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Residents share their stories at virtual forum: What it’s like to be a person of color living in Dutchess County today

DUTCHESS COUNTY — Elected officials and community leaders held “A Listening Town Hall: People of Color Sharing Their Experiences in Dutchess County” on Tuesday evening, July 7, for people to talk about what it’s like living in the region as a person of color.

Hosted by Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY-18), the Dutchess County Commission on Human Rights and the Northern Dutchess National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the event was held via Zoom and live streamed on the “Dutchess County Government” Facebook page. People could register beforehand to speak for three minutes during the forum.

Molinaro assured participants what they said would be a way to “address these challenges together.”

Advocating police reform legislation as the father of two black daughters, Maloney said, “I think that when we can find, through love and concern, paths through this thicket of difference and fear and can find ways across those lines of difference, that’s where change occurs, and I want to be part of a generation that changes this.

“Maybe we don’t change at all, maybe we can never change at all, at least in our lifetimes, but we can be part of progress that other generations have achieved.

“These are the same painful, difficult injustices we have been facing for 400 years,” Maloney continued, “but we’re a different society than we were even 20 or 30 or 50 years ago, and in the diversity of our society, we have an opportunity, I think, to create real lasting change and to make our contribution to make it a better country for everyone.”

More than 300 people spoke that night, according to Angela Henry, the forum’s moderator.

As the first official to speak, former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson recounted his years living in Dutchess County. Johnson shared that his family was the first black family to move into the Cotton Hill area of Poughkeepsie years ago. In spite of his otherwise happy childhood, Johnson said he could still remember to this day his friend telling him his sister said they were “not to play with Negroes.” He recalled the sting of being called the “n-word” by a sixth-grade classmate, just one of many incidents in a string of painful memories about “being in the minority, distinctly in the minority in the 1960s growing up in Dutchess County.”

Even though he later became a scholar and a lawyer, Johnson acknowledged that he never could have believed that he’d see a Black president in his lifetime or that he would serve in President Obama’s Cabinet as secretary of homeland security. From his school days at Roy C. Ketcham High School to his marriage to “the girl next door,” Johnson spoke proudly of his life in Dutchess County.

Several others shared their admiration of the county and its efforts to address recent demands for equality. United by their Dutchess County roots, they shared stories of their personal experiences with racism, and how those experiences influenced the way in which they perceive the world around them.

Speaking as a 25-year resident of the county, Van Riley, the senior assistant director of admissions at Marist College, said he’s observed the county’s social, academic and political sides. He praised its elected officials for the “good work” they’re doing. Narrating the story of his first experience with racism, he said it occurred when he went for his first job at a courier service when he was about 15 years old. Riley recalled that the manager got on the phone with the owner of the company and alluded that he was going to hire Riley because he was a basketball player.

“That was a real educational experience for me,” Riley said, “and it also taught me the lesson of accept people how they are but also carry yourself in a way that reflects who you are, and in my journey, all I wanted to do was change the narrative.”

Identifying herself by both her Hudson Valley and Southern roots, Cammie Jones, a resident of Hyde Park, and the associate dean of experiential learning and civic engagement at Bard College, said she’s experienced “far more situations of racism and sexism in Dutchess County than I’ve ever experienced growing up in the South.

“I’m actually quite shocked a lot of times by the treatment that I see of not only myself but of other people of color in this region, because I was taught that the North is different, that it’s open-minded, that it’s free, it’s welcoming,” Jones said.

Though she acknowledged she’s been able to maneuver many leadership opportunities in the community, Jones said she’s often reminded that if she pushes too far for social justice, she’s told she’s “stepping out of line.

“When I think about my time as a leader of this county, I am so happy to see elected leaders that look like me in some areas of government, but I also am saddened to see a lack of opportunity for people of color to be seen, heard and valued within our political structures throughout this region,” she said. “When I look at the tables of power, I do not always see myself.”

Jones asked for the county to create a sustainable pipeline of engagement where men and women of color are heard, seen and feel safe in — and can be a part of  — building equity in their communities. 

Speaking as the county’s first assistant commissioner of youth services in response to Jones’ comments, Karmen Smallwood outlined her goal to promote systems that revolve around equity and inclusion, highlighting the value of having these crucial conversations within all levels about what it means to be different and to have to deal with these challenges in order to have a seat at the table.

Focusing specifically on the issue of discrimination in the Dutchess County workforce, Deirdre Brown, a Poughkeepsie resident and attorney, said she was of the opinion that the county’s African American leaders are aware of these issues, “so this gathering tonight is for the benefit of Marc Molinaro and some of the other, let’s say, pale-skinned members of our leadership because they’re the ones who need to hear this.”

Looking at Molinaro’s series of outreach programs and Smallwood’s discussion of her work, Brown said, “What always lacks in these initiatives is focus on changing the minds and hearts of the pale-skinned people who work in these institutions.” 

Speaking directly to Molinaro about disparities in his workforce, she said African Americans are “grossly unrepresented” and, based on data put together by Molinaro’s office, charged the disparities between minority representation and white representation “is so bad that you are essentially akin to a hardcore discriminator.”

After relating several incidents involving the way he and his family have been treated by the Poughkeepsie police, Poughkeepsie resident Curtis Clare shared his thoughts at the forum.

“We need to better understand each other as a group, and if I think if both sides can sit down and have this conversation and both talk, we can better understand each other, and maybe that will help us get through what we’re going through because it’s not getting better, it’s getting worse,” he said.

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