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Inspired To Be Allies: A Family Matriarch Finds Her Voice Advocating For Racial Justice



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This new series of profiles taps Newtown residents who are finding passion and inspiration as part of the growing ‘Newtown Allies For Change’ community, which gives powerful hyper-local voice to the social and racial justice movement.

For Newtown native Christine Miller, life always revolved around a blended family. As a youth growing up in town, she was the beneficiary of world-wise parents who served in the Peace Corps and who adopted John Ball, an infant of mixed Brazilian/Italian heritage, to be her brother.

After her first marriage ended in divorce, the educator and counselor in the Danbury school system, who by then was the mother of two adult children, fell in love again and married Konrad, who is West Indian. Their children are Karl, a 17-year-old Newtown High School student, and Kenneth, 9, who attends Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Growing up and to this day, Miller told The Newtown Bee she has too frequently found herself in uncomfortable situations where she and her loved ones have been witness to and victims of everything from disapproving glances to outright racism and bigotry.

“Thinking back to those earliest experiences, I have to reflect on it with humor because my adopted brother’s birth certificate actually says he is white,” Miller said. “But he doesn’t look white. He actually looks the same as my two children — who are not. We actually had a pretty good life here, but because of how John looked, we definitely saw some of that racial prejudice.”

She vividly remembers a confrontation when her brother was taking swimming lessons and was referred to by another youth with the ‘N’ word. That’s when one of Miller’s other brothers came to John’s defense.

“I remember my father coming to the defense of my brother for getting into it with this other kid who called John the name,” she recalled. “At that time I was probably 10 or 11 years old and my dad, who was white, actually was teaching African-American Literature at Staples High School, and he ran a camp in the summer which brought in and matched up kids from Westport with kids from Bridgeport.”

Miller said she still has a shelf of books that her father used during his years as a teacher.

“I remember reading Black Boy (by Richard Wright) way back when I was in 6th grade,” she said. “That book kind of laid a foundation of understanding — or I at least thought I understood what people who didn’t look like me had to go through. But I think what I have been going through more recently made me realize how much I didn’t know.”

Miller said when she married Konrad, she began to learn what people of color have to endure every day in a society that still holds a lot of prejudices against anyone with Black or Brown skin.

“I used to not pick up on when people didn’t like us or want to be around us, and Konrad would ask if I saw it. But then I started paying closer attention and I started to see a million little things that made me realize how we were subjects of this prejudice all the time,” she said.

One summer Miller invited a pair of young relatives of Konrad’s to visit and trundled them and young Karl into the dentist office with her.

“The receptionist looked up and remarked, ‘Christine, I didn’t know you had Fresh Air Fund kids for the summer.’ And I just looked back and said no, these are my family. So instead of getting mad, I just started to get more quick-witted,” she said. “Like the time I was at a mall with Karl and some woman walked up and asked me if he was ‘bi.’ And without missing a beat I said to her, ‘He’s really so young, we have no idea what his sexual orientation is going to be.’ That really shut her up.”

Issues In School

Some years later when Karl was in seventh grade, Miller said some female classmates of his took exception to the fact that he was experimenting and had his hair put into cornrows.

“They actually went to the school administration to say they didn’t feel comfortable being in class with him because he had the cornrows and they thought he was a drug dealer. And I was not even notified of it,” she said. “I didn’t learn about the incident for a few weeks because teachers were noticing Karl was putting his hood up and he seemed upset all the time. I guess these girls were just saying stuff to him all the time.”

Then one day, Karl had enough of it.

“One day he just turned to one of the girls making fun and said, ‘You’re ugly and your nose is big, but at least I can cut my hair.’ And he got sent to the principal’s office. So when I got the call, the principal said everyone had apologized and he thought it was all over,” Miller said. “Then that night, Karl got a text from one of the same girls who had been picking on him with a really derogatory message. And when I showed it to the principal, he just said, ‘What do you want me to do?’”

But after suggesting the situation might offer a valuable teaching moment, nothing was immediately done.

“I really don’t think the principal knew how to handle it. But he eventually said he would make sure the girls were not in Karl’s cluster the following year,” she said.

Miller said after other similar incidents, and worse, instead of reacting inappropriately, Karl channeled his energies into journaling. And in eighth grade, Karl had some of his writing — scrubbed of the epitaphs that had been flung at him — published in the school literary journal.

“That was the first time anything like that happened, and I think that’s when he realized he could have a voice that actually reflected the racism he had experienced. That led him to write and get published in the PTA Reflections contest, which won an award — and he won a Martin Luther King Award from Senator Chris Murphy,” she recalled proudly.

More recently, when the family was in New Hampshire, Miller was out jogging while her husband hung back walking one of their family dogs. As she jogged back toward the hotel, she stopped and gave Konrad a kiss. A few minutes later, a woman pulled up in her car and asked Miller if she was all right.

Confused, she asked the passerby what she was talking about.

“The woman said, ‘I saw that black man assault you and called 911.’ I was terrified, and I called Konrad and while he laughed it off, I was hyperventilating thinking he was going to be surrounded by cops, and who knows what could happen. And this year Karl started driving, so we had to have the conversation with him about what to do when he gets pulled over,” she said.

“My husband has been pulled over a few times, and he is a really safe driver. So all I can think is he was pulled over because he was driving while Black. He’s even been stopped when he’s out walking at night — right here in Newtown. But he wears all this reflective tape, so he doesn’t present as someone up to no good.”

Promoting Change At Home

While Miller said she still felt somewhat isolated in regard to these increasing number of racially insensitive and outright prejudiced incidents, “it wasn’t until I joined the Newtown Allies for Change and went to their rally after the George Floyd murder that I realized how pervasive racism is here in Newtown. It gave me chills to hear speaker after speaker, especially the kids.”

That inspired Miller to want to learn more about how to educate the students she comes in contact with, and hopefully impress them enough so they share the anti-racist practices and philosophies they are learning with their friends as well.

“This is something I really feel is my passion,” she said. “And if I ever get back into the actual classroom, I want to expand on hosting a leadership group I started before the pandemic.”

She also is advocating for the Newtown school district to adopt a curriculum of anti-racist education.

“I think that’s what a lot of the Newtown Allies want. We want to know there is going to be anti-racist education taught; that there’s going to be Black history so kids understand what really happened to get us to where we are today,” Miller said.

In a letter she wrote during the summer to district leadership and each member of the Board of Education, Miller shared that Karl still “hears the “N word” multiple times per day at Newtown High School and that no one does anything about it. I have begged him to speak up but he feels that it would be futile and exhausting to do so on a daily basis. Nicer in Newtown?

“Maybe you are thinking (hoping) that this is not true or common. I can assure you that that would be incorrect,” she continued. “I recently attended a rally organized by the Newtown Allies for Change where many brave young people of color and their family members took the microphone to share the trauma of growing up in Newtown as a non-white person. As the death of George Floyd has sparked national outrage, this group has shined a light on our town’s shortcomings in order to enact change.”

It was the intolerance Miller and her family experienced after getting a Black Lives Matter sign stolen from their lawn on 4th of July weekend that further inspired her to exercise her advocacy and write to The Newtown Bee.

“I hope that the racists who are doing this are caught. However, I and my family feel violated. Someone had the audacity to come on our property and take something that belonged to us. Someone said loud and clear to our sons that they don’t matter,” she wrote. “In fact the act of stealing signs goes beyond as it feels like a threat. If people are prone to commit crimes to say that we don’t matter, are we really safe in our own neighborhoods? What happened to free speech?”

Despite all that she and her family members have experienced, Miller remains optimistic that change is going to come sooner than later.

“I really think with all the social activism, even right here in town with the Allies movement,” she said, “we have the ability to get something done as a society right now.”

In Part 2 of our series, we will introduce the founders of Newtown Allies For Change.

Lifelong Newtown resident Christine Miller with her husband Konrad. Miller, a 27-year educator and school counselor, is advocating for expanding Newtown school curriculums to incorporate more classes on social and racial justice. —Photo courtesy Christine Miller
Newtown resident Christine Miller, shown here with her two youngest children, Karl, 17, and Kenneth, 9, is an active member of Newtown Allies for Change — whose members and social network followers share similar passions and seek to educate and inform those in the Newtown community about the experiences of people of color.—Photo courtesy the Miller family
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