Compiled by Barbara Figge Fox
Members of Not In Our Town Princeton talk about the group and its mission to advocate for racial justice
Outrage and fear over the deaths of young black males in Ferguson, New York City and elsewhere has erupted around the nation, including here in Princeton where demonstrators at several protests in town carried slogans such as, “black lives matter” and “hands up don’t shoot.”
Never mind prejudice outside the borders of the municipality, we have enough to do here. While many would like to believe that there’s no prejudice in “liberal Princeton,” racism happens here too.
For example, just a few years ago, when twin black boys went to play in a sandbox at a Princeton park, white mothers would swoop in and remove their kids.
In normal times, race is not a topic that most discuss. Until I joined the group Not in Our Town Princeton, I lived out my belief in racial equality by “doing” rather than talking. By making friends and working on projects with people who don’t look like me.
For nearly 20 years NIOT has put discussion of prejudice of all kinds, especially race and white privilege, right up front.
Founded by a group of faith congregations, with representatives from each, NIOT leverages the influence of those congregations.
It all began when the pastors from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation (Paul Johnson) and the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church (John White) challenged two members (Ted Fetter for the UUC and Barbara Flythe for WSPC) to promote understanding concerning race and racism in the community. Fetter and Flythe were later joined by representatives from Trinity Episcopal Church and Nassau Presbyterian Church, and then by those from Princeton Friends Meeting and Princeton United Methodist Church. It is an interracial, interfaith social action group untied to advance the cause of racial justice.
As board member Nancy Strong says, NIOT offers “conversations that heal, actions that persuade, trainings that enable, awards that affirm.”
After four years of NIOT’s partnering with the Princeton Public Library to hold confidential, drop-in “Continuing conversations on race and white privilege,” NIOT managed to “turn on a dime” and respond to the Ferguson demonstrations with an open, public discussion.
Several members of the group also participated in a demonstration and “die in” on Nassau Street on Dec. 8 that was organized by two student groups from the Princeton Theological Seminary: the Association of Black Seminarians and the Community Action Network.
Simultaneously, Linda Oppenheim and other NIOT volunteers were working with the library and other institutions to display “Freedom Summer: Risking Everything,” an exhibit of photographs and primary source materials that document the landmark effort to register voters. For the many, many schoolchildren that saw it, this exhibit brought home the civil rights struggles of the ’60s, struggles that continue today.
With thanks to the Princeton Echo for giving NIOT an opportunity to tell this story, here are first person accounts from group members Wilma Solomon, Marietta Taylor, Larry Spruill, Rosemary Cilenti and Shelley Krause.
–Barbara Fox, Princeton United Methodist Church
Wilma Solomon, Jewish Center of Princeton
Not in Our Town aims to make racial justice and respect for all our residents a priority in our community. We are committed to keeping this out front, whether through educational programs or our Unity awards that acknowledge students who exemplify this priority, working with other groups and individuals who share this value, or providing a safe place for people to speak about their challenges in our multi-racial society.
Personally, my involvement with Not in Our Town has prodded me, as a white person, to dig more deeply to uncover previously unconscious prejudices that can result in “microagressions,” behaviors that may seem trivial on the surface but have a hurtful effect.
Our Continuing Conversations have been particularly helpful to me and hopefully to others who participate, in being willing to have a conversation that may be awkward but important to “clear the air” and to create empathy and understanding of others’ experiences. For some, just to be heard is a relief; for others speaking and listening can lead to action.
Marietta Taylor, Princeton Friends Meeting
I care deeply about racial justice. I know that there is much work to be done and that the best way an individual can make a difference is to unite with others in a common effort. I want to understand what racial justice feels like from the perspective of my African American brothers and sisters. I want to see Princeton grow as a community where everyone is safe and respected and the spirit of friendship and community prevails.
In addition, on a very personal level, I want to have a richer, fuller life. I want to have African American and Latino friends, not only as comrades in the ‘cause,’ but also folks to hang out with, take in a movie, have lunch; friends I can call if I need a ride to the garage, and would call me if they need a ride, friends with whom I can talk easily about anything. I’m happy to say that some 20 years in this journey, I’ve learned a whole lot and I have found soul mates of many shades of ‘color’. And there is still much work to be done.
When I retired in the mid 1990s from my work with community health agencies, I put my energy into the cause of racial justice. At the Quaker Meeting there were many opportunities to hear speakers and take part in discussions about racism. Ann Yasuhara, another member of Friends Meeting, had similar convictions.
Talking about the perniciousness of ‘every day racism,’ one speaker challenged us to reach out to the African-America n community and “.. become allies.” Ann and I attended various events . It wasn’t long before I got a call from Barbara Flythe, a member of Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, suggesting that we combine the energies of activists in our respective congregations to push for change. The group took the name Not In Our Town after a group in Billings, Montana that had united its community to deal with several bias crimes. We persuaded the congregations to sponsor our activities with a modest annual donation.
Ann Yasuhara passed away last June. She was a huge influence on me and a critical force in the young organization. One of her wisest suggestions was that NIOT members participate in a series of anti-racism workshops led by the staff of the Office of Bias Crime of the N.J. Department of Law and Public Safety. These intensive workshops ran all day Saturday and Sunday on three consecutive weekends. They were transformative.
We came away knowing that there was a huge difference between being able to give a two to three sentence definition of a concept like ‘white privilege’ and understanding the gut-wrenching anxiety of a parent waiting at 2 a.m. for her teen age son (who should have been home by midnight) — straining for the hopeful sounds of the arriving family car and fearing the sound of the police siren.
Unity Awards: NIOT’s annual Unity Reception is our brightest and best occasion. Before NIOT was formed, Ralston Gaiter had the idea to honor students who best demonstrated, in their own ways, respect for the rights and dignity of others. Now NIOT recognizes students from Princeton High School and John Witherspoon Middle School who, according to the judgment of the school counselors and principals, best exemplify the values expressed in the NIOT mission statement, showing exceptional ability in working in a diverse community and serving as role models for their peers.
Held at Princeton University’s Carl A. Fields Center for the students, their families, and school and community officials, the reception is a joyous occasion. Everybody talks. Waves of pride, love and empathy suffuse the room. All go away energized and enriched by the experience of being, if only for a few hours on a May afternoon, in what Martin Luther King would call a beloved community.
Crossroads: In 2000, NIOT organized a cross-cultural class, given once a week at the JWMS to a diverse group of 7th grade students. Founding NIOT member Barbara Flythe launched “Crossroads,” working with students trained by Princeton University Community House. Students are encouraged to talk freely about issues that trouble and confound them.
The aim is to enhance their empathy, respect and acceptance of those who may seem different from themselves. With university student leadership, Crossings remains a vital program at JWMS.
Youth Forum: NIOT’s most ambitious effort aimed at high school students was the “Through Our Eyes: Building a Community where All are Safe and Respected” project, held in the fall of 200.
Ann and I, the official leaders, had help from other NIOT members and community co-sponsors. We obtained a small grant from the state Martin Luther King Commerative Commission.
Thirty-one students of diverse backgrounds planned and presented the forum. Ann and I wanted the young people to “own” the project and, as far as possible, be responsible for its form and content.
The young people were enthusiastic and full of ideas, some of which were quite different from what we had in mind. For example, we had in mind a focus on racial/ethnic stereotyping. They chose to enlarge the focus to include gender and sexual orientation.
We imagined a standard narrative presentation; they decided on dramatic monologues! The students designed the logo and program. They decided who from among the larger group would deliver the monologues.
The difficult part was getting the selected presenters to plan their monologues and to assemble all the presenters at the same time to plan the presentation. Think herding cats.
As the day grew nearer it became clear that the monologues were not coming along. Ann had a neighbor who was a professional actor and drama coach.
We ‘hired’ him to help the students flesh out what they wanted to say and coach them in their presentations. The monologues were splendid. Everyone in the audience of over 120 — students, parents, community leaders, and the press were very moved.
Princeton Public Library partnership: From the outset NIOT’s best ally in the community has been the Princeton Public Library. The library is truly Princeton’s living room. It is the one place in Princeton where everyone feels welcome and at ease.
NIOT has partnered with the library in presenting many speakers, films and book discussions on matters having to do with race and social justice.
Two NIOT members, Fern and Larry Spruill, long time residents in the Jackson-Witherspoon area, are very active youth mentors and social activists. When appropriate, they bring young people from their neighborhood. The community room often is filled with a heady mixture of age, race, and class.
With NIOT discussion leaders, the library hosted the first meeting of “Continuing Conversations on Race and White Privilege” in November 2009 as a drop-in discussion group, open to the public but confidential.
What is said in the room stays in the room. Continuing Conversations has been one of NIOT’s most successful ongoing programs.
Meeting every first Monday at 7 p.m., it has a core group of about eight regular attendees, and a typical gathering also includes six or seven ‘new’ faces. Following the events in Ferguson, a number of people felt the need to talk.
NIOT and PPL opened the Princeton Room for an unscheduled gathering. It was a challenging and difficult meeting and also a safe place where strong feelings could be heard. To my mind, it is a meeting a community could be proud of.
I support NIOT because I believe in its mission; because I believe that social change comes from the grassroots level; because Princeton is my community and I want it to reflect our best values; and because of the “pleasure of the company.”
Larry Spruill, Nassau Christian Church
People complain about everything, but I never really see people doing anything. This organization is doing something about the wrongs in our community that we face every day. I am 100 percent about change. I grew up in the Jim Crow South, and any time I see something wrong, I want to correct it.
In Columbia, North Carolina, there were “Whites Only” rest rooms and movie theaters, but even when I was 6, I did not feel any different from my white friend, Boy Davis.
To us, segregation was a way of life. There were certain things you just didn’t do. Don’t go over the tracks, because you might not come back. I served in the Army and was stationed in South Carolina and some of those southern states I don’t ever plan on going back to.
My parents moved to Princeton; my father picked potatoes in Cranbury and my mother worked at McCosh infirmary at the university.
When my sister and I joined them, it was like, wow, we don’t have to use special bathrooms anymore, and I could go to Woolworth’s on Nassau Street and Kresge’s at Princeton Shopping Center.
To me, it looked like things were opening up. But I couldn’t go to Library Place, where my mother worked when I was 12, without the police harassing me, asking what was I doing there. As an adult, I get followed when I go into a store, not just in Princeton.
My wife Fern and I joined Not in Our Town in August of 2007 because NIOT was working with Princeton High School students for the “Through Our Eyes” program.
We could see NIOT’s care and concern for the Princeton youth… the struggles teens have with color, race, sex or gender. NIOT members were there to be a voice for the young people in Princeton. My wife and I look forward to continuing work with NIOT.
Men from our community joined me to found the youth group, Committed Princetonians, when a young man who had worked with me at Princeton University’s housing department was shot and killed in Trenton in 2004.
He was a good kid who made some bad decisions. He had been earning good money, so I thought I did not have to worry about him dealing drugs or being in a gang. I was asked by the young man to write a character reference for him for a court appearance, and I planned to go to court with him.
His was the first gang-related funeral I ever attended. There were state police and metal detectors at the church in Princeton.
The police had a list of kid’s names who were believed to be gang members. We said they were not.
The police officers gave us $50 to buy pizza and to talk with them, the young men of color in our community, and from that the mentoring group Committed Princetonians was formed.
A lot of people help us with the group, liking what they see and what we are trying to do. Now Committed Princetonians and Faithful Princetonians (my wife, Fern, has the group for teen girls) meets every Thursday night, anywhere from 30 to 35 black and Hispanic kids at John Witherspoon Middle School.
The Princeton Police Department has just started a police academy, with multi-racial and Committed and Faithful Princetonians kids attending.
Committed and Faithful Princetonians are trying to open a lot of doors and build a whole new relationship with our community.
We want the kids to respect officers as their authorities and their elders, but to also see the police as human, and the police to see the kids as human. I don’t want them to see the police the way we did in my generation.
Rosemary Cilenti, Trinity Episcopal Church
When I read The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s best-selling, brilliant exposé on the mass incarceration of people of color, I was dismayed.
This system — fueled by the war on drugs and abetted by the prison-industrial complex — has surreptitiously created a permanent racial underclass with restrictions and consequences that far exceed those of the original Jim Crow Laws.
My extensive research on this topic culminated in a strong desire to raise the consciousness of my community on the subject and hopefully motivate others to work on the problem.
When I presented my passion and concerns to the Princeton chapter of NIOT, I was warmly received and well supported. Now I am the co-founder of The Campaign to End the New Jim Crow (CENJC), Princeton and Trenton Chapters, and am chair of the Princeton chapter.
NIOT members representing the different congregations in Princeton encouraged their faith communities to take up the topic in congregational forums.
To date, seven of the congregations represented in NIOT, have hosted speakers, screened films and recruited their membership to join CENJC. NIOT’s early support and encouragement formed the basis of our ongoing work to raise consciousness, advocate legislatively for over-all prison reform and support the incarcerated and their families.
Shelley Krause, Newest member of NIOT
My membership in Not In Our Town is a reflection of my life-long development as a Quaker and an activist.
I came of age during the emergence of the AIDS epidemic. Just as I was coming out as lesbian, my country’s prejudice and inhumanity was exposed in the starkest possible terms, with President Reagan refusing to address the growing crisis, and Pat Buchanan giving his infamous “Culture Wars” address to the Republican National Convention.
Desperate and dying, AIDS activists brought a fierce creativity to their protests. I can still hear ACT UP”s chants from those days: “Act Up, Fight Back, Fight AIDS!”
My life partner and I were finally able to marry and secure our full federal rights (after nearly 20 years together!) in 2011. In the course of my lifetime alone, so much has changed for the better in the LGBTQ community in America. But the lives of people of color, and particularly that of black Americans, remain plagued by the effects of entrenched racism.
On Sept. 3, 2001, our son was born. Eight days later, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon brought America to a stunned and grieving halt. I looked down at the infant in my arms and thought, “What kind of world have we brought you into?”
Since becoming a parent, my activism has been informed by the knowledge that our son is surely watching and that my world is now his as well.
As a Quaker, I believe that there is God in everyone. I also believe that it is my responsibility to work for the change I long to see in the world.
A fellow Quaker, Liz Oppenheimer, traveled to Ferguson, Missouri this past October and, in keeping with Quaker tradition, returned with some queries that she encouraged others to consider.
Among these was the query, “Does your checkbook or calendar provide evidence of your active commitment to racial justice?”
This query was in my heart as I followed the stories of continuing protests and listened to the perspectives of the (often young) leaders at the heart of the renewed struggle for racial and judicial justice.
I was reminded of one of my favorite Jane Addams quotes, an excerpt from an essay in which she says, “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”
So when a friend reached out to me about the possibility of joining Not In Our Town, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to “walk the walk.”
I am grateful for the opportunity to join with others who have made a personal commitment to creating inclusive and safe communities for all. I am tired of wondering, when I hear of a young person’s death at their own hand, if they might have been struggling with their sexual identity.
I’m sickened by the ever-expanding list of unarmed black citizens who have been turned into hashtag echoes of themselves. I am aching to have the luxury of speaking of prejudice and injustice in the past tense.
Darnell Moore, who helped organize the Black Lives Matter ride to Ferguson after Michael Brown’s death, said, “You need another to be held. You need embraces, to be angry, to breathe, to be creative and to think about solutions with folks who care about you.”
With luck, Not In Our Town can be a space for all of that.