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Friday 30 September 2022
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Creation of a Coalition: Local Black Lives Matter Rally Creates New Diversity Alliance

by Carol Elizabeth Owens

Trinity Johnson is a student at Greece Athena High School

Thousands of years ago, a Biblical prophet named Isaiah gave the people of his time a rather animated description of what unity and peace would look like in the future.  The picture of harmony he shared included images of predators and their prey living together without apparent violence or animosity.

“And a little child shall lead them,” said the prophet, in the midst of describing his vision.

One local child, Trinity Johnson, now a 14-year old 9th grader at Greece Athena High School, unwittingly became a social justice leader at age 13 when she spoke up about her experience of an uncomfortable feeling of quiet racial tension in her community due to our nation’s exposure to the tragic injustice of George Floyd’s death by the actions (and apparent apathy) of police officers in Minneapolis, MN in the spring of 2020.

Trinity noticed that no-one at Greece Athena seemed to be addressing the George Floyd matter, and that no-one appeared to express concern about protests against racial injustice that were taking place throughout the country— daily and nightly.

Rather than remain silent and feel evermore silenced, Trinity chose to voice her concerns about the stifling racial unrest she felt at Greece Athena with her mother, Dina Johnson, who literally and immediately took Trinity’s message to the streets in Greece by organizing the community’s first Black Lives Matter (BLM) march.  The march was held on June 20, 2020.

When asked what led her to engage her mother’s assistance, Trinity said, “It was sad and unfortunate; there are many families, especially White families, who don’t really talk about it and don’t really acknowledge it.  And we don’t talk about it at all in school—it’s kind of separated and stuff, and I feel like it needs to be told more.”

The youngster also expressed disappointment about an apparent lack of education about African American civil rights at the high school.  “It just seems like a repetitive thing during Black History Month where we just learn about slavery; it doesn’t go into civil rights,” said Trinity.  “I think everyone should be aware and I think everyone needs that type of education; I just feel like it is necessary,” she said.

Dina Johnson, organizer of the Greece BLM march, undertook the effort to create a forum for all voices— Black, White, Latino and everyone to be heard about racial injustice and the need for real inclusive diversity in the community.  Trinity participated in the march and learned some things about social activism.

“It was really good, it was fun; a lot of people were sharing their experiences and seeing new experiences,” Trinity said about the BLM march.  “A White man who attended said he was there with Black teenagers because he was a coach, but a lot of Black students were looking at him funny.  He asked why were they looking at him funny, and the Black students were saying that they ‘probably thought [he was] our parole officer’.  It was kind of shocking.  It was a lot of anger, but it was peaceful – the [BLM] march was peaceful,” she said.

Dina Johnson said former Greece Police Department (GPD) chief Patrick Phalen (who is now retired) reached out to her quickly after the march.  “He [Phalen] let me know about diversity, what are some barriers to GPD hiring for diversity, their process of following Civil Service Laws and he wanted to talk more about how we could collaborate,” she said.

Dina was deeply motivated to organize the June 20, 2020, BLM march to address a lack of diversity in the Greece Athena curriculum, teachers and leadership, as well as a lack of diversity in the Town of Greece – the municipality as well as the GPD. 

After hearing from GPD, Dina says that Greece Central School District (GCSD) also sought to meet with her and other participants in the BLM group to address a list of diversity-related concerns that the group raised before and during the march.

Through positive reactions and productive interactions in several post-march monthly BLM group meetings with GPD, GCSD and other local organizations, Dina Johnson saw a need to continue her activism and broaden her efforts for the benefit of all families in the local area.  And that is why she founded the Monroe County Family Coalition (MCFC).

MCFC was established to create a more equitable community in Greece and throughout Monroe County for advancement of inclusive racial diversity related to broader diverse participation in local governance and access to beneficial programs in education and employment for the community’s young people.

“Our mission is to bridge gaps, to be like that consultant to connect people with government agencies as well as different resources in our community,” Dina said about MCFC’s development.  “MCFC’s goals are to serve the community with integrity and to consistently explore innovative ways to advocate on behalf of families and youth,” she said.

The Greece Police Department has maintained a steady connection with Dina’s organization during its original BLM group meetings and remains active as a partner with MCFC. 

Jared Rene is GPD’s Community Services Sergeant and Public Information Officer.  He understands that GPD needs to be more racially diverse.  “Our police department, we want it to be a reflection of the community from a diversity standpoint,” Rene said.  “That’s one of the goals, is to have our police department be a reflection of the community in which we are serving, the populace [we serve].”

Rene went on to say, “Right now, we have three Black police officers—one of which is a sergeant, one works in our community services office and one is an officer on the road patrol.  That percentage of our police station isn’t reflective necessarily of the Greece community.”

“From a community services standpoint, one of the reasons we are so attracted to MCFC and why we are so attracted to the Greece Central School District is because they have become phenomenal community partners for us to begin this message, to begin crossing these boundaries and these hurdles—and to begin trying to establish community connections that reach beyond having just having somebody show up at your house to take a police report … now we are at school [giving presentations to create interest in law enforcement careers],” Rene also said.

Rene was involved in the coordination effort to create a “safe space for the [June 2020 BLM march] to take place,” he said.  “It became very apparent in conversation with Dina Johnson, who is a very smart woman, how she is very committed to community reform and she did not have nefarious purposes for the [BLM] march.  She simply wanted to have their voices heard and that was the manner in which she [and other participants] wanted to do it.” 

“It was very apparent to us that Dina Johnson was not only a person that we could dialogue with very easily, but she was a person that was going to be very forefront with us in terms of her ideas, her wishes and her expectations, and that made things so much easier to coordinate and to deal with in terms of the march,” said Rene.  All of this, he stated, “blossomed into the Monroe County Family Coalition and regular meetings, and the idea was born for a community forum.”

The MCFC community forum (virtual format) was held on December 3, 2020 and was attended by Dina Johnson, GPD Sergeant Rene and other community leaders, stakeholders and residents.  To watch a video of the first MCFC community forum, use the following link:  https://youtu.be/NhxBgGqjyQU .

Notwithstanding GPD’s and GCSD’s demonstrated appreciation and support of MCFC’s community reform work, Dina remains concerned and uncertain about commitment by the Town of Greece regarding MCFC’s work toward the achievement of meaningful diversity within the municipality’s offices and allocation of services/resources.

Jason Helfer, a representative on behalf of the Town of Greece, addressed our request for the Town’s comments about MCFC’s local push for diversity.  Helfer supplied some demographic data (which he obtained from July 2019 census information and Town resources). 

According to Helfer, Greece is 84.6% White, 8.0% Black and 6.1% Hispanic/Latino.  Persons of American Indian / Alaskan, Asian or other descent comprise the remainder of Greece residents.  The Town of Greece has 95,499 total residents.  “As far as employees go, of the Town of Greece, we have one person Asian, six Black, five Hispanic and 352 Caucasian (as of January 2021) per the personnel director,” Helfer said.

Looking at those numbers, it appears that while Black people comprise 8% of Greece’s total population, they account for less than 2% of the Town’s employees.  And while Latinos comprise 6.1% of Greece’s total population, they also account for less than 2% of Greece’s total population.  In fact, the Black and Latino combined representation (3%) of Greece workers accounts for less than either group’s total percentage of representation in the Town as a whole.

On top of that, according to Helfer, none of the Town’s non-White employees hold leadership positions.  These facts are part of MCFC’s original and lingering concerns. 

Here is what Helfer said about the diversity concerns present in the Town of Greece:

“The coalition [MCFC] offers that opportunity and that’s why it’s such a great thing; because I think when you think about effective community relations and becoming more diverse, communication is one of the most important things in the community, but it is [also] one of the most difficult things to maintain if you don’t make a continuous effort to do so.”

Helfer credits “open dialogue with the coalition” with being a positive step toward achieving diversity in the Town.  “This coalition is just another opportunity to tweak how we do things, to self-reflect and to make adjustments if needed,” Helfer said.  “This coalition is just another opportunity to establish those relationships [with people of color] and advertise, if you will— getting more folks involved [for] when the time comes for Civil Service tests and available job opportunities.  I think the biggest thing you have to do is on-going recruitment and getting people interested in getting involved in Town government or working for the Town,” he said.  “We need more folks becoming interested in becoming aware of the opportunities and getting them in the door.”

And that is where it seems Dina Johnson and the Town may be able to find a point of agreement; because Ms. Johnson says, “There is a lack of diversity, a lack of resources being shared and we still don’t have our Greece Town Supervisor involved.”

On whether the Town of Greece sees a need for racial diversity within the Town’s offices, staff and leadership, Helfer said, “The Town is committed to diversity— the Town Administration feels that everyone, all citizens of the Town of Greece, should have a voice; and if part of having that voice is to increase diversity in the workplace, working for the Town, whether it be elected positions or non-elected positions, then they (Town Administration) are all for that.”