Those People On The Corner Of The Green
Wednesday, Oct. 17 at 6 p.m. It’s rainy, it’s cold. I’m sitting in the basement of the Hanover Public Library — a personal first — with three women and men, all of whom are comfortably three times my age. We’re discussing race relations. We’re all white.
The aforementioned people are Fran Brokaw, Carol Rougvie and Reverend John Gregory-Davis. Brokaw and Rougvie are retired, but Gregory-Davis is a pastor at Meriden Congregational Church in Meriden, New Hampshire. You may not recognize their names or their faces, but if you are a Dartmouth student or a Hanover resident, I can say with almost absolute certainty that you’ve seen them before.
Between 5 and 6 p.m. every Monday, Rougvie, Brokaw, Gregory-Davis and other members of the Upper Valley chapter of Standing Up for Racial Justice stand on the corner of the Green, at the intersection of Main Street and West Wheelock Street, holding Black Lives Matter signs. They’ve done this for three years, rain or shine or — because this is New Hampshire — snow.
I see them frequently, and prior to our conversation, I had always wondered: what could they possibly hope to gain from reminding (largely liberal) college students and Hanover residents that Black Lives Matter?
As I learned on Wednesday, Oct. 17 in the basement of the Hanover Public Library: a lot.
The Upper Valley chapter of SURJ officially launched in 2015. One year prior, Rougvie and a colleague had taken a continuing education class through Dartmouth with professor Ellen Bettmann. The class, called “Difficult Conversations About Race,” inspired Rougvie and her colleague to start a discussion group that would meet monthly for discussions, mediated by Bettmann, about race relations.
From these discussions came the Upper Valley chapter of SURJ.
SURJ is a national organization, with chapters in 46 states as well as Canada, that seeks to “undermine white support for white supremacy and to help build a racially just society.” According to SURJ, responsibility for dismantling the racist system within which we live belongs to the group that created it: white people.
“The advantages that white people have were all created by our ancestors,” Brokaw explained. “So, it’s incumbent on us to act to disrupt that … We do have [people of color] giving us advice and feedback, but we don’t ask them to do the work unless they want to.”
White people organizing around racial justice is admittedly not something you see a lot. But in a state that is 94 percent white, it’s necessary.
“Especially in a place that is so racially homogenous, it is really empowering to see them out there,” Kenny Coleman ’20 said. “As a person of color, I think a lot about [racial justice], and I’ve been upset with the lack of allies.”
The most visible part of their work is the monthly vigils. These started “when there was a lot of national publicity about the shootings of young black men and women,” Brokaw said.
At first, the group only held a vigil in response to a shooting, but when they came to be more aware of how regularly shootings occur, they felt they needed to do it more regularly, Brokaw explained.
“Initially, it was just for our own sanity ... We felt like we can’t just sit doing nothing,” she said.
They chose to hold vigils on that particular corner of the Green because they had seen other groups do the same, and they chose to do so at that particular time (5 to 6 p.m.) because they hoped to “catch people’s eyes as they are driving home” from work, Brokaw said.
Unused to calling attention to themselves or to making bold political statements, both Rougvie and Brokaw initially found “vigiling” to be frightening. It was far out of their comfort zones to be out in public, holding a Black Lives Matter sign and taking a stand. They both, however, recognize the irrationality of their fear.
“Could you possibly think of a safer thing?” Brokaw said. “We’re older white women in Hanover, across from the Hanover Inn. What’s the worst thing that could happen?”
The worst thing that could happen, they soon found out, was heckling from passersby.
The comments are generally degrading yet unaggressive. People driving by give them the middle finger or shout “all lives matter,” Brokaw said. In the same breath, she mentioned — in a matter-of-fact tone that seemed inconsistent with the gravity of the comment — that one evening someone screamed “shoot all the effing n—s.’
Coleman was surprised but not shocked to hear that SURJ had received negative feedback. Hanover is a liberal college town where over 80 percent of voters voted for Hillary in 2016, but it is not immune to racism. In fact, Coleman feels that struggles faced by people of color “are kind of swept under the rug because we are a so-called liberal place” where that sort of thing is not supposed to happen.
It’s easy to forget about racism when you’re white.
This is something that Brokaw, Gregory-Davis and Rougvie of which have become acutely aware.
“A lot of people fit into the category of good, white people,” Brokaw said. “They think they’re doing the right thing, and they’re generally liberal and don’t think of themselves as racist because there’s no interpersonal racism.”
“No matter how racist or non-racist I might be as an individual, that’s not the point. I’m part of a racist system,” Gregory-Davis said.
And that racist system will continue to exist so long as we do nothing to actively dismantle it, even if we are at the same time doing nothing to actively support it.
Thus, a large part of what SURJ does is education. According to Rougvie, the group hosts monthly community meetings at which they screen films, host speakers and discuss issues of race and impediments to economic parity. These meetings draw a crowd of anywhere from eight to 50 people, Brokaw said.
According to Rougvie, one of the more crowded meetings was held after an incident in which fliers containing white supremacist messaging were placed under the windshield wipers of cars parked in the Upper Valley Plaza in Lebanon, New Hampshire.
At the meeting, the group practiced rewriting the Valley News coverage, which Rougvie labeled “milquetoast,” and wrote to municipal governments in New Hampshire and Vermont. One of the write-ups from this meeting was published in the Valley News as a letter to the editor.
This letter to the editor served as concrete evidence of the group’s impact, but for most of its efforts, it is difficult to pinpoint indicators of success. According to Rougvie, they usually rely on anecdotal evidence. When people subscribe to their email listserv, or come to their community meetings, or engage in their monthly discussions about race or stop to thank those “vigiling,” they feel that their hard work was worth their while.
They also collect donations for local not-for-profit groups that are run by or benefiting people of color, Brokaw said. One of their favorites is Living Proof Mentoring, a nonprofit based out of Hartford, Vermont that connects children of color adopted into white or multiracial families with mentors who look like them.
However, Rougvie, Gregory-Davis and Brokaw readily admitted that a large part of what they do is, as Brokaw phrased it, “for their own sanity.”
“Once your eyes are opened up, you can’t live with yourself unless you’re doing something active,” Brokaw explained. She described her “awakening” as a “kick in the stomach.”
Rougvie has come to realize how oppressively white her world is.
“I don’t have that warmth and richness that comes with knowing different kinds of people and learning to understand different cultures,” she said.
Rougvie added that because of this, she has “come to feel that [she is] impoverished.”
Brokaw, on the other hand, is newly aware of how diverse her world is. Having grown up and lived in predominately white communities, she found herself subconsciously “erasing” people of color, only seeing that with which she was familiar.
Listening to them describe the personal growth which has come as a product of their activism, I reflected on my original question, the source of my curiosity: what could these people possibly hope to gain from reminding (largely liberal) college students and Hanover residents that Black Lives Matter?
Racism is bad. I think we can all agree on that one. What do we do about it? That’s far less clear.
I think it’s tempting to do nothing, especially when doing something feels like doing nothing. Tackling racism, one heart and mind at a time, is akin to clearing a sandbox grain by grain. But infinitely slower and far less tangible.
One response to the overwhelming vastness of this problem is to forget about it, to pretend it’s not there. Another response is to regain control in the only way you can: by changing yourself and hoping others follow suit. At its core, SURJ is a network of people pursuing the latter.
And as Gregory-Davis pointed out, in the Upper Valley, “the mission field is huge.”