Inspired To Be Allies: Local Mom Recounts Experiences, Family Dynamics After Witnessing Racist Incidents
This series of profiles taps Newtown residents who are finding passion and inspiration as part of the growing community giving powerful hyper-local voice to the social and racial justice movement.
With all the distractions of the virus, Election Day looming and all its related, pent-up anger and anxiousness on full display in social media posts and elsewhere, questions swirling around planning for the upcoming holidays, and economic challenges related to job losses and business closings, resident Alicia Brown has been hoping that her neighbors engaging with the “Newtown Allies for Change” movement are not losing too much momentum as they continue advocating for social and racial justice.
“I’m a follower of the group and have written in the group [social media sites], and what I’ve been thinking about is, ‘What am I doing?’” Brown said. “I’m not going to rallies anymore, so what am I still doing to make it relevant? My answer to that is, I’m keeping it really, really local.”
Brown said she is channeling the energy around social justice toward her immediate family members and her children.
“I’m working to determine what each member can do individually, things like making sure we are seeking out businesses owned by or employing people of color. But I’m not out there on the front lines anymore,” she said. “Part of me feels bad, but I’m also managing distance learning for one child and I have another one who is back to school, my husband is back at work [outside the home], and I have to deal with the prospect of going back into the office myself, which is absolutely terrifying because it means having to leave a child at home.”
Brown, who works in a New Haven office with flexible hours to accommodate her daughter’s school schedule, said, “It’s all weighing heavily on me.”
Brown said her passion to support the social and racial justice movement developed following the George Floyd murder, but after moving from Pittsburgh to Sharon, Massachusetts, she recalled as a sixth grader asking her parents where the Black neighborhood was in town.
“I said, there has to be a Black neighborhood in town because there’s one bus that comes to my school that is entirely Black students. But there was busing happening by then in the Boston suburb, and that group of students was being sent to the suburbs to give them an opportunity for a suburban education,” she said.
Brown recalls that even though the urban students were part of a plan to integrate her school, none of those students immediately tried striking up friendships, or even conversations, with their local classmates, including the few Black students who already lived in Sharon.
“We knew plenty of people of color when I was growing up in Pittsburgh, and the division wasn’t glaring at all, we were all just together,” she said. “Everybody lived there, there was nothing like that single bus. That didn’t happen until I got to Massachusetts.”
‘Something So Wrong’
While there was no appearance of racial tension in her school there, or otherwise, Brown said her new community was about 90 percent Jewish, so she was able to feel less like a minority there than she did in Pennsylvania.
“When I was a child growing up in Pittsburgh, I remember another kid asking me where my horns were,” she said.
The first real out of school interactions with her fellow students of color came when Brown and her family welcomed a couple of girls who sang with her in concert choir.
“Our concert was in the evening and the kids in choir weren’t going to have time to get home and back, so a number of the families invited the kids from Boston who were in the choir to come home and have dinner,” Brown said. “They were younger than me, but I remember how they seemed to be in awe being invited to somebody else’s house. But that was the biggest interaction I remembered.”
As Brown got a bit older, she struck up a friendship with a Black student named Andrea who shared her passion for theater.
“If you were in concert choir, you were almost automatically in the school musicals,” she said. “But I started noticing that for some reason, if there was ever a prostitute in a play — like we did “Guys And Dolls” — the Black girls were always cast as the prostitutes. And even then I was realizing there was something so wrong about this.”
Once she arrived at Trinity College in Hartford, Brown noticed the small number of Black students at the time similarly all gathered together, with little interaction among any of the other students. But she struck up a relationship with one of the professors, Gail H. Woldu, that she maintains to this day.
The Black music educator’s focus was on French music and culture at the turn of the 20th Century.
“The course I met her through was ‘The Music of Black American Women,’ which covered the 1900s to the 1960s, and I later served as her teaching assistant,” Brown said. “And she still teaches at Trinity.”
Brown moved to Newtown a few days before the notorious October snowstorm of 2011. Today, her husband works as an engineer at FuelCell Energy, and her son, 13, and daughter, age 10, talk a lot about racial and social justice.
“The kids and I discuss it all the time, particularly my daughter and I, but they’re very conscious about it because of the signs we put up on our front lawn,” she said. Those handmade placards, an American flag flanked by a Black Lives Matter sign and one with an anti-hate “All are welcome here” message have not gone unnoticed.
“We’ve had people drive by and yell horrible things at us,” Brown said. “We haven’t experienced any direct kind of direct violence toward us, but my daughter has become hyper-aware of how white her world is, and she doesn’t like it. One of her closest friends is Black, and she is desperate to get her friend onto her field hockey team.”
Brown believes there are “some pretty hard-core racists in our neighborhood.”
“They know where I live and they know the kind of car I drive, so if I see them out driving around they glare at me,” she said. “And we get the big pick-up trucks revving their engines a little extra when they drive by and see our sign. It [ticks] me off — grow up. I don’t understand it, but I never have. It never made sense to me.”
Concerns About Violence
Returning to the subject of public expression, Brown said she wishes she could go to more rallies, but she has been asked not to by her children.
She said they grew more fearful that their mom will fall prey to the kind of violence they have seen, particularly in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where in late August, two people were shot dead and another injured when a gunman thought to be linked to a militia group opened fire during protests after police shot and gravely wounded a young Black father, Jacob Blake, in Milwaukee.
“My daughter was terrified and said she didn’t want any of us to go to any more rallies,” Brown said. “She said ‘I don’t want you to get shot.’ And on one hand I want to say this is really important, one of the most important things we can do, but on the other hand, I don’t want my daughter scared... because I can’t make any promises. I wish I could.”
Instead, Brown has taken every opportunity to speak out in support of people of color, “to show my daughter we are not bound by the color of our skin,” she said. One of the first things she did was become acquainted with a local doctor who is Black, and she and other members of her family are now his patients.
Once Election Day has passed, Brown said she plans to re-engage and begin trying to “undo some of the damage,” that has been done during the lead-up.
She is also avoiding businesses that appear to permit racist activity to occur, pointing to a group that congregates outside of the Dunkin Donuts on Queen Street. While she has not been directly called out by anyone there, Brown said, “we’ve heard them talking, and they have no problem using horrible slurs. My daughter said, ‘I bet they don’t like Jewish people either.’ I said, ‘Probably not.’”
Brown said as a Jewish person in Newtown, she and her family “have come across some heavy-duty discrimination from certain individuals.”
“I had extensive conversations with my children about it,” she said, “and about being proud to be Jewish and to not ever hide it if someone asks you. We just don’t go around waving an Israeli flag and saying ‘Look at us, we’re Jews.’ That’s the thing I have always pointed out to my children. When you’re Black, you can’t hide it, you don’t deny who you are, and that is why we have to be allies.”