Story has a way of worming sideways into a situation, its insights unfold and illuminate what had been confusing or unresolved. Story can unify people, literally. When doctors scanned brains of people listening to the same story simultaneously, the same centers in the brain lit up as the story progressed.
The problem with story when introducing a column written in the third person, is that personal stories are excluded, and retelling another person’s tale may lead to copyright issues. Today, we’ll need to protect copyright and privacy, so I’ll venture into the first person.
But the story starts with first wondering, is there a story to tell? All good narratives begin with characters who venture out of their comfort zone, usually in want of something and enter into an unfamiliar situation where they face some level of discomfort to which they must adapt. They may get what they want and may pay a high price for it before they return to their safe place changed. What happens when the character doesn’t have to leave their comfort zone for what they want?
About 87% of MoCo residents can go to Walmart, the library, and the gas station, and work with people who look like themselves and share some memories about the Strawberry Festival or high school. Many of us were born here and will live most of our lives here. We don’t realize that the homogeneity we experience day to day is the product of a social practice that siloed us.
I didn’t. I grew up near Fort Wayne and spent the first decade of my life in a trailer court where every single resident was White. I learned from the oldest grandson of the owner, a man who prided himself on running the “classiest” mobile home park in the state, that every adult who leased space was interviewed in person to ensure the community remained exclusively White. Because I was home schooled, I had no chance to encounter people of color, as did other kids when they went to school each day.
There’s a term for the practice enacted around me during those years. It’s “Whites Only,” or “Sundown community,” about which sociologist James Loewen wrote in his book “Sundown Towns.” Indiana and Illinois were the cradle of such practices from the early 1900s. Officially Fort Wayne was not one of hundreds of Hoosier towns that passed ordinances or policed people of color out of its borders by nightfall. For context, Indiana has about 570 municipalities, so the majority of them were a sundown town at one time. Yet people living in the trailer court enforced the “sundown” code, even though it was illegal in the 1980’s when I lived there. A mob once formed late on a Saturday night when someone from the adjacent neighborhood walked through after dark. They claimed “a Black person with a butcher knife” was roaming our streets. When they came to our door to pull my father into the mob, he talked them into disbanding and going home.
So there is a reason that I first lacked a compelling tale with which to lead this column. Growing up in constructed “Whites Only” spaces robbed many of us of rich friendships and great memories across America’s beautiful subcultures.
About 5% of our county population is now Latino, just over 1% is Black, and nearly 1% is Asian or Indian. They’re not always visible, in part because they tend to live in pockets on the edge of town, as Agata Szczeszak-Brewer, co-chair of Humans United for Equality Immigrant Allies group, noted in her Lunch with League presentation on April 29.
Szczeszak-Brewer, an English professor at Wabash College, who is also foreign-born, began the Immigrant Allies group with HUE to help out the more than 1,000 foreign-born people living in Montgomery County. They have left their comfort zone in want of something — safety, a better job, access to healthcare or education. They feel the discomfort and pay the price that comes with moving to another country and culture. Each time they walk out of their homes, they leave their comfort zone again. And, they face a unique hurdle: because they’re immigrants, they may not yet have a license to drive. The LWVMC has previously written on the acute problem that is the lack of public transportation in Crawfordsville and the county.
Immigrant Allies is tackling a solution. They wrote and received a small grant to seed a ride share initiative that will bring people of all backgrounds together. They’re hosting meetings with stakeholders to explore whether a ride share model akin to Lyft would solve the needs of anyone without a car. Szczeszak-Brewer believes we’d reap the additional benefit of building community trust because people from different groups would engage with and get to know one another. They hope it will build trust.
Truthfully, I have collected more anecdotes recently — tales of neighborly kindness that impact my family, my block, and the city — ramshackle houses being refurbished, neighbors mowing lawns of single mothers, shared garden goods for the good stuff. Also targeting that puts lives and safety at risk, on the negative side. Some incidents were mentioned at the Lunch with the League. They indicate the possibility of trust, though in most stories, the acts of kindness are from the immigrants towards long-term residents here. What we need, along with public transportation solutions, is a community-wide intention to build trust. It starts with leaving our comfort zone.
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