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Montgomery Community Members Take Proactive Stance on Race Relations

By Anna Reinalda | June 3, 2022

Montgomery Township Civil Rights Leader Sandra Donnay (she/her) says proactive measures are needed to improve race relations — especially in light of the recent mass shooting in Buffalo. Police have arrested and accused an 18-year-old of killing 10 people and wounding three others in a shooting that took aim at a supermarket in a Black neighborhood. Authorities are investigating the shooting as a hate crime and an act of racially motivated violent extremism. Of the 13 victims shot, 11 were Black.

Montgomery Deputy Mayor Shelly L. Bell (she/her) also sees a need to build stronger bonds between the diverse community groups in the township, and across America. "My concern is that, what happened in Buffalo, will not happen in Montgomery,” Bell said at a recent township committee meeting. “My prayer is that we get to a place, where we live within the tension of disagreement, and difference, without resorting to toxicity, without resorting to violence, murder, and apathy."

“As a community of individuals, how do we begin to acknowledge the differences, even if we do not embrace it, but unlearn the hate, the anger, and allow people to just be.” — Shelly L. Bell

Exposure to Black history, and family conversations about race, are two proactive ways to improve race relations. The above collage features photographs of local Afro-American pioneers as seen at The Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum (SSAAM) is a history museum located in the Skillman section of Montgomery Township. The museum, and its affiliated Stoutsburg Cemetery in Hopewell Township, will offer a full history of slavery and Black settlement in central New Jersey. It is a cornerstone to New Jersey’s African American heritage trail.

SSAM is sponsoring a Juneteenth BBQ with live music and activities for kids on: Saturday, June 18 11 am - 3 pm at 183 Hollow Road in Skillman.

Dismantling Racism

Sandra M. Donnay, PhD, is the founder of The Racial Equity Initiative, a think tank based in Montgomery Township devoted to dismantling racism through psychological research, community engagement, and education.

Sandra M. Donnay
Sandra M. Donnay, PhD

Donnay's organization promotes the idea that “talking to children about race can foster an inclusive mindset and positive relations,” according to recent panel discussion she hosted with the Montgomery Board of Education Equity Committee and the Anti Racism and Reform Committee (ARRC).

Montgomery School Board Member Maria Spina introduced the workshop for Montgomery parents and community members. “Our goal is to find resourceful ways to eliminate racist acts so every child and adult will feel safe and welcomed choosing to educate, not just the students but families and community members,” Spina said.

Donnay, a developmental psychologist who resides in the Skillman section of the township, offers race workshops through her non-profit organization, beginning last year during the anniversary of the killing of George Floyd.

Donnay says her workshops promote "rich discussion" among the participants. The recent workshop with the Montgomery School Board featured three non-Black panelists who discussed how the experiences of their youth contributed to their ability to empathize with the Black experience, and to advocate for anti-racism.

The panelists included MHS graduates Lakshya “Lucky” Bommireddy and Soren Barnett, as well as Paul Blodgett, chairman of the Montgomery Township Zoning Board.

“In Montgomery there are certain people who I feel have this intuitive understanding of racism, even though they have not lived the experience, they’re not Black,” Donnay said. “There was something developmental in their past.”

Donnay opened the workshop with a story about her own child’s sense of self worth.

“When my daughter was in daycare, at about age three, we lived in another town,” Donnay said. “One day she comes home to me and she says, ‘Mommy, I want to be white … and have blonde hair.’”

Donnay, who was born in the Caribbean, said she had grown up surrounded by a community of people who physically resembled her. But her young daughter was having a different experience.

“I had never had those feelings,” Donnay said. She attributed her daughter’s unhappiness to implicit biases that she had internalized at school.

“[Implicit biases] are powerful because they’re held by good people who hold egalitarian beliefs – people who don’t want to be racist,” Donnay said. “We’re all walking around in the world acting on these biases, even if we don’t mean to. Some psychologists believe that implicit biases in aggregate maintain racism much more than structural racism [does].”

Lakshya Bommireddy
Panelist Lakshya “Lucky” Bommireddy

Bommireddy acknowledged that implicit bias is so prevalent that it’s impossible to avoid it completely.

“We all have this mechanism where we look at someone and we’re subconsciously … making assumptions based on what we can see,” Bommireddy said. Catching oneself in making those assumptions, and challenging them, is an important place to start in undoing learned biases.

Donnay went on to explain that the best way to fight the power of implicit bias is by practicing empathy, which must start in early childhood.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘race is a difficult conversation to have, so we don’t talk about it,’” Donnay said. “The literature shows very few non-Black parents actually discuss racial issues in a deep and meaningful way. Lack of discussion at home … maintains negative stereotypes.”

“When we say things like, ‘I don’t see color,’ or ‘everybody’s the same,’ the message that we give our children is that it’s not okay to talk about race,” Donnay said. “If we don’t face the truth, then we’re just maintaining the status quo.”

Donnay says in addition to parents talking to their children about race, it’s equally important that honest conversations happen at school.

Including Black contributions to American culture and society in the curriculum is key to undoing the anti-Black myths and stereotypes that have been perpetuated. And it must start early.

“When you’re teaching your children to swim, to read, to do math, or taekwondo, you don’t wait until they’re 16, you start as early as possible,” Donnay said. “It’s the same thing with teaching intergroup relations. We know when we start earlier, students have fewer prejudices. Starting in childhood is much better than starting in adulthood. Once accumulated biases set in, it becomes difficult to change.”

Paul Blodgett
Paul Blodgett

Paul Blodgett’s Story

Paul Blodgett (He/Him), chairman of Montgomery’s Democratic Party, has a history of advocating for better support for minority students. He says his racial awareness started early.

“[My parents] were … more open to talk about racial issues that we observed, and I remember many times talking about segregation,” he recalled. In addition to early childhood conversations with his parents, Blodgett said his school was unusually progressive in terms of including Black history in their curriculum.

“We actually went on field trips to … slave sites in Virginia, pointing out that these things happened,” he said. “There was a lot of open discussion about the history of oppression of Black people from my school system, but also the positive contributions of Black people.

“I think having that context and growing up with that, coupled with having parents that talked about it … created a condition in which I was aware of these issues,” Blodgett says.

Shelly L. Bell
Montgomery Township Deputy Mayor Shelly L. Bell at the grand opening of Jersey Mike's in Skillman. She is also the chief of staff for Assemblyman Roy Freiman, 16th Legislative District.

Lucky’s Story

Likewise, Lucky Bommireddy (She/Her) says her parents modeled the behavior she and her sister learned in interacting with people of differing backgrounds. Having grown up in Chennai, India, she said religious designations were a major source of segregation and discrimination in her parents’ community.

In spite of this, Bommireddy’s parents enjoyed social relationships with people of different religions. “It laid the groundwork for how they later raised [me and my sister],” she said.

Moving from India to a primarily Black community in Hackensack at a young age shaped her understanding of intergroup relations, Bommireddy said. However, the move from Hackensack to Montgomery challenged some of those ideas.

“A large part of my parents [motivation for] moving to Montgomery was part of this upward mobility track that they were following,” Bommireddy said. “They told me and my sister they moved to Montgomery because they wanted us to have a good education and they wanted us to have a better life.”

Acknowledging that while her parents’ desire to live in a town with an exceptional school district is no crime, Bommireddy said the more affluent, higher performance school system existing in a municipality where the students were mostly white was an obvious expression of racial disparity.

“There was tremendous pressure to perform academically, there was a social relationship to academic performance, and within the Asian community, the model minority myth was quite prevalent,” she said.

The “model minority myth” Bommireddy mentions is a construct that exists in opposition to the negative myths Donnay spoke about – instead of perpetuating that minority people are somehow lesser, the model minority myth estranges an individual from the rest of the group, and frames them as exceptionally good. This is often just as harmful as negative stereotypes to both the individual’s well being and the population’s misconceptions about race. “It strips away … the importance of empathy and human connection,” Donnay said.

Soren Barnett
Panelist Soren Barnett

Soren Barnett’s Story

Soren Barnett (They/Them) said growing up Jewish in Montgomery Township included a lot of talk about anti-Semitism. Coupled with Barnett’s non-binary transgender identity, they said they have experienced a lot of prejudice and discrimination first-hand.

“My desire to work tangibly towards racial-equity stems from experiences I’ve had with my marginalized identities, and it gave me an enhanced ability to have deep empathy for some of what Black people might experience, and that’s compelled me to action as I become more racially aware,” Barnett said.

Although Black American history is rife with trauma and oppression that should not be glossed over, Barnett stressed it is important to teach children that it is not the entire story. The triumphs, talents, and achievements must be included as well.

“We can expose students to honest Black histories and experiences at age-appropriate levels, take kids to historically Black areas, or central places of Black culture, and intentionally celebrate and highlight Black excellence and joy,” they said.

Barnett acknowledged that, as a non-Black person teaching in a 70 percent Black school (Philadelphia Hebrew Public Charter School), they are bound to accidentally perpetuate patterns of racism. Taking notice of these moments helps to reverse them.

“I’m so sure that I’m still contributing to racial bias in my school, because it’s so deeply ingrained within us,” they said. “The more I learn, the more I can recognize what these biases are rooted in, and then I can begin to address them or challenge them.”

“Kids should be given the tools to better imagine what it feels like to be in other shoes and to build capacity for and habits of empathy in general, and specifically to race and other categories such as gender or ability.”

Both schools and parents can prompt students in different situations to try to envision change or solutions. “Identify a problem or a challenging emotion, and then envision what can be done about it,” Barnett said. “Hopefully, by helping kids refine their empathetic capacities … kids can build those habits.”

Growing up Jewish in the United States and in Montgomery, Barnett says they knew and felt they were part of a minority. “From an early age, both in family settings and at synagogue … I was exposed to ideas of anti-Semitism, particularly related to the Holocaust, and was made to understand deeply that there are people in the world who hate me just because I’m Jewish.”

“Then, a few years into high school … I realized and explored my nonbinary transgender identity and felt much vulnerability, societal disdain, and fear in the process,” Barnett said.

Barnett recalled a conversation with one of their Black colleagues who felt uncomfortable letting her son wear a hoodie, for fear of what strangers might perceive about him.

“The window for developing empathy in general and practicing it and building a habit of empathy … can really be harnessed throughout teen years and early adulthood as well,” they said.

Developing Empathy

Donnay closed the panel by reminding parents that modeling behavior is key.

“Children are getting their cues from us,” she said. “We can’t hide anything from them, so ... we’re better off being honest.”

While Donnay says that implementing race-oriented education is important for young children, Barnett points out that it’s never too late to start. ■


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