Let's Talk: Conversations on race and ethnic diversity in Centre County
Penn State brings a much more diverse community to State College than you might otherwise expect to see in the mountains of central Pennsylvania.
You can see it downtown, as people of many different nationalities walk the streets, speaking different languages.
You can see it in the many international restaurants that share different flavors from around the globe.
You can see it in the churches that promote inclusion and acceptance.
You can see it in an Asian American who grew up here and is now mayor.
You could see it in banners hung in the borough last fall saying that all “are welcome here.”
You can see it in the Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza that was dedicated in 2017 in the heart of downtown to commemorate the time he spoke here in 1965.
And you can see it in the rainbow banners signaling the inclusion of the LGBTQ community in State College.
But for all that, the town is still 79 percent white. And State College is surrounded by a county that is more than 85 percent white, and surrounding counties that are even less diverse.
Even in a community filled with good people, that limited diversity can be daunting for a person of color.
In State College, after the death of Osaze Osagie, who was African American, many took to the streets and to public meetings to share with the community how they felt. They were upset and frustrated. Many offered sympathy for a life that was lost, and hope that this community can stay together through the tragedy.
Osagie’s death, the result of shots fired by borough police after he confronted them with a steak knife when they came to his home to serve a mental health warrant, was ruled by the district attorney as being justified within the law and not related to racial bias.
However, many continue to speak up so that his death was not in vain, hoping that this tragic incident leads to a larger conversation that brings greater understanding of one another and change for the better.
It is easy to see that Pastor Harold McKenzie of the Unity Church of Jesus Christ believes in the beauty of diversity, the way that people can grow by embracing and talking about their differences. He speaks of it eloquently and easily. He has been working for diversity in this community for decades, and I could see caring and openness in his eyes as I spoke to him.
But still, it wasn’t easy asking him questions about what it means to be a person of color in State College.
How do I explain to him that I, a white man, am trying to tell this story – a story that is not mine to tell. I know that I cannot possibly understand it all, that I cannot speak to everyone. I can only share part of the conversation.
But he says that these difficult conversations are how we are going to make changes, one step at a time.
“When you try to have a dialogue, right away there is an opportunity for change,” says McKenzie. “Every time someone takes the time to learn, then we get better.
“I think we have the illusion that Happy Valley is happy for everybody, but if a person does not feel welcome because of the color of their skin or because of their ethnicity, then we still have some work to do.”
As church leader, people have come to him and shared their stories through the years. They speak of store clerks watching their every move, police stopping them for seemingly no reason, of treatment in school that doesn’t feel quite right.
“Those things are still happening. We are not back in 1976; this is still happening,” says McKenzie.
And while many in the community are open to talking about diversity and inclusion, “Do we ever get beyond the point of potential conversation without any systemic change?”
Through the work of Community and Campus in Unity, a group promoting a multicultural community that respects and celebrates diversity in State College, McKenzie and others have been having the conversation with the school district and the police department about being more inclusive and understanding of the experience of people of color.
An example of positive systemic changes can be seen in the State College Area School District, with the hiring of a director of diversity and inclusion and the formation of committees focused on diversity, but there is more work to be done.
“That is a positive step. But I think that what people of color want to see is just not the rhetoric, but they want to see change. So with the work the district is doing, there is the possibility of change,” says McKenzie. “The same with the police department.”
McKenzie says that while everyone has biases, the history of this country has built an implicit bias that is woven into the culture. Conversations can help us move past that.
“I think the systemic nature of racism in our country and our community is such that we are blinded to it; people of the majority culture are blinded to a system of ways of thinking that have created a sense of privilege, so much that the average person will deny that such things exist. Not realizing that the systemic culture kind of helps them to think that way,” says McKenzie. “We judge people by the way we’ve been taught to think; we interact with other people, we interact with people of color because of the way that we’ve been taught to view people. But nobody is stopping to think, ‘Why do we think this way?’”
Listening to what others have been through and how they feel about things that happened to them can help people move forward, he says.
“We are encouraging people to have these uncomfortable conversations in our congregation and other congregations. We understand that it is a bumpy, sloppy ride,” McKenzie says.
“I think one of the awesome things is that God made people so different. But people don’t know very many people who are not like them. People celebrate flowers more than we celebrate people,” McKenzie says.
At Unity Church, the Penn State motto, “We Are,” gets followed by the words “Better Together.”
‘True to every place I’ve been’
“What I’ve found generally, and this is true any place I’ve been, is that people, one on one, for the most part are real with you, they are genuine, they are kind,” says Dr. Cynthia Young, department head of African American Studies at Penn State. “I don’t think that people walk around deciding to be mean to people who don’t look like them. I don’t think that is the way that racism works. When you live somewhere where diversity has never had to be accommodated at a large scale, I think a lot of things can seem to just kind of happen. It is not any one person, but I think that it kind of leads to larger structural inequalities that aren’t necessarily visible to people who aren’t of color. That is true to every place I’ve been.”
For example, she says, people of color have very different experiences when it comes to dealing with the police or in school, and it is important for people to listen when they speak out.
“If you don’t take seriously what people of color are saying about their experience, if you don’t hear it and try to think about why your experience, if you are white, is different, than what ends up happening is you kind of dismiss every single experience as a one-off. You say, ‘Oh that is too bad that that happened,’ and what that kind of leads to is that people of color feel like you are not hearing what I am saying and you are also not taking seriously that this is not an individual experience, but it is part of a pattern.”
If it is part of a pattern, it means there are bigger issues with the system, and people don’t want to feel like their system is broken, she says.
“Nobody wants to feel bad about the community that they live in; nobody wants to feel that they are being treated to give them some advantage,” Young says.
To really examine the problem, people can’t take things personally and instead should listen.
“You get to a point where people who want to fix things and who are white say, ‘Are you saying that I personally am this or that?’ or ‘Are you saying that my teachers are this or that?’ or ‘that my police officers are this or that?’ and I think that the more helpful way of answering that question is, ‘I don’t know these people individually, so I am not going to make any judgments about what they believe or don’t believe. What I want to look at are the results.’ And then when you get to a place where the results look unequal, then you have to say why. And what are the things that we can do to fix them?” Young says.
It is also important to understand the hyper-visibility of people of color, because there are so few of them in State College, and how it can affect people’s actions.
“What I try to tell people is that this is not distinct to State College. … It is not a small-town problem. When there are very few of anything, people tend to notice them. And then if you don’t have exposure to a lot of people from a specific group, then you tend to attribute that to the larger group,” Young says. “We have some unique challenges because there is such a small population of people of color, but a lot of things that are occurring occur in any community. It is not specific to State College.”
People have to feel like their voice matters and people are listening, she says.
“I can’t explain what a wonderful feeling it is,” Young says, “when white allies speak up when they see something that is wrong.”
'A way of reminding you'
For Gary A. Abdullah, the idea that he shouldn’t feel at home in State College is confusing. After all, he was born here, grew up here, went to school here, and started a family here. It has been home for all of his 37 years.
But, because he is African American, at times some people have tried to make him feel otherwise.
“Growing up here, especially in the ’80s, you knew you were different. People let you know you were different,” Abdullah says. “Central Pennsylvania has a way of reminding you of who you are and where you are at, of what people think of you out here.”
Still, Abdullah calls this area home. He found strength in the Penn State community and the Unity Church of Jesus Christ.
“Basically, they told me about who I was; I learned about what it meant to be a black person in America,” says Abdullah.
Now he worries about his daughters, because he can see how being different is affecting them. With questions from others at school or people coming up and touching their hair without their permission, he says it is difficult for them because they are often reminded how different they are.
It is difficult when most of the people in authority positions that his daughters interact with are white. He wants them to see strong black women in order to have something to strive for, beyond the actors and singers they see on the screen.
The Unity Church and Penn State give his daughters those positive black role models.
Abdullah works as the assistant dean of diversity and inclusion for the Bellisario College of Communications, helping people of various cultures adjust to life at Penn State. He says for many, it is a difficult transition to a large university.
“For some people, this is their first time actually being what people would call a minority,” says Abdullah. “Because, if you think about it, you may be a Latino coming from certain parts of New York and where you grew up, you were the majority. That large switch and coming up here and going, ‘Whoa, not only am I in the middle of central Pennsylvania, but now I am really a minority.’ And when you are 18, 19 years old and it is already a difficult time in your life because you are leaving your house for the first time and you are culturally in a different place than you have ever been, that is a lot to work through; so we are trying to work with them.”
‘It makes us a stronger community’
State College Mayor Don Hahn knows what it’s like to feel different in this town. He grew up here as the son of South Korean immigrants who moved to State College to find a better life, and he says that at times he was made to feel like he didn’t fit in.
Hahn understands that there is curiosity when someone is different, and it is not unique to State College.
“Obviously, when there is something different, there is a curiosity, and not everyone stared, but enough did to make it noticeable,” Hahn says.
For most of his time in State College he felt safe, despite sticking out, but while in middle school he faced taunting and verbal abuse based on his Asian descent.
“It made me consciously aware that I was the only person there like that,” Hahn says. “It definitely made me feel like a freak, an outsider, not belonging there.”
But despite that feeling, Hahn thrived and made friends in high school on the tennis team. Hahn grew up to become a lawyer, served on the borough council, and, in these roles – and now as mayor – he has made an impact in the community.
“Emotionally and psychologically speaking as a person who has grown up here, although I have not always felt welcome, it is still a very safe place; statistically speaking, it is a very safe place,” Hahn says. “We still have a long way to be more welcoming.”
Most people in this area are open and understanding, he says, but you cannot prevent the behavior of a single person who may make racially or culturally insensitive comments.
“But I think it is important to take sides in such a situation; you have to be willing to listen to the person who was treated wrongly,” Hahn says.
Penn State brings a diversity of race, religion, and ideas to this region, and that is something to celebrate, he says.
“People from all over the world with the greatest minds are coming to Penn State. … They are continuing to strengthen the university and this town with greater diversity,” says Hahn.
He often thinks of his parents, who came here for an opportunity, a better education, better employment, despite a different language and looking different. He says that opportunity is here for everyone, including people of different cultures, different religions, and different races.
“It makes us a stronger community,” he says.
Hahn adds that borough leaders must continue to listen. Adding body cameras for the police, recruiting more people of color to work in the borough, and adding translators to the police force are steps that he thinks would help with inclusion.
Listening to the narrative
For years, recent Penn State doctoral graduates Wideline Seraphin and Ana Díaz talked and listened.
From 30 Penn State students and families in the school district, they wanted to hear stories about what it’s like to navigate school as a person of color.
“What we observed is that these spaces don’t really exist for people of color to have vulnerable, honest discussion for what it is like for them. I think this town does a really good job of saying, ‘We want you here, welcome, this is a great place,’ but it also does a great job of saying, ‘We are not interested in the ugly stuff, the stuff that bumps against the identity of Happy Valley,’” says Seraphin.
Diaz and Seraphin say those conversations are important to have, so that people feel like they are being heard.
The pair made a short documentary, SchoolingNarratives, that shared the story of three State College families of color as they navigated the school district.
They hoped the stories would help spark conversation and change. But they are unsure if the community is ready to have the difficult conversations that need to be had.
“We think ourselves ready, [but] we need to do more work to be ready. And, then, follow through with action that promotes the values that we have as a community,” Seraphin says.
Carrying the weight
Having lived in the area since she came to Penn State in 1996 for graduate school, Melissa Landrau Vega is now the director of the Multicultural Resource Center at Penn State. Like Abdullah, she works with a diverse group of students as they navigate a large university.
She grew up in Puerto Rico, and went to school in Iowa before coming to Penn State. She thought she would be moving to a more diverse place since Penn State is closer to the East Coast.
But when she got to State College, Landrau Vega found less diversity than she expected. There were few restaurants and stores that sold products that she would find in Puerto Rico.
One challenge for people of color is having to deal with a situation in which someone does something racially insensitive in public, whether it is intended to be offensive or not.
“That is not a way to live; it is very difficult, because none of us want to experience having to confront that,” says Landrau Vega.
People still make assumptions about her based on her skin color and her accent, she says. Even in academia, she says a bias against people who have accents is present.
Students of color often have to carry an extra burden of worry and feel obliged to action when an issue related to race or ethnicity occurs on campus or in the community, Landrau Vega says.
“That weighs a lot on you,” she says.
While there have been some strides with multicultural businesses in the area, the rent downtown is too expensive for some smaller business to get started, she says.
Landrau Vega works with the Community Diversity Group in helping with a multicultural day in the borough, but she says often it is the same people coming out to such events; she hopes they can reach new people to celebrate multiculturalism.
Education programs in schools can help reach children and provide a multicultural experience that extends to the whole family, she says.
“You try; you throw it out there and see what they catch,” says Landrau Vega. “To me, if you get one or two people coming out and questioning, ‘Maybe I need to look at things in a different way,’ than that is a success.”
Connection to history
Terry Watson recently found out something interesting about his family’s heritage.
His parents called to say they were going to New York City because there was a street being named after his great-grandfather, who was the first black police officer to have a full career in the city. His name was Moses P. Cobb; he was born into slavery but later joined the force before the turn of the 20th century.
Watson did some research and found more about Cobb and his great-uncle Samuel Battle, who was the first African American detective in the NYPD.
In looking at their stories and the struggles between police and African American communities today, Watson developed a speaking series called “Battle with Moses People,” which discusses the generations of trauma in law enforcement and communities of color. He had expected it to be something to be discussed in academia, but then he was asked to offer his narrative to the State College Police Department.
When he gave the presentation, he realized that it is something that needs to happen more.
“What is happening is that police are seeing a one-sided point of view; this is not just a race thing, this is a cultural thing,” Watson says.
After the death of Osagie, Watson was compelled to act. He was heartbroken for the Osagie family. He also was worried about his son who, like Osagie, is an African American and is on the spectrum, and what could happen to him.
State College police chief John Gardner asked him to lead a conversation with the community on how the police can build trust back, especially with people of color. So, on April 17, Watson led a community discussion at the borough building. Many members of local law enforcement were at the meeting. Watson says he understands the trauma that people of color have faced, and he is worried about his son, but he hopes that a dialogue can lead to positive changes and understanding.
Watson continues talking with police and people of color on his website, battlemosespeople.com, and is awaiting the next step with the police department. And he is expanding his training around the nation.
A look in the mirror
As community members spoke to the State College Borough Council after the death of Osagie, it struck a deep chord with council member Dan Murphy.
“It was really after that meeting that I started to think about my own experience here differently, because our community held up a mirror to us about the realities of life in State College and in the Centre Region,” Murphy says. “I think that it is important that we honor that reflection and reflect on our own experiences here. For leaders in particular, how do we use that to move all of our initiatives forward, not just how we move forward from this tragedy, but how do we bring this into all the things that we are making decisions about and all the policy that we are considering?
“There is an element of this that is deeply personal. An individual has to be willing to explore themself, explore their understanding of the world around them, and be willing to consider previous blind spots and/or areas where we simply lacked knowledge or exposure and be willing to be open to new information and new perspectives.”
There are a number of ways to implement policy that is more open to diversity and inclusion, whether it is through zoning, or addressing the high cost of rent that discourages new businesses, he says.
“Down to our zoning, we are not being as inclusive as we think we are or say we are,” says Murphy.
The opportunity to learn about new people and cultures is important to him, he says, “and I see such value in that, I can’t understand why it isn’t important for everyone.
“I believe that there is great potential for this community, but I think that our neighbors of color have shouldered the burden of responsibility for creating a diverse and open environment in State College for far too long, and there are individuals and community members and leaders ready to step up and help do the work. I am hopeful that we have the will and motivation to do that.”
'Equity and justice'
Leslie Laing grew up in New York City, a first-generation Caribbean American. After getting her master’s degree in higher education, she was recruited to Penn State 10 years ago and helps bring diversity in non-traditional adult students to the Penn State student body as the director of Adult Learner Programs & Services.
Moving to State College from New York was a culture shock, but she found ways to make a difference and thrive.
She says she has experienced her share of racist attitudes both subtle and not subtle, in the community and on campus.
She also volunteers with the Community Diversity Group.
“The Community Diversity Group seeks to spark connections and inspire change. We do this by hosting monthly discussions about diversity, difference, and exploring other cultures. We provide periodic workshops for local businesses and their employees, conferences, and, most recently, a Multicultural Unity Day Fair. … We each have a responsibility to use our influence and agency to take up the task of learning more about others, becoming more intentional about including those who do not look like you [or] speak like you into your sphere of influence to build a welcoming community. We can embrace difference and celebrate it without losing,” says Laing.
The Community Diversity Group was co-founded by Carol Eicher, who realized along with a colleague that while they were working to bring in a more diverse workforce to State College and Penn State, those people often didn’t stay in the community long.
“It was retention issue. Could diverse people who move here put roots down and feel comfortable in the community and stay here?” says Eicher. “In doing this diversity and inclusion work, we want to get to the heart of the matter, as opposed to just putting a Band-Aid on things and saying the right things instead of doing something.”
And they will continue working toward those goals.
“Discussions about diversity and race are essential to our community,” says Laing. “We have a responsibility to build better relationships between town and gown, law enforcement and citizens, residents and students, citizens and immigrants, churchgoers and nonbelievers; our destinies are intertwined. We all must be willing to be inconvenienced and uncomfortable to achieve equity and justice for all.”
‘Heartbeat of hope’
When Edgar and Barbara Farmer first came to State College in 1974, Barbara tried to get Edgar to pull the car over when they saw another black person as they were driving through town.
“He would say, ‘You know you don’t know them,’ and I said, ‘I might.’ I was just that desperate,” Barbara says.
“But you were just that happy to see them. It is like if you went to a foreign country and you saw someone who looked like you, you would go up to them,” Edgar says.
Barbara says it was a struggle to find a black community then. Edgar says there were issues with the relationship between blacks and whites. But, they found support on the Penn State campus, in the African American student population, and in Edgar’s professors (he was a doctoral student), who made them feel welcome.
After leaving State College in the 1970s, the couple came back in 1996 when Edgar took a position as a professor of education at Penn State. Things had changed for the better, he says. There were many more African Americans living in the area and more of a black community in State
College through churches and organizations.
“There was a critical mass, whereas before there was not a critical mass, so before when you saw people who looked like you, you went up to meet them. Now, other black people don’t even look at you,” Edgar says.
But while the Farmers agree that there is a more diverse population here now, both say there is more work to be done toward understanding and acceptance all around.
“The thing that gets me, is that we all have access to the same information, and yet we are still in the same pit that we have been in for decades,” says Barbara, who was the first African American principal in the State College Area School District and later was director of multicultural affairs in the Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology. “If we can all see the same news and see the same facts and see the same statistics, where is the flaw in doing things a better way for people? … If the facts are there, why are they not hitting you the same way they are hitting me?”
“The facts are the facts and we interpret them differently because of our background. But hopefully we can we have civil conversations and come to some common ground on things,” says Edgar.
“I say we should have civil conversations with whites, because they don’t want to talk about race. They think that because you talk about race means you are a racist. And that’s so far from the truth. The fact of the matter is, why can’t we talk about that? We are different; that doesn’t have to be a negative. It should be a positive, because we see things differently.”
Barbara says they have these conversations all the time with people, including many white friends. They believe many in this community are working to have those conversations.
“People come to us all the time and ask, ‘Can we talk about this?’ And we do, but then I want them to go talk to other white people, because have you noticed that the work always is ours to do?” Barbara says.
“We have some really good white friends who we have had the conversation with, and they have told us that they are now having the conversation with their groups of friends, and that is a major part of this.
“People have to decide that other people are worthy enough for us to go through the healing process. And that we examine ourselves and the way we think about people and see one another,” she adds. “The heartbeat of hope keeps us going, keeps us talking about it.”
Vincent Corso is a staff writer for Town&Gown and The Centre County Gazette.