Editor’s note: In an ongoing commitment to sharing Wheeling’s stories in their diversity, here’s an overview of recent community responses to the Black Lives Matter movement. If you are involved with other local responses, please share feel free to share your story with other Weelunk readers in the comment section.
Confronting a fresh exposure of racial division that seems to reach down to the bones of American culture has made for a painful summer.
But the response that is emerging in Wheeling follows a different storyline than TV images of violence on the streets of some U.S. cities. Here — in a community that identified as 91 percent solely “white” on the 2010 U.S. Census — the prevailing trend is a newly public commitment to unity in diversity.
Here’s a quick look at what has happened in town since the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody launched an interracial response to the Black Lives Matter movement:
“With the [alleged] murder of George Floyd, there was this outpouring of people asking ‘What can we do?’” said Ron Scott Jr., a spokesman for cultural diversity at the Wheeling YWCA.
Staffers there pondered the Floyd case, which began when the unarmed Black man was accused of passing a counterfeit $20 bill and ended with Floyd dead in the street, his neck under a white police officer’s knee. They decided the $20 bill would be an excellent symbol for a local response, and the #ChangeForA20 fundraiser was born.
Scott has been delighted with the response. Donors can simply give money — and many have. Or, they can add public support of diversity to their contribution by submitting a photo or video on the YWCA’s Facebook page. They can even use the videos to publicly challenge friends to do the same. People such as Mayor Glenn Elliott Jr. have done this, Scott said.
As donations have accumulated in recent weeks, Scott is now working with partners that include Ohio County Schools to arrange a bus tour to the Atlanta [Ga.] University Center Consortium. The center includes four historically Black colleges and universities.
He envisions a horizon-expanding trip that would include Black and non-black high school students and academic/career counselors from area schools.
“Living in the [Ohio] Valley, the blueprints that you get are very minimal.” Scott said of the college and career paths that area residents and counseling professionals might typically consider for minority students. “[On the trip, students could see] there are folks like me that are doing all sorts of things.”
Fundraiser proceeds will also go to pay for speaking engagements, scholarships, academic awards and other events that foster inclusion, Scott said.
Weelunk readers can check out some of the videos at the YWCA’s Facebook site. Donations or challenge videos can be made or displayed through the same link.
BLACK AND WHITE ON THE PAGE
Elsewhere around the city, a virtual gathering of readers is pursuing a better understanding of what it’s like to be a person of color. Brianna Hickman, a Moundsville City Council member, leads the group, which is meeting on Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People were saying we need to learn more, especially here in Appalachia where we don’t have a lot of diversity,” said Hickman.
The book, a 28-day look at the ideas of white supremacy and privilege, so inspired Hickman it morphed into a book club.
“I hope it ignites something in them that makes people want to learn more,” Hickman said, noting the group plans to read similar fiction and non-fiction in the future. “Having those conversations and knowing other people are having those conversations — it’s a confidence boost [in being a better] advocate for change.”
Weelunk readers interested in joining the book club can contact Hickman through her personal Facebook page.
MEN OF CHANGE
In yet another effort, Joe Sparksman and 10 other leaders/elders from Wheeling’s Black community have banded together to form Men of Change. The group includes professionals from finance, law enforcement, youth work, cultural diversity work and other arenas.
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“One of the things that’s important is that young Black men have role models and have a support system in the community where they can go,” said Sparksman. “We want to do something for our own community.”
In addition to mentoring young men, Sparksman said the group wants to foster core values such as social justice, education, equality, self determination and empowerment/strength. Sparksman, a former parole and probation officer, also hopes Men of Change will become a critical liaison.
“Let us be the bridge between law enforcement and the [Black] community,” he said.
Toward that end, members of the group plan to attend school board and city council meetings in the future. “We want to be present and acting in all facets of our community,” he said.
Jason Wade, a Wheeling attorney who founded Ohio Valley Community Advocates for Racial Equality, also wants to be present — as a dad who seeks a better world for his children.
Concerned that a spike of interest in racial inclusivity on social media might dwindle over time, Wade gathered like-minded Wheeling residents to discuss longer-term, Wheeling-centric possibilities.
“It’s got to be more than just social media posts,” said Wade. “We need to have these conversations in person.”
The first OVCARES meeting included Black and white participants and a range of ages, Wade reported. He acknowledges such meetings are difficult in the time of COVID, but thinks being in person helps eliminate hate speech. “People just don’t do that face to face.”
Wade said he is, in part, motivated by his young children. “I want to raise them in a world that’s [at least] changing. It’s not going to happen overnight.”
Similarly, the group is focusing on youth. He foresees sports events that can include a message about honoring diversity. The group also plans to host a community barbecue in coming weeks. A diversity-themed art contest is another possibility that he mentioned.
He believes it’s time for white people to take more action. “When Black people are still being killed in the streets, we really have to advance the ball.”
Weelunk readers who want to know more about OVCARES can message Wade on his Facebook page.
TOGETHER WE STAND
Nearly every Wheeling response to Black Lives Matter includes a mention of Ohio County Schools. Indeed, in addition to involvement in some of the activities mentioned above, OCS is rolling out a plan of its own, according to Rick Jones, assistant superintendent of schools.
OCS created Together We Stand to promote anti-racism education throughout the school system in partnership with the Ohio Valley African American Students Association. Jones spearheaded the program with the assistance of Scott from the YWCA.
Jones said Together We Stand is a multi-year plan to address issues of race in the school system. He said it will involve community input and staff training and will encourage diversity in student government.
As part of the initiative, Together We Stand is about to begin a community book study with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. OCS has purchased copies of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated work and will soon provide community members with information on how to obtain a copy.
“The goal is to have an ongoing, proactive approach to an issue that we take seriously,” Jones said. “The George Floyd tragedy was an eye-opener for everyone — the nation. In response, this is our effort to make things better in our small part of the world. We’ve realized that we can do better, and ‘Together We Stand’ is our next step in doing so.”
• A long-time journalist, Nora Edinger also blogs at noraedinger.com and Facebook and writes books. Her Christian chick lit and faith-related non-fiction are available on Amazon. She lives in Wheeling, where she is part of a three-generation, two-species household.