Different generations reflect on race and New London
For the past two weeks, adults and teens from New London have been talking about race. They have recalled their own fraught experiences, from being called the N-word for the first time to battling redlining when trying to get a home loan.
With guidance from members of a New York City theater group, Houses on the Moon, they have then been molding those experiences into performance pieces that they will present to the public on Saturday.
It’s all part of a project in which Conn College, New London residents, and Houses on the Moon representatives tackle issues of racial justice, both in the past and now.
The project is connected to “Crafting Democratic Futures: Situating Colleges and Universities in Community-Based Reparations Solutions,” a three-year collaborative project supported by a $5 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that was administered by the University of Michigan.
Conn received a $275,000 grant for its research, with the goal of bridging the gap between colleges and communities and exploring reparations for African American and Indigenous communities.
The principal investigators are Nakia Hamlett, assistant professor of psychology at Conn, and Conn psychology professor Jefferson Singer. Their related work began last year, when they paired younger and older generations from New London to interview each other about their experiences with systemic racism and discrimination.
On a day earlier this week, participants gathered in groups in and around the Cro’s Nest at Connecticut College. Their subject was as large as race and racial justice, and their stories were as personal as their own lives and experiences. An Afro-Latino young man mentioned how he sometimes thinks in both English and Spanish, leading to a discussion of the idea of a double life. A group discussed resolving conflicts.
Gwendolyn Braxton, a longtime New London resident who is one of the “seasoned” participants (the group has playfully taken to calling the older generation “seasoned” and the younger “lightly salted”), was involved in last year’s project as well. She says there is huge value in getting the perspective of the younger generation.
She says this program has been “life-changing and I love it. … The group of people, it’s such a community. How often do you get the opportunity to actually sit and communicate with different age groups? … You listen to each other, and there’s this free flow of knowing that each person cares about you and your opinions matters. You’re very aware of that. These are lessons that everybody will take and hope to use for the rest of their lives.”
She says the goal in general is “to shine a light and awareness on understanding discrimination — the types of discrimination, where does it come from, what are the myths and how to resolve it.”
Miles Grose, an actor, writer and teaching artist from Houses of the Moon (which aims to bring communities together “by making meaningful connections through the public sharing of their untold stories”), says that the stories the two generations tell are similar, but the scar tissue is different. For instance, the bias tends not to be as overt as it was before.
Early on in the process, everyone took part in theater games and acting activities. In one, Grose played a father who wasn’t listening to his daughter and instead was talking over her, to the extent that the daughter shut down. That conveyed to participants the importance of listening and being open.
In another workshop, a younger person was paired with an older one, and they had to interview one another.
Braxton teamed up with 19-year-old Kayla Mateo. They told each other one of their experiences with discrimination and then had to repeat the other person’s story back to them. Mateo spoke about being called the N-word for the first time, by a white student at her high school, St. Bernard. When she relayed that history, she told it in a relatively straightforward, impassive way. But when Braxton repeated Mateo’s story back in front of the whole group, Mateo began tearing up.
“She started crying because it was like (she was) right back when it happened,” Braxton says. “Then it made me reflect back. I’m almost 70 years old, so I know what it (discrimination) is. She’s in the early stages … What it did was it made me go back to when I first experienced racism. So it brought tears to my eyes to see her crying because it’s so personal, in what it invokes in this discussion with the group but also the inner dialogue with yourself and trying to understand this.”
Braxton, meanwhile, relayed an example of an experience she had. She was an older student, age 31, at Mitchell College when she was interviewed by a college reporter; a white student was interviewed at the same time. When the article came out, Braxton got a paragraph mention while the white student was given a full page; a white school administrator told Braxton how disappointed she was with the inequitable focus by the student reporter.
Braxton realized that there was, in a way, a whole line of discrimination that got her to that incident. She had been working as a painter at Electric Boat in the early 1980s when she faced discrimination, both as a person of color and as a woman, from her supervisor. She ended up having to bring suit with the union there and won. She became a supervisor afterward, and EB paid for supervisors to go to college for free, which was what led her to Mitchell.
She adds, “It doesn’t matter if it’s EB or school. I worked for judicial. I mean, go down the line.”
If you’re a person of color, you will experience discrimination, she says; “That’s the world we live in.”
Passionate about New London
During a break in rehearsals and discussions earlier this week, Saniyyah Lawson, 17, who attends New London High School, said she learned a lot by being a part of this project. She even learned facts like why her middle school was named the Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School and what the Green Book was (it was a travel guide during segregation that identified businesses that would serve Black customers).
She spoke about the experience of the two generations sharing their histories with each other.
“All of us are very, very passionate about New London,” she says.
Santi Rodriguez, 18, who grew up in New London and attends Three Rivers Community College, says it’s been interesting for him to learn about New London and how things have and haven’t changed.
By talking with the older folks, he says, “You’re kind of traveling back in time, and they’re traveling to the future in a way because we’re sharing what we see now, and they’re sharing what they saw back then.”
As for Saturday’s show, Grose hopes that audiences will take away the understanding that it’s possible to have discussions about difficult subjects.
“You just have to find a way to connect, and from there, differences can be solved,” he says.
Grose mentions how the participants found not just common ground but higher ground that made it easy to communicate with one another and to make connections.
‘Trauma doesn’t divide us. It can unite us if we can share and help each other process and help each other move forward,” he says.
Braxton likewise hopes that anyone who attends Saturday gain knowledge from the real stories of discrimination being shared onstage.
“I hope the audience is able to reflect on maybe the person … as a human being, that they went through this, and what does that mean? Oftentimes, if you’ve never experienced it, you just go on about your life. … I want the audience to make the connection that these are real stories, these stories actually happened to each individual who is telling the story, and to feel what they feel … I want them to be able to discuss it with others, to reflect upon it and, if they do have those behaviors, to work on them, to work on change,” she says.
IF YOU GO
What: “Voices Across Generations: Race and New London”
When: 4 p.m. Saturday
Where: Cro’s Nest, College Center at Crozier-Williams, Connecticut College, New London