Antiracist group meets, talks, grows
By James Hanlon
Leader Staff Writer
Be the change you wish to see in the world. A local activist and awareness group embodies this principle.
Formed in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd and nationwide protests this summer, Be The Change is an informal Facebook group involved in organizing and advocacy here in Oxford. Although they often use the slogan, the group is not affiliated with the Black Lives Matter organization.
Their mission is to “to provide a safe forum for members to share information and to plan events to further the community goals of: helping the voices of the Black community to be heard, providing education about systemic racism and related topics, and enacting change in our community, state, and country to end systemic racism in all forms.”
Founded by Eva Sharlene, Keri Collison, Samantha Adams and Pam Harvell, the Facebook group began as a way to get the word out about a protest march and rally in downtown Oxford in early June. Since then, they’ve hosted weekly, socially distanced, “conversations in the park” as a way to connect, share stories and ideas this summer.
The page, which has swelled to 380 members, has become a place where people can share and discuss media resources like articles, videos and podcasts.
“It’s kind of evolved into a lot of people wanting to learn, wanting to do things in the community,” said co-founder Pam Harvell. “So, Be The Change has become a place where we can gather, meet – virtually and in person – and to take steps to educate.”
A teacher at Oxford Virtual Academy, Pam’s passion is in education. “I want this page to educate people. I want the members of this page to educate each other. I’ve learned so much from what other members have posted.”
There has been plenty of negativity on social media recently, from masks to the coronavirus to the current U.S. president and the protests. Pam has observed a lot of misinformation, but also a lot of anger. As an admin, she is trying to keep the page safe for everyone.
“My main goal in moderating this page was to make sure people stay respectful of each other. We have people who come from many different backgrounds and philosophical viewpoints. And we want everyone to have a voice, but we want to make sure it stays respectful. We want to make sure everyone feels safe, no one’s attacked.”
To help out, they have appointed two additional admins: Andrew Jones (20), an Oxford native who organized the June 12 march that had about 300 participants, and Pam’s daughter, Adriana Carlson (24).
“They are young, vibrant, have brought a lot of enthusiasm to the page,” Pam said. “They just have such a wisdom and sense of themselves. It’s wonderful to see in such young people. They don’t ever respond to other members with impulsive, angry type responses even if it’s a very heated, difficult conversation. They’re always just educating and staying calm and measured in what they say. It’s wonderful to see that.”
Carlson is producing a Youtube series called “Will You Listen?” interviewing people about their experiences with racism. Andrew Jones was her first guest.
He shared stories about his experiences with racism as a biracial Black man. When he was a senior at OHS, a classmate called him the N-word. He walked out of class and went home. The next day, he told his teacher he left because he wasn’t feeling well. “I didn’t feel like it was important enough to talk about,” Jones said.
“It’s a culture thing, where that was acceptable for him to say and he didn’t even care. And the next day he acted like he was my friend still.” His other classmates who witnessed the incident, didn’t think it was a big deal.
“That’s not the first time that’s been said to me either. It was the time where I was like, I can’t handle it right now. I had to go.”
Jones still regularly attends protests and posts on social media. “Everyone needs to keep talking about it, because it’s not going to go away,” he said.
At two months old, the organization is still in its infancy, still growing and developing. “At the beginning, we really didn’t have a direction past the rally,” Pam said.
It’s not just about protesting. “We can do protests, we can do rallies, we can do things like that to bring awareness, but then people have been asking, ‘what are we going to do next?’ And that’s the big question. Change takes time. It’s a marathon, not a sprint to the finish.”
So they started meeting in Centennial Park on Tuesday evenings. The first time, only four people came. Now a typical turnout is about 20 people.
The conversations are wide ranging. They have discussed how to have hard conversations respectfully, how to respond to people who say “all lives matter” or “racism doesn’t exist,” and how to explain white privilege and systemic racism.
Member Bethany Ann said it’s hard to explain privilege to folks because “we have a whole mentality in our country where we have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and we refuse to admit we’ve had an unfair advantage.”
One of the group’s goals is to be a safe space for folks who are open-minded or curious, but aren’t quite there yet.
Member Ann Cowan has invited people to come to the park who are hesitant, and worry about being attacked. “A lot of people I talk to that don’t get it, they kinda want to get it, but they’re afraid if they come out here and talk to anybody, they’re going to be put in the middle.”
She says it’s not going to be like that. “I want to have a way to communicate respectfully.”
Pam’s husband Ken, who is Black, came out to one of the conversations in the park and said, “It’s pretty interesting to hear how different people, what they think, especially being from this community.”
Ken was raised in Fairfield, California, and moved here with Pam 18 years ago. “It was sort of a culture shock,” he said, “because this community was basically white. Where I was from was a mixed culture. So growing up, I didn’t really think about racism because I didn’t think I was different from anybody else.”
He observed that Michigan is more segregated than California. “You know, you see more pockets of different nationalities living with each other, which I’m not used to. I didn’t understand it. But basically when you come to the Midwest, the East, the South, that’s what you get.”
Recently, the group has developed subcommittees to reflect different interests.
“We’re all at different levels of learning and feeling comfortable,” Pam said. “Some people just want to read and learn right now. And that’s fine. Some people want to interact and discuss. They’re at the next step. Some people want to take action. Some people want to be leaders of that action. So we’re trying to have a place for people from all the different levels.”
A book club reads and discusses pertinent books and films. A voter action group is helping raise awareness about political issues and getting people registered to vote. The community outreach committee aims to connect with other organizations and community leaders. And a committee is planning a “peace parade.”
Pam, a 1984 Oxford graduate, also wants to push for change in Oxford schools.
“How can we positively influence Oxford schools? Even though we have a very small percentage of minority students or people of color in our school system, it’s not just about accepting the students we have, which of course we want to do, it’s about educating our white students.”
White teachers have asked her what they can do if they don’t have any Black students and haven’t had many over the years. Pam says it’s important to teach students to be open-minded and antiracist.
Be The Change plans to continue conversations in the park for another month or two, until the weather turns cold and then will continue meeting online or indoors following safety protocols.