OLEAN, NY — A silent crowd waited under a pavilion in Lincoln Park, spilling out into the sun-soaked grass beyond the reach of the shade cast by wood rafters and roof above. Organized in small, spaced-out clusters, they faced a row of seven speakers and a microphone on a stand.
“If we want to come together as a community and create a safer space for diverse individuals, then we have to attack systems, and we have to work with people,” Leo Wolters Tejera, the Olean Racial Justice Coalition coordinator facilitating the panel, said.
The ORJC is a social justice group trying to build bridges and foster communication among Olean residents and local resource providers, according to Wolters Tejera.
The Facebook account for the ORJC also lists them as a Black Lives Matter group.
“I firmly believe that there's more good in this area than bad and that there's more love than there is hate, but sometimes it's so easy to feel trapped,” Wolters Tejera said. “We want to connect people and empower people to do what they can in their sector of the world.”
This event was a justice rally born of a need to introduce this organization to the community according to Alison Gayton, a core member of ORJC who is mainly involved in community engagement.
“It was clear that we kind of had to have this initial big event to bring people together, so they know who we are," Gayton said. "We can do some things.”
Gayton also said that she was happy with the turnout, especially considering the coronavirus pandemic that is causing many people to stay home.
Attendees of the rally painted rocks with social justice phrases and sayings, explored a resource fair with local service providers and community organizations, and were able to sit in and listen to the panel discussion for the last hour. The crowd also was encouraged to ask the panelists questions and to get involved by speaking out.
The resource fair included tables with information on Connecting Communities in Action, a social service provider in Cattaraugus County; Race Unity Circle of Olean, a group dedicated to combating racism with a message of harmony; LawNY, a legal group that focuses on helping locals with civil rights, housing rights, and family law cases, and a voter registration table run by supporters of this year’s Democratic ticket of presidential candidate Joe Biden and vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris.
The panel consisted of Wolters Tejera, who hosted, Samantha Hittle, a hair stylist who works with the ORJC; Taha Pascucci, a mother of two also involved with the ORJC; Breanne Abbott, a therapist who works with CCA;Tina Zerbian, the CEO of CCA; Christa Wentworth, a Lutheran seminarian, and Jessica Anderson, an attorney who works with LawNY.
They covered a variety of topics, including disparities in mental health diagnosis numbers between white children and children of racial minorities; housing crises for communities of color; some history of activism; the need for education on social justice issues, and how to dismantle systems that support and enforce oppression.
“I think it is all of our jobs to ask people why they believe what they believe,” Pascucci said.
Wolters Tejera announced that the ORJC is continuing to hold protests in the roundabout near Lincoln Park every Tuesday from 6 to 8 in the evening until Election Day.
“For centuries, for millennia, people who want power make you afraid of other people and that's how they can control you,” Zerbian said. “So how do we overcome that? We remind ourselves that that fear is not real. In most cases, that fear is something that is instilled in us by a long history by fake news, and that it can be replaced with love if we just listen and hear each other.”
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