How do we create a home where everyone feels included and welcome? What happens when many of those living in a community don’t realize there is a problem or are resistant to change? It seems like an impossible task, to be sure, but after an hour and half chat with the founders of Sisterhood of Jewels Community Connections, LLC, I’m more optimistic than ever that change is possible.
“Massillon keeps you here because of family, safety, and comfort. There is familiarity and people are not out of reach. This is our home.”
Massillon, OH is special for those of us who live here. Yes, yes, we love our football, but it’s more than that. This town has a force that keeps generations of families here and pulls many of us back, even after we’ve tried to leave. However, under the exterior of hometown pride, are the remnants of a history that is not unique. In fact this often-ignored history connects us to almost every other town in the United States: inequality and segregation.
Massillonians unite on Friday nights to cheer on our Tigers, but then after the game many of us go home to different parts of town. Like so many cities across the United States, Massillon’s rich history is marred by a history of systematic racism and our neighborhoods reflect it.
While Massillon does have points of history to be proud of: our connection to the Underground Railroad at Spring Hill, Betsey Mix Cowls’ fight for school integration, and of course Coach Paul Brown’s efforts to integrate football, our town is still undoubtedly segregated in ways that keep us from being a place where everyone feels authentically welcome and included.
Yes, many of us have meaningful relationships with diverse groups of friends. Our children have even more of these relationships and opportunities to learn and play and develop with classmates and teammates who are different. Still, though, it’s clear that our town has a work to do. One look at demographic statistics, social media, community gatherings, board membership, and community groups shows we are not nearly as unified and inclusive as we need to be.
The ladies of the Sisterhood of Jewels Community Connection want to change that.
When I sat down with Daja, LaToya, Tierra, and Ke’Aunte, they shared their conflicted feelings and emotional experiences as life-long Massillon residents:
A cup and boos hurled from old white men as a teenager walks toward the field to be crowned homecoming queen. A rolling stop that ends with a daughter placed in a chokehold and tossed in a jail cell because the officer didn’t like the way her stepfather talked to him. A brother in jail for a crime he didn’t commit and a high school teacher degrading his sister in the hallways of her school. Racial slurs spat from the mouths of children’s classmates and nursing home residents alike. The isolation as everyone in the restaurant turns to look at the only black person there. The feeling that the only part of town that belongs to you is the Southeast end and even then, there are places where you are not welcome.
“It’s hurtful and frustrating to have to explain to my 11 year old daughter and 5 year old son why we have to tolerate these things happening here, where we love, all the time. It’s bittersweet to live here.”
“Who do we trust? This is still home, but who do we trust?”
As the ladies shared their deeply personal narratives with me, yes the emotion shook their voices and yes, the injustices large and small had affected them to their core. However, the overall tone of our conversation was joyful, hopeful, and confident. These women, mothers, mentors, and professionals are determined to fulfill their mission, “To create an inclusive community through programs, networking and partnerships.”
“A jewel is unique and stands out. It’s something you need, a good thing, a gem.”
Latoya, Daja, and Ke’Aunte met for coffee one afternoon because LaToya needed to vent. It was all just too much for her and she didn’t care if she went to California or Spain-she just wanted to get out. What resulted from that conversation, though, was not exodus from Massillon, but a resolve to make it a better place for everyone.
The original name of the group was 3 Ladies and 1 Idea until Daja saw Tierra reading to children in the park. Tierra’s, “One Hour Book Read” program developed from her own struggles with reading as a child and a desire to provide the children in her neighborhood an outlet and educational support. Daja was quick to bring Tierra on board and then, after some brainstorming, LaToya suggested the final organization name: Sisterhood of Jewels Community Connections, LLC.
Tierra isn’t the only member of this group taking the initiative in the Massillon Community. Ke’Aunte mentors young women through her nonprofit, BeYoutiful Weirdo. Her dedication to, “Elevate young girls, of all nationalities, to reach their highest potential by building confidence, honing leadership skills, and supporting goal attainment” stemmed from her own struggles with depression and anxiety as a young woman.
“All young girls want is someone to listen to them…I create a safe place for them.”
LaToya, my fellow Bowling Green Falcon, advocates for self-care and mental health in the community. Daja uses her detail-oriented approach and skills in marketing and advertising to advocate for community involvement and programs.
These college-educated, passionate women have joined forces to foster an inclusive, active, and vibrant community in our hometown. They are applying their talent, experience, and passion through their organization to build more authentic relationships and opportunities in the town we all love.
After listening to these four incredible women for some time, I had a few questions: So what do you need? How can members of the community work with SOJCC to improve Massillon? How can we move beyond treading the water of coexistence to true inclusion within a community that embraces its diversity for the treasure that it is?
The women’s answers were all as unique as they are:
“Be open-minded and open yourself up for conversations. It makes us feel good when it finally clicks. We feel like, “She finally gets it.”
“Start in the schools and allow kids to know about racism and how it tried to stop Us as a people from excelling in the business field. Teach about the many accomplishments we have had and are still capable of by learning about economics, money management and other tools to gear this generation for success all around. That way, there is an idea set early for entrepreneurship and “adulting”!”
“Step out of your comfort zone. Step out of your circle. Allow opportunities, questions, and ideas from us. Open yourself up to diversity training and education.”
“We need people to reach out. We need an increase in boards and committees and representation on those committees. We need to create symbiotic relationships-we should all benefit from one another.”
One theme that we arrived at was the concept of tables. In discussions about opportunity and privilege, the phrase, “Having a seat at the table” is often used. In Massillon, and so many other American cities, companies, schools,…the list goes on, a history of systematic racism (and sexism) have assured that most of the seats at most tables have been filled by the old guard, white men.
Of course we have made progress. Mayor Kathy Catazaro-Perry is proof that women in our community can take their seat. As a leader in Massillon, Mayor Kathy is dedicated to offering seats at the table, and her latest effort was to initiate a community conversation on race where she invited representatives from all areas of the city. However, our work is not done because our tables are still too often separate, too often unequal, and too often much too small.
Daja, the SOJCC’s President has a new vision. She wants to be invited to the table, but that’s not enough. She’s ready to build her own tables and invite anyone who’s interested in joining her, LaToya, Ke’Aunte, and Tierra in this adventure.
“Here we are. We are showing up at your meetings. We are going to keep having these conversations. We are going to rub elbows with you, so that we don’t disappear…Here we are, black women, single parents with degrees. We are jewels.”
Meeting these women was invigorating, educational, and inspiring. They have already made connections in the community, including one with Alex Coon at the Massillon Museum. They are working together on a school supply drive to provide Massillon children with the necessary resources to ensure they can start school, whether it’s in the building or remotely, with the tools they need for success.
The SOJCC Back to School Give-A-Way is this Saturday, August 2nd from 3-5 at the Massillon Museum 121 Lincoln Way East Massillon, OH. All donations are welcome, but the ladies are currently in need of hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, and masks.
They are currently accepting donations, either monetary or supplies. Readers interested in registering for or supporting this effort can drop supplies off at the Massillon Museum or make a cash donation through the SOJCC website.
If you want to be a part of this movement to build a more inclusive and equitable community for all Massillonians, the Sisterhood of Jewels Community Connection, LLC. is inviting you to their table and would love to come sit at yours. Massillon is a home to ALL of us, after all, and these incredible ladies are on a mission to put out the Welcome sign for all.