There is an old story about three blind men who run into an elephant. One touches the leg and decides it is like a large tree. Another grabs the tail and decides it is like a snake. The third puts his hands on its side and declares it is like a giant rock. Each has a perspective that is accurate and none understands the whole.
This is also the case with Lockport. We share and love the same city, but we also experience life here in different ways.
Last week I published an article series titled “Black in Lockport” in which I tried to give voice to one particular set of perspectives that are often missed. Unsurprisingly, different people had different reactions to those articles. Many people sent notes or posted comments to Facebook saying that the series had deepened their understanding. Others charged that the series only provoked more racial division by bringing up the subject. One angry USJ reader denounced the series as “hate speech.”
We live in a diverse city of more than twenty thousand people. Our lives here are not all the same. Some of us live in mansions and others struggle to find an apartment we can afford. Some of us think television means ESPN and others watch Downtown Abbey. Some of us get around in pick-up trucks and some of us ride bicycles. Some run triathlons and some watch the street go by from a wheelchair. Some have ancestors who helped build the Erie Canal and some of us just got here two summers ago.
And some of us move about Lockport amidst people who look just like us, and others do not. Pretending those differences do not exist does not make us a stronger city. Understanding them and talking about them does.
But what I did not have a chance to write about in the series are the many things that make us all the same despite those differences. We live in Lockport because we love living in Lockport. We love walking down the street on an evening in late summer. We love debating who makes the best pizza and whether the Bills have a shot at the playoffs this year. We love our dogs. We all send our children off each morning to the same schools and smile the same proud smiles when they do well. We all complain about the same potholes in the street and the same piles of snow in winter. We all want our city to thrive.
Several people have asked me: Now that the articles have been published, what can be done?
Some things that need to be done are about our local public institutions. We just can’t continue to have a Board of Education, a Common Council, a Fire Department and a Police Department that are entirely white in a city that is not. The Board of Education, for example, has had two great chances to make a difference when it had Board vacancies to fill (including one because a young and bright African American board member, Victoria Obot, resigned to go to law school). Both times the Board never considered for a minute anything other than reappointing – twice in a row – the same familiar member who lost his seat in last year’s election. That is not how you build diversity. That is how you perpetuate the lack of diversity.
Some things that need to be done are about the great public events we share as a community – our food festivals, art events and more. Let’s look for ways that all of these can become more inclusive, making them even better by making sure that everyone in our community sees a place for themselves in those events.
Beyond that, I think it is important that we have a willingness as a community to listen to and understand the people among us who are the least like us. That listening and understanding can happen through our schools. It can happen through our churches. And another place it can happen is through the work of our city’s new Human Relations Commission chaired by one of the people I interviewed for the series, Kandyce Cauley.
The issues raised in the series – about different lives, about the police, and about the subtler ways in which we misunderstand one another – these are not just Lockport issues, they are national ones. And that is the beauty of having this conversation here. We are small enough and connected enough as a community to actually address these issues as neighbors who share and love a common place, not as strangers yelling at one another over social media.
I want to thank Jayde, Kandyce, Mark and Will for having the courage to put themselves out there in public in such a personal way. We owe them a debt for doing so. I want to thank the Union-Sun and Journal, and especially the editor, Joyce Miles, for making that conversation possible. And I want to thank the readers who listened with an open mind and willing heart. You are one of the reasons why Lockport is a great city.
Jim Shultz, founder and executive director of the Democracy Center, is a father and grandfather in Lockport. He can be reached by email at: email@example.com.