During the summers of his youth, Jerrel Gilliam had to walk an extra distance to a pool where he’d be allowed to swim.
As a third-grader, Consuelo Garcia insisted on being called an Anglicized version of her name.
And today, high school student Katharine Tena said she feels an obligation to “act white.”
They were among the many participants who shared stories, observations and hope for the future during a recent diversity forum organized and moderated by Bethel Park School Board member Ken Nagel.
“While I organized this roundtable in a moment of national dialogue focused on race, the intent is to form a more inclusive and welcoming community for all who feel the bitter sting of discrimination and ‘isms,’ or who might otherwise feel anything other than fully welcome in Bethel Park,” he said. “More conversations will be necessary, and we will need everyone to join us in order to move forward with the real, sustainable change that I believe we all desire.”
The forum, held at the Bethel Park Municipal Building and streamed live, featured a cross-section of municipal and school leaders, and residents from a variety of backgrounds.
Part of the impetus for the discussion arose from a presentation for the school board by lifelong resident Diane Ford, who has been working on a Cultural Competencies and Inclusion Initiative with high school students. At that point, she related several racially motivated incidents involving members of her family, who have lived in Bethel Park since 1927, including her grandson being subjected to a particularly egregious slur on a daily basis.
“After Diane’s presentation to the school board, we had many, many comments supporting our moving forward in terms of learning more about what instances are occurring in the Bethel Park district and how we can address those issues,” said Pamela Dobos, school board president, during the diversity forum.
Subsequently, the school board voted to adopt a series of goals, one of which is “to create a district task force to learn, listen and understand equity and diversity issues” in the district, according to Dobos.
Findings and recommendations are to be reported to the board by June 30.
“I think that goal is a recognition that we have work to do, and we are willing to do that work in order to understand all of these issues that we’re talking about,” Dobos said.
With regard to diversity-related issues, several participants discussed applicable personal experiences.
“We were not allowed to go to Corrigan Drive Swimming Pool,” said Gilliam, a 1980 Bethel Park High School graduate. “My kids have a hard time believing that was my reality, but I grew up like that.”
His alternative was to venture from his Coverdale home past the swimmers at Corrigan Drive to One Hundred Acre Pool, better known as Sully’s Pool, where Blacks were welcome.
Connie Ruhl, a 26-year school board member and Bethel Park Chamber of Commerce executive director, spoke about avoiding going by her given name, Consuelo.
“I’m afraid to say it sometimes, for fear of what the reaction will be. I still have it from a child and from growing up,” she said. “And given the world situation today – you know, they associate you with whatever is going on, from whatever segment of the population – and immediately you see that little pushback.”
That type of reaction is addressed in Katharine Tena’s “Even In This Poem, I Still Act White,” a piece she read during the forum to a hearty round of applause.
“When I first meet a person, I never feel comfortable talking about my culture unless they bring it up, or I realize they’re comfortable talking about it with me,” the Bethel Park High School sophomore, a Filipina by heritage, said. “It’s something that’s kind of ingrained in our society, that race is a taboo topic, when it shouldn’t be. It’s just who we are.”
Among the forum participants who called for change in that regard was Haya Eason, a Bethel Park resident and municipal employee.
“If the communities that you’re in are predominantly of your background, then unless you teach your children to go outside of that, they probably won’t,” she said. “There’s a safety measure in place. We like being around people who look like us and sound like us and eat like us and dance like us and speak like us.”
As an African American who served in the military, Eason volunteered to help introduce some different perspectives by volunteering as a speaker for Veterans Day, Memorial Day and Black History Month while her daughter was attending Benjamin Franklin Elementary School.
“They would see someone different. My daughter would gain some confidence, because she knew that she was the only African American in her class from kindergarten all the way up to fourth grade,” Eason said.
“I did it not just for her. I did it for myself, as well, because I knew that I was going to be in this community, at least until she was 18. So I wanted other children in the community to see me, as well. I wanted the teacher to see that I was vested in her and also the other children.”
Gilliam, who is executive director of Light of Life Rescue Mission in Pittsburgh’s North Side, concurred with the value of sharing knowledge about various cultures.
“Sometimes it’s just a matter of saying, ‘You know what? I want to learn, and I want to be in a position of learning to be able to understand,’” he said.
While participants in the forum agreed the opportunity for an open discussion proved to be fruitful, they also acknowledged that sustained efforts are necessary to promote unity in Bethel Park.
“We have a long, long way to go,” Ford said. “But the most important thing is that the communication that is occurring now is happening.”
In that regard, she cited honesty as an essential component.
“A lot of times, these courageous conversations that have to occur do not happen, because we’re not telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” she asserted. “What we’re doing is, we’re trying to say what we think is comfortable for somebody else to hear, and not speak our truth.”
Julia Werts, who is Korean-American and has three children in Bethel Park schools, addressed a topic that would tend to veer away from the typical comfort zone.
“Minorities in this country, people of color: When they’re discriminated against, when people say things to them, there’s a lot of shame in that. There’s embarrassment,” she said.
“They tell children, ‘Report it to an adult. Tell somebody. Tell your principal.’ But when you’re embarrassed and ashamed about the things that were said to you, you don’t want to repeat them. You don’t want to tell someone.”
The perceived reaction also can serve as a deterrent.
“I don’t want to place blame on anyone, but a lot of times, the adults in the situation are aware of what’s happening. But either they don’t know how to handle it or, ‘Oh, it’s just kids. It’ll go away.’ And it just continues going on,” Werts said.
Those types of incidents have been reported to Nagel.
“Different parents have reached out to me and told me that their children have been called racial slurs within our school district, and when it’s brought to the attention to administrators, they have been told that it’s a bullying issue and a pattern has to be established,” he said.
“That’s not the way it should be, and I ask that our policy committee review our policies to ensure any kind of racial intimidation or racial slurs, or any kind of discrimination against anybody, is not treated as bullying but as discrimination. We have to have zero tolerance.”
District Judge Ron Arnoni, another forum participant, has no tolerance for harassment in any manner.
“The kids know this quite clearly: I do not tolerate bullying,” he said. “We have programs about it. We have discussions about it. But I will stand by any person who’s been bullied. I’ve done it all my life.”
Others taking part in the diversity discussion were Bethel Park Mayor Jack Allen; Laurence Christian, municipal manager; Teresa Doumont, Benjamin Franklin principal; Tim Moury, Bethel Park Council president; and Leonard Tena, Katharine’s father.
“This is an important first step toward a better, more welcoming Bethel Park,” Nagel said to wrap up the proceedings. “We have a lot of work to be done. I think we’re all committed to continuing to do the work and to broaden the participation in this work.”