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Real talk about race

There were boxes of tissues near seats as over 200 people filled the Grand Ballroom at Medford’s Inn at the Commons to hear seven community members share personal stories about race, and to engage in discussion afterward Wednesday. “I’m so excited this topic has come to the area,” said Marika Mooyman of Ashland. “It’s an issue we don’t usually talk about, and it’s about time.”

The “Seeing Color” community storytelling event, organized by several Jackson County organizations, was intended to spark an authentic and engaging conversation about race. Host Mark Yaconelli, founder of the Hearth storytelling series, said he hoped the audience was inspired to move forward and take action.

The tissues came to good use as people wiped tears while Jennifer Ware, also an event co-organizer, told a story of her first childhood awareness of racism while in kindergarten. She spoke of how her mother built her confidence by teaching her about her heritage, reading her books by James Baldwin, Malcolm X and Maya Angelou. “My mom would say, ‘I’m putting your armor on,’ and she’d arm me with an education I wouldn’t get in school,” said Ware. “Now, I do the same thing for my son,” she added.

Marquis Malcolm shared a story of having a police officer put a gun to his head when he was 16 years old. “When you see those headlines justifying the killing of some young black boy or girl by police, remember anyone can be demonized,” he said. “I was a good kid, and now I’m a good adult and a good father. I’m part of this community, but that headline could’ve been me.”

Ralf Mesta told of a time he was wrongfully accused of stealing, and of his family’s dangerous attempts to cross the Mexican border into the United States when he was 8 years old. “I’m so glad I get to share a story. I think people make a lot of assumptions and hearing our stories will give everyone a different perspective,” he said.

Larry Slessler, who described himself as a man of the '50s, talked about living in the valley when Medford and Grants Pass were "sundown towns," meaning no people of color were allowed in the town after sunset. He shared stories recognizing his own privilege as a white man and confronting racism in the community. “When you hear people say ‘We have to take back our country,’ that’s old-white-man code for there are too many people of color for our liking,” he said.

Others told of their own struggles and successes, the common theme being a desire to be seen and recognized as a part of the rich and vibrant valley. “I get angry and tired that I have to always feel lucky,” said Victoria Bencomo. “I just want to be here and be myself,” she added.

After the stories, Ware and Gilda Montenegro-Fix facilitated a discussion in which audience members shared their impressions of the stories and what those stories brought up for them.

The audience was made up of a broad cross-section of the Rogue Valley community. One man felt that times had changed and it was white people who were now less privileged in some ways. Another audience member said she was more aware of the fact that, unlike people of color, she never has to think about how people perceive her based on her skin color. Many said they were especially pleased to see students at the event.

“I’m so pleased they are here,” said Marika Mooyman. “Our young people need to hear these conversations.”

Middle school classes from Ashland’s Willow Wind Community Learning Center attended. Social studies teacher Claire Bloom says it was important that the kids participate. “We talk a lot about what’s happening in this country now, but kids here in the valley don’t always hear about systemic racism,” she said.

Language Arts instructor Kim Keoppen agreed. “Our population is very white. Though these kids’ parents are very aware, our job is to further educate them. They come from a place of privilege, and hearing real stories resonates with them and connects them with our whole community,” Keoppen said.

Seventh-grader Jack Murphy said he was glad to hear the stories. “I hear about stuff going on in the news, but to hear it first person is definitely going to stay with me. Knowledge is power and arming yourself with knowledge can help you make this a better world,” he said.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Angela Decker at decker4@gmail.com.