Patrice Blenman, Amy Bolt and friends: Rallying communities against racism
After the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery in February, Breonna Taylor in March and George Floyd Jr. in May, many community members took it upon themselves to bring awareness in a positive way to Williamsport and surrounding areas.
Yard signs voicing opposition to racism alongside peaceful marches in support of the Black Lives Matter movement were just some ways community members unified for the cause.
Patrice Blenman, the organizer of the Walk About It Be About It Facebook page and marches, and Amy Bolt, Williamsport Area Middle School teacher and one of the many facilitators of the “Racism Has No Place in Lycoming County” Facebook page, have helped bring the community together through the selling of over 800 anti-racism signs and an eight-mile march with hundreds of locals in support of BLM.
“That period of time was very sensitive for all of us, because of where our nation was standing at the time,” Blenman said. “We were seeing people being brutally murdered. It hit home for me.”
Blenman got together with the city mayor to make sure the eight-mile “Walk About It Be About It” march, from the historical Bowman Field to the green bridge at the entrance to Montoursville, was in compliance with COVID-19 protocols and city street usage requirements.
“It was an amazing, amazing event,” said Linda Tokay, Patrice’s mother. “I can’t say it was a surprise, she has always been a compassionate young lady. Patrice has always had a heart for the hurting. We cried together part way through (the march)…we turned around and looked as we were coming out of the park and there were people still coming. I am very proud of her.”
Rachel Black, Patrice’s best friend, and Mia Birch, a 15-year-old Williamsport Area High School student, alongside over 100 other community members, participated in the march.
“It was amazing to see the younger and older generations, and people of different races,” Black said. “I remember just giving her a hug and crying. She did this all on her own. There was a calmness and a peace and unity that she has been yearning for…I am really proud of her to reach her goal and for it to be impacting people.”
“I wanted to be a part of it to help raise awareness for the BLM movement. … It was special to me because of my niece,” who is biracial, Birch said. “Thank you to Patrice for bringing awareness to our little town. … We have some parts of our town that are set in their ways, but thank you for bringing this here anyway.”
In addition, Blenman also helped organize another walk with a local teacher, Kaylin Weldon.
The efforts of Tyra Crews and Amy Bolt, area school teachers, alongside their friends, Jennifer Schatzman, Jennifer Lake and many, many others, have helped bring the community together through facilitating and bringing “Racism Has No Home Here” signs around the county — in front of churches, 50 signs around Lycoming College and in your neighbors’ front yards.
The famous signs, designed with two hands holding one another in the shape of a heart, were actually designed in New York after Schatzman, Crew’s college roommate and friend, was disturbed by the recent displays of racism in the nation.
Crews bought 10 signs from her friend and marched with them in the city’s own marches and protests. She decided to sell them to help her roommate’s fundraiser for her area’s NAACP fundraiser when Bolt and Lake took it upon themselves to facilitate the selling of signs through a dedicated Facebook page, to help distribute them, especially to bring the community together and stand in solidarity against racism.
“I saw the signs and instantly felt the connection and wanted one,” Bolt said.
She originally thought that the Facebook page would just be her and a couple of friends trying to get the message out, but today the page has almost 3,000 people involved and sharing two common goals: to share pictures of the signs and to help others get signs.
“This is something everyone should be able to get behind,” she continued.
“I truly appreciate that they are getting the message out and wanting others to have love in their hearts,” Crews said. “It makes me feel very full, my heart is full, it makes me feel hopeful. As a school district employee it is important to me that diversity, inclusion, equity be a part of their mission, not just on paper but in action. I am grateful that I can drive around town and see the signs and know that I just had a little bit to do with that.”
“It is overwhelming in such a positive way,” Bolt said. “In the current climate with all that is going on in the world, seeing these signs collectively through the communities means so much. It is making a difference. It is also a catalyst to the start of where we need to be headed. We need to start openly talking about racism and learning from each other.”
“I think that we are all aware that racism is, sadly, a monumental issue in our nation and in our communities,” Lara Collins Breon, sign distributor and supporter, said. “We must face it in order to overcome it.”
“As an employee at Lycoming College, I was asked to assist with getting signs on campus before the students returned for the fall semester,” she added. “It was incredible…the college understands the importance of this message and I was thrilled to be a part of the effort to share that message with students, their families and our greater Williamsport community.”
“This is important work,” Jennifer Lake, sign distributor, organizer and supporter, said. “I do it for my children, we do it for our children. Someday, years from now when we look back at this time, I want to feel really good about what side of this issue I am on.”
Khalil Tindal, Williamsport Area School District alumnus, actually reconnected with Bolt through this initiative.
“To see her years later still being involved … means a lot to her past students,” he said. “I believe her efforts are special, especially her being a white woman and standing up to injustices. It means a lot — it means a lot for the community and it means a lot to the minorities. I would tell her to just keep fighting the good fight and hopefully one day we will all come together as one.”
Koren Sutliff, from Jersey Shore bought one of the signs from the Facebook page.
“This project stands out because it’s a group of people coming together to take a stand and talk about something that many are uncomfortable with discussing,” she said. “Racism is real and talking about it is the first step towards progress. The signs are clean, straightforward and eye-catching. I’ve caught many people in my neighborhood stopping to take a look.”
She continued by urging communities to get involved, whether it is with the sign initiative or even a simple conversation.
“To the organizers…Thank you. I am so grateful to them and everyone that is in the group for making their voices heard,” Sutliff said. “Every sign, every conversation, every interaction matters.”
“I think it is unique in that it is an effort made by so many people,” Breon said. “It isn’t just one small group of a few dozen people, but rather hundreds of families and businesses saying that we stand together against different forms of racism — we stand with all those who have been subject to racism. It spans all socio-economic divides in Lycoming County. People donated signs to those who could not afford them. People delivered signs to those without reliable transportation. It brought out the best in people. Thank you for your efforts. Thank you for your leadership. Thank you for bringing unity to our town against such a heinous issue.”