Katrina Battle only fights battles she can win. And the 2009 Milton High School graduate just started one against racism, a topic brought to the forefront by the recent outpour of accounts in the Milton Town School District.
Battle thinks Milton can win it. So she and local social worker Corrine Mertz organized a community dialogue on race last Thursday evening. Around 15 people assembled to begin the conversation in the basement of Cornerstone Community Church on Bombardier Road.
Motivated to create change, Battle and Mertz anticipate the July 6 conversation will be a stepping-stone toward broader dialogues and cultural awareness workshops.
“I’m here because it just really wrecks my gut to see what’s happening and just that there’s kids everywhere in the school that don’t feel safe,” mother Kathleen Kelly told the crowd.
Like many residents, Kelly is disheartened by the school board’s recent responses – or lack thereof – to stories of racism and bullying in school.
“It’s like talking to brick wall,” Dwayne Doner said in agreement.
On Sunday, board leadership Lori Donna and Karen LaFond issued a joint statement, saying trustees will set a date for a community dialogue sometime in August. A facilitator experienced in diversity answers will be present, they said.
Battle and Mertz structured last Thursday’s event because residents expressed a need to start the conversation sooner rather than later to ensure safety in Milton schools. They hoped people would arrive with differing views on race to initiate productive discourse.
Taking people off social media and into a face-to-face discussion brought humanity back to the issue, they added. Since last month, multiple Facebook groups have formed for open dialogue, but some meeting attendees didn’t see that taking place.
Battle and Mertz said attendees knew they weren’t going to solve racism in one night and shouldn’t expect to leave feeling comfortable. They started with defining terms like racism and prejudice.
Racism, Battle said, is recognizing race is the primary aspect that determines human traits and capacities, and that racial difference produces an inherent superiority of a particular race. As for prejudice, she told attendees it’s an unfavorable opinion and often preconceived feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge or reason.
Battle defined bias as a prejudice in favor or against something, used to compare a person or group in an unjust way.
Only two of the 15 attendees were people of color: Battle and Milton father Harjit Dhaliwal. Both used their personal experiences with racism in Milton to help demonstrate the crux of the issue.
Dhaliwal suggested going to the board with a unified statement rather than a slew of individual complaints. Another attendee challenged each person present to bring another resident with them to the next gathering, which Battle and Mertz have yet to announce.
Battle said the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has agreed to perform workshops with both adults and children in Milton, and soon. Battle said she doesn’t want anyone to go into the next school year the way they left in June.
She’s also created a Milton Inclusion and Diversity Initiative to provide a solidified presence and keep the community accountable. A Google Doc survey linked from the initiative’s Facebook page lets people keep up and explain why they’re interested in the topic.
Battle got involved because as a former Milton student, she knows the system. She spoke of racist cues people use without knowing it, saying educating white people on them is beneficial.
Milton teacher Carrie Adii said many educators don’t mean to be ignorant; they just don’t know how to handle situations or even read the cues. Milton resident Christina Smith said racism isn’t specific to Milton, as she she sees it in the district where she teaches, too.
Their testaments coincide with a recent cry for more cultural education training for MTSD employees.
Former Milton teacher Jennifer Decker was next to speak and brought Battle and others to tears.
Decker said she sometimes feels oppressed and marginalized as a woman but recognized she’ll never know what it’s like to be a young black person in today’s society, constantly terrified.
She vowed to do anything she can to protect people of color, saying it’s time for white people to stand up for people who have faced over 200 years of oppression.
“What I’m trying to say is, I have your back, and I have your back,” Decker said, indicating Dhaliwal and Battle. “Because this is an actual safety issue.”
“That was everything,” Battle said, grabbing Decker’s hand. “That moment was everything to me.”
Battle said it’s hurtful when white people try to relate to her experiences. Instead, white people need to trust that their black peers aren’t making matters a bigger deal than they really are.
“Because you won’t get it,” Battle said. “You will never understand what it feels like to be called a n*****. You won’t. And it hurts in a way that I can’t explain to you. And I wish I could.”