BY REBECCA BENNETT AND CAROLINE SELLE — Tonight, the nation watched as a St. Louis County grand jury decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown. Twitter, Facebook, and other social media networks are already chronicling the aftermath of the decision.
In Hyattsville, however, a proactive discussion took place in October. Ward 4 resident Shannon Wyss and Councilmember Candace Hollingsworth (Ward 1) organized six conversations about issues related to the incident in Ferguson, Missouri. A total of 31 residents, according to the organizers, gathered homes all over the city, from 31st Place in West Hyattsville to 44th Avenue near the Shoppes at Arts District.
Wyss and Hollingsworth said they met through a series of discussions called “Conversations in the Corridor,” which started after a 2011 listserv exchange about cultural insensitivities.
They said “Conversations in the Corridor” inspired the organized discussions on Ferguson. “We really just wanted to get people talking in person,” Wyss said, “not just on Facebook, in a very local context. The issues that Ferguson raises and what those issues might be for Hyattsville. People were talking nationally, but it was really important to bring it home.”
“It was so close to home. It was Missouri, not somewhere else in the world … it involved a young person’s life,” Hollingsworth said. “It had all the intersections of age, race, stereotypes, gender, socioeconomic status.”
According to Hollingsworth, they asked people to host the discussions in their homes, and though the organizers offered to facilitate, hosts were asked to invite people they already knew. The private settings were chosen in hopes people would share differently than they would in public. Organizers say they did provide a list of suggested questions, which included opportunities for participants to share their emotional response, experience with police, and about their community.
“Having a conversation like this can be stressful,” Wyss said. “Candace and I talked about how white people were terrified about having discussion about race. We put together a [toolkit] to help people have these conversations.”
Hollingsworth said participants discussed different types of stereotypes, as well as how teenagers are perceived no matter their race. “What may scare you is what may be offensive to somebody else,” she said.
The message is to all of us. If you see a neighbor, say hello. If you desire to live in a community, what does living in a community mean to you? They might not understand why you are saying hi. … You know it’s not always going to be welcome by everyone. When you lead by example, the city will follow suit.
— Councilmember Candace Hollingsworth (Ward 1)
“As much as you’ve lived in Hyattsville, you know that people who live in Hyattsville love Hyattsville,” Hollingsworth said, but that she wondered if people would be critical of the city or police. “What I loved most about reading the responses was that people balanced the love for the city while recognizing where the city could be vulnerable.”
Wyss said, “I was really struck by how people really seemed to want to try to make the situation never happen again … never happen here. There was lots of openness about talking with the Hyattsville Police Department. People really were interested in working locally to make things better.”
Some of the conversations touched on the Humvee the City of Hyattsville acquired earlier this year, and Wyss said several people were interested in seeing the vehicle turn into an art piece.
However, Wyss and Hollingsworth said that the Humvee was a minor part of what they hoped the conversations might address.
Hollingsworth said a resident and host told her they wanted to make sure that the conversations addressed topics like the relationship between police officers and community members instead of focusing on the military surplus program. Organizers didn’t want to overshadow other issues central to the Ferguson protests, such as race.
“Whether or not it’s about Ferguson, people were interested in having conversations like this in a safe place,” Hollingsworth said. “There are next steps embedded in the conversations. Is that something we want to take on as organizers, or is that something we want to put in the hands of residents?”
Wyss said they should have asked hosts to pose the question “What will you commit to do?”
Both said they plan to release a summary of the conversations to the public, and that the summary may spark some next steps.
“Part of the reason to get people talking, it’s so easy to live isolated lives. We’re all on Facebook, but that’s not the same as actually interacting with a person,” Wyss said. “We don’t live in segregated communities in Hyattsville. We live in very interracial communities. … Without talking to each other we will not solve the problem.”
Hollingsworth, who said she was wearing her “engaged resident hat” instead of her “city council hat” during the discussions, said that “[The responsibility] is not something that can be punted to the City of Hyattsville and expected [for] them to manage. What happened in Ferguson was the result of longstanding tensions and behaviors and accepted social codes.”
As to how tension explodes, Hollingsworth explained, “I’m from Memphis, and there are certain ways you live your life, you don’t challenge, and that’s just the way it is. … Tolerance [for this] wears away, especially when something like [the shooting of Michael Brown] happens.”
The organizers say the responsibility lays with neighbors. “The message is to all of us,” Hollingsworth said. “If you see a neighbor, say hello. If you desire to live in a community, what does living in a community mean to you? They might not understand why you are saying hi. … You know it’s not always going to be welcome by everyone. When you lead by example, the city will follow suit.”