OLEAN, NY — Kait Harvey offered a suggestion to those gathered in the John Ash Community Center: reading literature about race could help combat racism.
Harvey listed titles one by one, including “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo and “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander, and asked people to raise their hands if they had read them. No more than 10 people in the audience of about 40 raised their hands at any time.
“We all have work we have to do,” Harvey said.
Tyrone Hall, another speaker, agreed. “Readers are leaders,” he said.
Thursday’s session was the second of three town hall meetings scheduled by Mayor William J. Aiello to discuss a resolution that the Common Council approved last month in support of Black Lives Matter. The first meeting took place on June 30, and the third and final session is scheduled for July 16 from 6:30 to 8 p.m.
In addition to Harvey and Hall, eight other Olean residents spoke during Thursday's session. Topics included the reason for the meetings, racist statements made by Olean residents, changes in the police, implicit bias, changes in public schools, leadership and a response to the first meeting.
Ty Malone asked about the purpose of the three meetings.
The mayor replied they are for outreach to members of the community on race, saying, “My intent was getting out to everybody.”
Leo Wolters Tejera read Facebook comments posted by Olean residents to display show that racism exists in the city:
“Maybe, if you stop breaking the law, you won’t be murdered."
"Start shooting, problem solved.”
Multiple times, Wolters Tejera read the n-word.
“It’s highly disturbing to me that you say you don’t know if there’s a problem because the whole community, black people and white people, are telling you there’s a problem,” Wolters Tejera told the mayor.
Katie Ward asked Olean Police Chief Jeff Rowley what the police have done to educate themselves about systematic racism.
Rowley responded that the Olean Police Department has added psychiatric screenings to supplement routine background screenings for recruits and that police also have begun deescalation training and the use of body cameras.
Jessica Malone discussed implicit bias, stereotypes subconsciously applied to a group of people that affect one’s actions, in government and individuals.
“If you can’t recognize the problem within yourself, there’s no way you can recognize the problems in your government,” she said.
Malone called on the Common Council to become more aware of racial concerns by speaking to people of color in their wards.
Mike Marvin expressed a similar sentiment, saying that oppressed people need to be reached in person because they may not come to meetings such as the town hall sessions.
“People that have been oppressed for a long time might not necessarily come and grab your microphone,” he said.
Nichole Gonzales said one way to encourage oppressed people to speak out is to recruit them for positions of leadership.
“People need to see themselves in all levels of leadership,” Gonzales said.
Richard Snyder said education on racism is needed in public schools.
“Without the education of individuals, we are not going to see change,” Snyder said.
Evelyn Cruz agreed on the importance of education on race, making a plea to “put history back into history” and to stop making black history separate.
“It’s American history,” she said.
She also said she had been troubled by the mayor’s use of the phrase “silent majority” during the first town hall meeting.
“It was not about the silent majority,” she said. “It was about the silent minority.”
Aiello apologized for his use of the phrase and added that he learned from the meeting.
Persons wishing to attend the final session should call the mayor's office at 716-376-5615.
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