For several seconds that seemed much longer to those listening, Diane Ford had to take a moment to compose herself.
She was giving a presentation to Bethel Park School Board when she started to describe her grandson being subjected to racial slurs on a school bus.
“In recent years, these types of incidents have impacted the entire district,” she finally said while continuing to quell her emotions. “There are countless stories I can share, way too many to ever present in this forum.”
Ford attended the board’s final June meeting to provide a progress report on a Cultural Competencies and Inclusion Initiative she has led at the high school during the past two academic years. She prefaced her comments with a brief history of her family, starting with her great-grandfather moving to the Coverdale neighborhood of Bethel Park in 1927.
“I grew up in Coverdale on Cherry Street, and it was a type of utopia,” Ford recalled. “Many people with different ethnic backgrounds looked out for, took care of and loved each other. We ate together. We played together. We slept at each other’s houses. And of course, we got in a whole lot of trouble together.
“When we left Cherry Street, just blocks from our utopia, the world that we entered was not so loving, not so caring and not so accepting.”
One of six African-American students in Bethel Park High School’s Class of 1985, among roughly 555 graduates, Ford has remained in the municipality and is a longtime observer of local issues involving race.
“Growing up in Bethel Park presented its challenges, and I was certainly not the person who would walk away from any challenge, which brings us here today,” she told the board.
She has worked with the school district on attempting to promote unity and a better sense of understanding. In 2014, she and Tracy Ford, her sister and Bethel Park High School nurse, formed a club called STAND, Stand Against Negativity and Discrimination.
The Cultural Competencies and Inclusion Initiative started at the high school in 2018, with Diane Ford presenting an introductory assembly in the auditorium. Out of more than 1,000 students, she reported, 25 signed up for the program.
During the just-concluded academic year and before COVID-19 closing school, seven students were attending sessions, held during lunchtime, regularly.
“I believe that we made some good strides in hearing from the students who participated in the inaugural stages,” Ford told the school board. “They were able to share their thoughts, their ideas, and provide some insights based on their lived experiences.”
But limiting participation to high schoolers does not represent what she originally envisioned.
“My goal was to have a districtwide initiative, and it still is,” she said, optimally involving all stakeholders from kindergarten students through administrators and school board members.
Ford has submitted a proposal for such a program, with a recruitment plan and marketing strategy, for board members’ perusal.
“We have to do something now, that’s not going to take years to begin to implement,” she asserted.
Pam Dobos, board president, replied positively to Ford’s remarks.
“The board as a whole is very interested in this initiative, very interested in it being districtwide, very interested in the whole issue,” Dobos said. “From what everyone has been saying, I think that right now, we start small,” she told Ford, “with you and a couple of us and a couple of administrators. I think we have to have all stakeholders involved eventually.”
In an interview after the school board meeting, Ford spoke about the general reluctance she has encountered in broaching topics related to racism.
“When was the last time a white person talked to a Black person about any of these issues? Nobody does that,” she reported. “No one has approached me and said, ‘Diane, I would like to talk to you about this. I would like to understand X, Y, Z. I genuinely want to know.’
“How do we ever heal if we don’t have these discussions?”
She also calls for moving beyond limited-scope, or what she terms “Band-Aid,” approaches to addressing problems:
“What people have to realize is that they cannot continue the same old way and think that they’re going to get different results.”