Home is where the hope is: Can Lewistown embrace civil understanding?

By: 
CHRISTINA CLINTON
News-Argus Staff

Lewistown is the heart of Montana. It represents true community – a place where we can raise our children with small-town values. Regardless of race, religion, or political view, we are a community made stronger by our diversity. In fact, if history has taught us anything, it’s that communities are weakened when fear, intolerance, bigotry and ignorance are allowed to overpower compassion and tolerance. So when I read these sentiments in our local paper, they strike a blow against the place I, and my family, have made our home for almost a decade. I wasn’t born in Montana. I grew up in New York City. I learned a lot about diversity in that city, and nothing represents that more than the pizza, sushi, falafel, jerk chicken, Chinese dumplings, gyros, and cheeseburgers you can eat, all on one city block. In many ways, I embody the “melting pot” of America: I am black and I am white. My brother, Asian. My mother is white and Jewish (raised Christian); my father an outspoken Irish Catholic social worker who spent his life helping all ethnic and racial groups before his death in 2013. I was raised to accept and even embrace another’s differences. This personal tapestry of ancestry is why I find it so disheartening when voices rise up from the Lewistown community to encourage hate, fear and willful ignorance of anyone different than the “self.” When those voices begin to feel like the only ones capable of sound in Lewistown, I am compelled to stand up because I believe that positive change must happen first in the heart – in our homes, neighborhoods, churches, and schools – before that swell of love, tolerance, and peace can spread to other cities, states, nations, and the world. Terrible things happen in this world. Violent, evil, awful things we never could have imagined but struggle to understand today. The answer to these terrors must never be hate. It must always be hope. The first step is empathy. Imagine all the People Imagine, for a moment, taking your grade school kids to a school-sanctioned “Family Fun Reading Night.” Your daughter picks a principal-approved, librarian-recommended book from the basket on the gym floor because there’s a kitten on the cover. You open it and the word “nigger” slaps you in the face. Imagine joining your family at the school’s annual history wax museum to see children appearing in racially-indicative face paint. Imagine a classroom where in-class behavior has a color-coding system where “white” is good and “black” is bad. Imagine your attempts to address these concerns are met with blank stares, excuses of “this is how it’s always been and nobody else has complained,” dismissals of your concerns as “overly sensitive,” and – after the school district enacted new policies – being labeled “that person who ruined the wax museum” instead of being appreciated for trying to create respectful, equal and safe learning environment for all of our community’s sons and daughters. How would you feel? More importantly, how would you expect your community to respond? Who would you expect to stand by your side to support you? Your neighbor? Your friends and family? Your fellow parents? Now imagine everyone was silent. Imagine that no one stepped forward to support you. Only... I don’t have to imagine. That was my experience every single time. People keep telling me that nothing will ever change “in our backyard.” They tell me I’m wasting my time and energy and to focus on national change. But if we can’t change our own homes for our own friends and neighbors, how can any change truly take root? Those experiences changed the way I looked at my town. People I respected distanced, or outright censured me simply for speaking up against (intentional or not) racist incidents. My concerns about my children were discounted. We were dismissed by Lewistown. That hurt. Black Lives Matter Black Lives Matter has undeniably put a spotlight on racial issues in the United States. I have friends and family of all skin colors, religious beliefs and ethnicities, in law enforcement and in the military as well as the church. I know they have dangerous jobs or “callings,” and I hate the thought of any of them being gunned down for any reason. Black Lives Matter, like any group throughout history, can have its name perverted when someone’s anger and fear turns to violence, but to me, Black Lives Matter is about providing education and showing empathy so no one has to experience pain, injury or death because of the color of their skin. Black Lives Matter is not about inciting hate or violence toward law enforcement or anyone else. Black Lives Matter’s goal is about getting our communities and the nation to recognize and acknowledge how Black lives are deprived of basic human rights and dignity. Empathy leads to unity I love living in Lewistown, in Montana. I know how lucky I am. I love that I am raising my children in a small town instead of a big city that has to worry about gun detectors in schools, gangs and street violence. I love our clean air, water and streets. I love that we have a fabulous walking trail that meanders throughout, encouraging enjoyment and appreciation of our town and community as a whole. Sometimes, though, I wonder... Central Montana, what do you think it feels like to families and owners of local “ethnic” businesses to hear their neighbors praise wall-building and segregation? Lewistown is home not only to a variety of races, it is home to Christians, Jews, Muslims, Pagans, and “Other”; any and all of whom may or may not also be a member of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning community. Do you sit and discuss the “wall” while sipping margaritas at El Rancho Alegre? Do you talk about sending immigrants back to “where they came from” while sipping iced tea on your masonry front porch built by Croatian immigrants? Maybe you talk about “stolen” American jobs while dining on potstickers at China Garden, or gripe about transgender bathroom rights while ordering custom cabinets from a lesbian carpenter or selecting your bridal bouquet with a gay florist? It becomes so easy to forget, not only American history, but Montana and Lewistown history. To read a racist opinion after racist opinion in our local community newspaper seems hypocritical and absurd considering that many of our very own ancestors were not born here and quite possibly considered “not normal” themselves. What we all must remember is that “different” does not mean “dangerous.” I recognize those differences, including color, because I choose to see and respect you for you. I embrace our differences because those differences have always been what makes America strong. But when those differences become fuel for voices of intolerance, when they encourage fear, hate and ignorance, I cannot be silent. We should not be silent. That those intolerant voices seem to be the only ones capable of making noise in Lewistown disappoints me. We cannot wait for “someone else” to be that first voice, then hide our agreement behind closed doors but never in public. A local friend of mine recently tweeted, “’When you fail to back up your words with action your words will cease to mean anything.’” And he’s right. Change begins with one person willing to stand up and say, “This is wrong,” and it becomes active when another seconds that voice. Remember the people you rally against could be your neighbor or co-worker, the cop who comes to your rescue in an emergency or the priest who hears your confession. They could be your child’s teacher, the doctor who saves your mother’s life after a heart attack, the nurse who delivers your baby, or the Marine who sacrifices his life for yours. Yes, change can be frightening, but it also brings new growth, ideas, discoveries and life into our community. Lewistown is stronger because of its diverse community, not in spite of it. It will be our willingness to listen – to do our best to understand and empathize with one another, respect each other’s differences even if we choose to “agree to disagree” – that will help make Lewistown – and America – even greater than it already is.

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