Residents in the Orono and Long Lake communities are finding ways to support, discuss and learn from literature and each other in response to the events following George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.
About 100 people gathered in the Orono High School parking lot on the afternoon of Saturday, July 11, for the Orono for Black Lives Matter event. Orono High School alumni Catherine Fraser and Dan Wall organized the peaceful march. They began inviting people via Facebook because they felt there “was a lack of something like this in the community” and felt it was necessary.
“We’re here because we want to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and we feel it’s important to have an event like this in Orono, in our town that we grew up in, with our neighbors and community,” Fraser said.
Materials for sign making, masks and water were available for participants. The group walked down to the corner of Wayzata Blvd and Old Crystal Bay Road, where they sat for an eight-minute and 46 second moment of silence.
“Racism doesn’t stop at eight-minutes and 46 seconds,” Wall said to the group before leading them down Kelley Parkway to the Otten Bros Garden Center along Wayzata Blvd. Protesters waved, stood and held their signs on the sidewalk while chanting “black lives matter,” “say his name” and “say her name.” Traffic passing by honked and waved in support.
When resident Heather Holcombe heard about the event, she was excited others in the community were coming together, as well. Holcombe, who teaches American literature at the University of Minnesota and the University of St. Thomas, invited her neighbors to discuss books and essays about the history of race in the U.S.
When the events surrounding George Floyd’s death began to occur, Holcombe started thinking about the ways literature could lend perspectives and enrich conversation about current events. She began by recommending James Baldwin’s 1955 essay “Notes of a Native Son,” which depicts a similar set of events.
“It was helpful for me to consider why the city erupted in flames, and I thought it might be helpful for others, too. [Baldwin] addressed things I thought people might be reacting to in terms of destruction of property. His essay explains a set of issues that were urgent 70 years ago and are still urgent today,” she said.
As Holcombe reached out to her neighbors, she wasn’t sure what to expect, but found there was an immediate sense people not only wanted to talk, but also wanted to do something and needed a place to start. Most of Holcombe’s neighbors were available to meet for their first discussion.
They began by discussing the “history of systemic racism and racialized violence to gain awareness” and enter into conversations with an “informed perspective.” They plan on meeting approximately once a week and will continue literary discussions.
“Part of this is about informing ourselves. Part of this is about being honest about where we have fear, where we’re shy, where we’re worried about offending someone, and I think the goal is to start working towards action,” she said.
As an English professor, Holcombe believes reading grounds conversations because it can give people a place to start and allows readers to step into a world they may not have experienced.
“I think reading is a very powerful tool in that way. It enables us to do some emotional and intellectual work that prepares us to then step out in the world that we live in and say, ‘OK, now I know these things, what can I do about them? What is my particular expertise? What neighbors can I reach out to? What can I do with the particular skill set I have?’” she said.
As part of their literary conversations, they will have a series of discussions about “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo.
“The book asks white people to think about whiteness itself as race, which we’re not in the habit of doing. [That] is one of the things the book explains. What I try to do as a reader and as someone who is engaging in this is to have self-awareness. Who am I? What perspectives do I hold and where do they come from?” Holcombe said.
The book challenges white readers to do some internal reflection that will help them engage productively with communities of color because the two communities have experienced the police, and the world at large, differently, she explains.
“That requires an ability to set what you know aside in order to listen to what someone else is saying and to have this humility to say maybe I don’t understand the whole picture...I think that’s the next step and I think that’s a really important step in our community,” she said.
Holcombe adds she is interested in pursuing conversations about how suburban communities and residents can play a role in achieving racial justice as well as the connection between suburban and urban communities.
Fraser and Wall also hope their efforts are just the beginning of events and more action in Orono.
“We’ve been in contact with a group called the Justice Squad that’s led a few events in the suburbs … [We’ll] potentially we’ll do something in the future … They are a group of people that formed out of the suburbs because there’s a lot of protests downtown, but we think we can still make a difference in the suburbs,” Wall said.