Roundtable discussion asks people to listen

KATELYN HIBBARD/Sun-Gazette Richard James, a member of the Beloved Community Council, relays some of his group’s ideas for breaking down divisive stereotypes both at a personal level and as a community.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t just want equality. He called for unity through understanding — to see the person beyond the skin color.

The Beloved Community Council hosted a roundtable discussion Wednesday meant to expand on the idea of unity through understanding as part of Dream Week, a week-long celebration of King and his teachings.

“It’s so great that we get to sit here and listen to each other and hear what we each have to say,” said council member Mary Woods. “It’s so important to listen attentively, without judgment … to seek to understand rather than debate … We’re not here to fix, we’re not here to advise and we’re not here to set anyone straight.”

Groups of strangers were tasked with building a discussion based on three of King’s quotes and related follow-up questions, the first of which made for a rather personal start.

King’s first quote said that fear of other people stems from not knowing them, and knowing them requires communicating with them. The group members were then asked to share specific examples of stereotypes, labels, profiling or judgments that have hurt them.

Barbara Reeves moved to Williamsport from Washington D.C., where she was born and raised, in the midst of a time when many drug addicts were coming into the area for treatment. She said many assumed she was an addict too.

“I was thinking, ‘I am an educated, black woman. I’m here for the ministry,’ “ Reeves said, adding that she and her family have lived in their neighborhood for 13 years. “We still have neighbors who won’t speak to us.”

Her children, now adults, have told her she’s “too nice” and should stop waving and saying hello. But Reeves said she won’t give up on being “consistently kind.”

“If the wall is up, there are people you’ll need to touch but you won’t be able to,” she said. “You can tell (your kids) to be kind all day, but they will repeat what they see.”

The groups were then asked for their ideas on how to break down divisive stereotypes both on a personal level and within the community.

Aron Carter, of Elysburg, works for Jersey Shore State Bank in Williamsport. He said he tries to incorporate humor when he faces stereotypes.

He said he focuses on living his life, leading by example and not jumping every time someone says something “rough.”

“It’s not my job to convert anybody,” he said. “Who did Jesus hang out with? Everyone.”

He added that some people seem to think taking away symbols viewed as racist, such as the Confederate flag, “will take away the way they think.”

“But it just makes them bitter,” Carter said. “We think the government can legislate morality … Lead by example. Live your life.”

Kacie Hopkins, a member of the Beloved Community Council, agreed with Carter, adding that even places are stereotyped.

Hopkins was born and raised in Tennessee before moving to Chicago, Illinois, for school. She said she was scared to go at first because of the stereotypes she’d heard about Chicago’s south side, but ended up enjoying the city.

“You don’t know until you go there,” she said. “You don’t know until you listen. Take time to learn people’s stories.”