Panel talks about racism, discrimination and ignorance
ROUND LAKE - “Racism is part of our history. It’s a stain on our American fabric. I think we need to acknowledge that racism exists and it is real - it is in all of us, to some extent.”
Those were the words of Erin Schutte Wadzinski, one of four female panelists invited to share their experiences and encounters with racial injustice during a first-ever Humans of Worthington gathering Saturday evening at Round Lake Vineyard & Winery.
Coordinated by Andrea Magana, founder of Humans of Worthington, and funded by a grant from the Science Museum of Minnesota, the event was organized to continue the conversation and seek ways to address racism and injustice in area communities.
Wadzinski, an attorney with the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota and a Worthington native, was joined on the stage by Elizabeth Briones Flores, a nearly lifelong resident of Worthington who works in human resources at JBS; Nathalie Nkashama, a social worker and owner of World Mart who moved to Worthington in 2017; and Mariel Castaneda, a politically active Worthington High School senior.
Throughout the evening, the panelists responded to questions posed by Magana, as well as the audience, on everything from what racism is to them, how they see the racial divide in Worthington, instances in which they felt discriminated based on their race or gender and ways in which people can build or improve relationships toward equal treatment.
While Wadzinski said she believes the community is going in the right direction in integrating and embracing the diversity of the region, she noted there is “still a long way to go.”
Nkashama said to her, racism is a belief that is born out of ignorance. She spoke from experience as an African woman, noting that black people are given higher interest rates to buy a car and asked to pay higher rent for their homes than white people.
“You have to fight all the time to get what you want,” she said.
Castaneda, who organized the student-led protest “A Day Without Immigrants” in Worthington four years ago, defined racism as prejudice and discrimination.
“Racism is very hurtful and I believe that we need to start changing it,” Castaneda said. “We need to start playing an active role in our communities.”
She spoke of the racial divide in the school district, where all of the teachers, principals and school board members are white. Even looking at city and county leadership, she said many of the people are white males.
“One of my hopes and dreams for the community of Worthington is that its leadership is representative of this town,” Wadzinski echoed. “Today, approximately 40 percent of Worthington residents are white. I would like to see greater empowerment among ethnic groups - to see them step up and take leadership.”
Taking on a leadership role involves risk, as Castaneda explained. She spoke of her fear as a 14-year-old female of color, terrified of the backlash from fellow students and teachers when she organized “A Day Without Immigrants.” Despite some “white students” driving by and throwing bottles of their urine at some of the protesters, Castaneda said she found strength in seeing a lot of people from the community join in their protest.
“Regardless of what had been thrown at us, we stood there with what little courage we had and we made a statement,” she said.
Nkashama said she’s been treated with no respect at times in her career, but she doesn’t stand for it.
“I don’t take anything like that,” she said. “I have a psychology degree.”
Nkashama said she’s not afraid to call people out for treating her with disrespect, and she said if white people stood up in support of non-whites in the community, it would make a difference.
“Whether we like it or not, the white people have the privilege to do many things here that a colored person does not,” Nkashama said.
“Something that I strongly believe in is everyone has a voice, but sometimes a person of color is not the voice you want to hear,” noted Castaneda.
Briones said even within ethnic groups, there is discrimination. Perhaps instead of skin color, it’s socioeconomic status or heritage.
Working to reduce racism and discrimination, Nkashama said, begins in the home.
“We can change our tomorrow by the way we raise our children,” she said.
Other solutions offered by the panelists including listening to each other, building relationships with others and empowering people of color.
“Get to know other people, have a conversation and see that we really are a lot more similar than we are different,” Briones Flores said.
“We cannot deny the world is constantly changing, Worthington is constantly changing,” added Castaneda. “We need to learn to accept and be compassionate.”
Anthony Melendez spoke from the audience Saturday night, asking that everyone see people for who they are, not their race.
“We need to stop saying white people, black people - we’re all the same people,” Melendez said. “We need to eradicate ignorance.”