In a community that prides itself on diversity and inclusion, two racist incidents the last weekend of April left many Homewood and Flossmoor residents reeling in dismay, so sociologist and Flossmoor resident Peter K.B. St. Jean offered an approach he calls “peaceology” as a means of dealing with the situation. He and a group of volunteers organized a community forum on Sunday, May 5, at Flossmoor Community Church to begin conversations about the incidents and how to move forward.
In a community that prides itself on diversity and inclusion, two racist incidents the last weekend of April left many Homewood and Flossmoor residents reeling in dismay, so sociologist and Flossmoor resident Peter K.B. St. Jean offered an approach he calls “peaceology” as a means of dealing with the situation.
After holding a planning meeting Wednesday, May 1, St. Jean and a group of volunteers organized a community forum on Sunday, May 5, at Flossmoor Community Church to begin conversations about the incidents and how to move forward.
FCC Pastor Fred Lyon gave the opening prayer and local resident Kalind Haynes sang the national anthem to a full sanctuary to begin the forum, which St. Jean said was structured following African traditions.
Participants reflected the diversity of the community, including men and women, various races and ethnicities and ages from teen to elder.
St. Jean said opening with prayer and song was the first step to setting the tone for the event.
“The national anthem and prayer help to center us,” he said. “As an African American Caribbean man, I understand the importance of embracing all the different traditions we have here in Homewood Flossmoor.”
St. Jean then invoked an African tradition by asking the elders in the room for permission to speak to the gathering. Hearing expressions of assent, he provided the basic definition of peaceology.
“A solution to violence and trouble is to make peace profitable,” he said. “We have been involved in the economy of violence. We neeed to build an economy of peace.”
He said the purpose of the forum was to lay the groundwork for working together to find solutions.
Following St. Jean’s introduction, the event included statements from community leaders, starting with Homewood-Flossmoor High School Principal Jerry Lee Anderson. She has been at the center of the controversy dealing with one of the racist incidents that involved four white students who posted video of themselves in blackface on social media, initiating backlash from the community.
She countered a number of rumors that have emerged since the blackface event, noting that the students involved had not returned to campus and that state law forbids administrators from revealing the nature of any disciplinary measures that were taken.
She closed with a reference to the growing racial tension and violent incidents in the country.
“We have a choice. We can allow the tenor of our nation to influence our community or we can empower our community to influence the tenor of our nation,” she said.
Anderson was follow by representatives of village government.
Flossmoor Mayor Paul Braun was unable to attend, but Trustee Perry Hoag spoke on behalf of the village, joined by trustees Diane Williams, James Wilder and trustee-elect Gyata Kimmons. He noted the village’s “commitment to nurturing a community of diversity and inclusion.”
“We are profoundly saddened and angered by two recent events that have roiled our community. The Village of Flossmoor categorically rejects both events as abhorrent and grossly inconsistent with the values we espouse as a community. …We look forward to participating in this dialogue to move the community forward towards reconciliation and greater understanding,” Hoag said.
The second incident Hoag referred to was an encounter captured on video in which a local white man directed profanity, including the “N” word, at a local black man. The video went viral on social media.
In his remarks to the forum, Homewood Mayor Richard Hofeld said, “We are here today because of the hurtful actions of four teenage boys who now understand the gravity of the consequences of their actions.”
He urged everyone to exercise tolerance and forgiveness, citing one of his favorite Martin Luther King Jr. quotes, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”
Hofeld was accompanied by village trustees Barbara Dawkins, Jay Heiferman, Lisa Purcell and Lauren Roman.
The community’s young people were represented by Lily Callen, a senior at H-F High School, and Ron Williams, a 2016 H-F graduate representing the activist group Good Kid Mad City. He helped lead a student demonstration on April 30 in protest of the blackface incident and the school’s response.
Williams was followed by La’Shawn Latrice and Meena Matthews. The three said they are still angry about the incident, which made visible racist views in the community, and the school’s response, which they said tended to treat white students more leniently than black students.
The final speaker was longtime civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson, who drew from his own experiences with segregation to convey the bleak reality of the alternative.
“If you plant two seeds in the ground and put a wall between them, one will be tall and full of fruit, while the other one will be short and stocky. It doesn’t mean that the small one is lesser, but that the seed that gets the light blossoms,” he said. “When we put up walls, we cannot all share the sunlight. Ignorance, fear, hatred, violence. These things stunt us. This is why walls must come down.”
Jackson closed with a call to achieve healing through forgiveness.
Matthews said she found Jackson’s closing remarks to be out of touch with the pulse of the community.
“There’s a culture that’s being bred here in the South Suburbs, and its one that old leadership is allowing. This should have never happened in 2019,” she said. “Brother Jesse said we have to learn from this, that this was a teachable moment … but our young people are being traumatized by things that should have been demolished decades ago.”
Following the community leaders’ statements, participants were divided into breakout groups based on age and sex to further discuss the issues that brought each to the forum.
Participants reconvened in the sanctuary to hear reports from each group.
H-F junior and Good Kid Mad City member Emmanuel Jackson took the opportunity to expound on the organization’s demands. Among them, was that the high school take a more intentional approach towards substantive history courses.
“H-F offers an African American history course. It’s an elective, but we feel it should be offered to all students, year-round,” he said. “Ignorance is not an excuse anymore. We demand that these students give us a public apology for what they have done.”
H-F resident and parent Ebony Roberts agreed that a more holistic education should be implemented as a consequence of the blackface incident. And, she added, “I do believe a public apology is necessary” from the boys who made the video.
“I went to a very diverse high school. When these types of things happened, we were forced to learn about the culture that we offended. Not just a slap on the wrist,” Roberts said. “These are our babies, even those four young men in the video. Regardless of what they knew, how much they knew, and how they knew it, they are still our babies. What do we do to understand one another better? We need to be better.”
Flossmoor resident Matt Epperson shared Roberts’ perspective that it takes a village to raise young people. He says accountability is a precursor to progress.
“That was not my child in the video, but as a white person, I take a piece of responsibility for what happened,” Epperson said. “For a white person to acknowledge their race is a hard thing, because you have to acknowledge the privileges that come along with that. That’s the systemic side to this issue. This system creates an environment in which this kind of stuff can happen, and I need to own that as a white person.”
Cari Anderson said intentional inclusivity may be the simplest approach to shattering the “illusion of diversity.”
“It’s the old basic notion that people need to know each other,” Anderson said. “We need to exchange phone numbers and get into each other’s houses. How do we make that happen? Doesn’t it start right here?”
Community members proposed starting a directory of the local anti-racism groups they frequent, as a way to increase residents’ access to tough conversations. Block parties and increased cultural-sensitivity training for teachers were also named as potential solutions.
Homewood resident Joy Heine said regardless of what path the H-F community takes towards healing, she’s committed to the process. No matter how uncomfortable.
“I’m that white parent who is ready to do the work,” Heine said. “What are we going to do to raise our white kids to be awesome, and culturally aware, and smart, in ways too many people aren’t? If you see something, say something. Don’t just walk away and put it on Facebook. Do something. At home. At school. In our places of faith. I’m ready for the marathon.”
St. Jean said the forum was a success, even with its moments of friction. He said the beauty of robust dialogue lies in its ability “to develop the baseline to accomplish what we set out to accomplish. It’s like putting primer on the wall.”
“The ultimate goal of peaceology is to establish collective efficacy. That is, the capacity of a group to come together to identify, prioritize and resolve problems that have presented a collective challenge to them, despite their differences,” he said. “There was some protest in the beginning, but we just kept coming back with love. This will be the first conversation of many.”
He said work would begin soon to organize a followup forum in a few weeks, depending on scheduling issues.
Eric Crump contributed to this story.