community. Hester is hoping to arrange a group of speakers to take part in the event.

"I think people want a voice, and I think what we provided (at the first event), it gave people a safe place to voice their opinions in a setting where there is no judgment, no expectation other than to be transparent and honest about how you feel," Hester said. "(We're) trying to come to a common ground instead of trying to pick fights and focus on winning arguments."

Like many conversations around race across America, the idea for this ongoing event originated in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in late May. Conversations on a Villebois community Facebook page subsequently sprouted up about police brutality and racism. Some commenters, Perez said, touted the Black Lives Matter movement, while others defended the police and countered with the phrase "All Lives Matter."

Hester said people in the group should have such dialogue in person rather than online. So he and Perez began to organize the first event.

"I was like, absolutely," Perez said. "I agree. All of these things need to happen, especially away from a computer screen."

During the first meetup, a man whose son was killed by a Portland police officer and another who was a Multnomah County Corrections deputy talked about their experiences. But anyone who wanted to air their thoughts was allowed to grab the mic.

"We left things open-ended. We had a mic and people talked about their experiences with racial discrimination," Hester said.

Hester said the first meetup consisted mostly of people who wanted police reform and other changes to address racial inequality, but that they're open to people with other viewpoints if they're respectful in the way they deliver their thoughts.

"We want everybody. If you want to have a discussion, a dialogue, that's fine. The only thing I ask is to respect people's opinions and your opinions will be respected. To not expect that goes against everything we're doing this for," he said.

Overall, Perez and Hester said the first event was well received.

"One person said, 'I'm new to this conversation and didn't realize the history I was taught omitted so much and that I'm just here to listen and learn.' I think a lot of people want to be in that vulnerable space of listening and learning," Perez said.

Hester, who is Black and works at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, acknowledged the difficulty of police work. He also said he's only had positive interactions with Wilsonville police.

"I know a lot of police officers, and they're good people," he said.

Still, Hester said he had been profiled and discriminated against by the police in Portland. He also brought up the recent controversy over former West Linn-Wilsonville School District Long Range Planning Committee member Doris Wehler exposing racial tropes during a podcast, as well as Wilsonville City Councilor Charlotte Lehan recently stating that there seemed to be a racially charged sentiment among those who advocated for building only large, single-family homes in the Frog Pond West neighborhood, as evidence that racism exists in the Wilsonville community.

"When you look at those two situations, and if you tell me that there's no bias in that, then I would tell you that you're part of the problem also," Hester said.

On that note, Perez mentioned that a teacher from Inza R. Wood Middle School said some of her Black students have experienced racism in town including racial epithets being yelled at them on the street.

"We want people to be engaged and know there are systemic problems everywhere that could be improved," she said.

Hester and Perez invited Wilsonville city councilors to the upcoming event and also are asking Michael Fesser, a Black man who was targeted by the West Linn Police Department, to speak as well.

"What he went through with the West Linn Police Department was an example of misuse of authority, racial injustice and systemic racism," Hester said.

They will require that people wear masks and socially distance, and they're also hoping to livestream the event.

Perez, who is a science educator focusing on equity and access, hoped that community members who attend these events will spread the wisdom they gain to their own spheres of influence. She also thinks the events could be a way for people who want reform to meet one another and begin to organize.

"I'm new to Wilsonville. We have a lot of people who are newer. How do you get familiar with structures that already exist and who the people in the community are? You have to have places for those things to come together," she said.

Hester said he's fought against racial injustice for much of his life. And even though he is married and has a full-time job, he wanted to organize these events because he felt doing so is important and could be impactful.

"I don't gain anything from doing this," he said. "This is for the community."

This article was changed to reflect updated "Conversations with the Community" event details

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