Eliminating racisim high on the YWCA’s goals

By Bill Sumrall
The Light

Eliminating racism sounds like a mighty tall order but that was the goal expressed by YWCA executive director Katie Vanderlick.

“Our mission is to eliminate racism and empower women,” Vanderlick said.

The Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) decided to sponsor an hour-long discussion of racial issues Wednesday “because, frankly, things are just at a standstill,” Vanderlick said.

“We can’t move forward unless we start to work on eliminating racism and work on understanding each other’s cultures,” Vanderlick said.

No specific racially-related incident inspired the session. In events sparked by specific events, “emotions are high and we don’t want people to come in here angry, or want their emotions to get the best of them,” Vanderlick said.

“This is just a neutral time and we just thought it was a good time to bring it out to the forefront and talk about it,” Vanderlick said.

More than 25 people attended the May 12 focus group discussion at the YWCA’s facility on 5912 James St., near Alexandria Senior High School.

“We had a really diverse group here. I was really excited,” Vanderlick said.

“When you do something for the first time, you never know what to expect and I think a lot of people got things out on the table and brought things to light that we didn’t know really existed,” Vanderlick said.

More discussions are planned for the future, Vanderlick said.

“After today and the response in the community I think it’s needed and you can tell that it’s wanted after the response we had today,” Vanderlick said.

Among those attending was Cheryl Williams, who moved to Alexandria from New York 22 years ago and works as a secretary in public relations at Christus St. Frances Cabrini Hospital.

Williams said she took away from the discussion at Wednesday’s meeting “not to judge people just by how they look, which you shouldn’t do anyway.”

Among the topics discussed was racial profiling of shoppers by store employees when those attending were asked if they ever felt discriminated against and how they felt about it.

Williams related her experience as a person of color being followed around while shopping by department store employees.

Joe Page, who is the Alexandria’s chief diversity officer, recalled being followed around by an employee at a local department store last year and felt the need to confront the employee about the behavior directly.

Page recalled in the 1950s and 1960s he would experience rejection “but I never let it make me feel inferior to anyone.” But while he never let others’ opinion of him get him down, “in that particular instance, I felt anger,” Page said.

Liz Coombs, who is on the YWCA’s board of directors, remarked during the discussion that “I think confronting the situation is the best way to handle it.”

Williams warned, however, against “being confrontational” to the extent that it might lead the employee to feel justified in calling the police instead of examining conduct that makes people feel suspected of intending to steal while shopping.

Williams said employees following customers at a high-end store in New York might be more related to perceived lack of income than racial profiling.

“It is different growing up in a different area at a different time,” Williams said.

Also joining the discussion, Peggy Brian said, “I think our problem is a human problem” caused by people being unwilling to be kind to one another no matter what was learned growing up.

Barbara Brister, former YWCA director, said people need to be more aware of the language they use too. “The ‘n-word’ is not a proper word to be used,” Brister said.

When Brister asked what description do people of color prefer be used to refer to themselves, African-American or black, Page responded to “call me Joe.”

In Alexandria, most people would say race relations are “pretty good,” Page said, “until something happens,” which tells him all those feelings are just below the surface.

The Rev. August Thompson said people must take into account individuals, not their racial make-up.

Thompson cited the need for a wholesale examination by the country of racial issues similar to what occurred when apartheid ended in South Africa. “There must be trust among us and love among us,” Thompson said.

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