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Three Vignettes and a Reflection on Race

Written by Mike Larson
    Thursday, 25 February 2021
Three Vignettes and a Reflection on Race

As a white man in a managerial role, I recognize that I have a limited scope of experience when it comes to discussing issues of racial justice and how it relates to our work at the Urban Ecology Center. I also recognize that too often white voices have remained silent on these issues when we should have spoken up, and so on the occasion of the official release of our organizations Equity, Dignity, & Justice Anti-Racism Action Statement I’m humbly offering these reflections to add another voice to the chorus of Black and Brown voices that we all should be listening to with greater sincerity.

My family and I volunteer regularly at the Riverwest Food Pantry, and I love connecting with the other members of the community who come there to shop and volunteer. One morning I was having a conversation with a young Black girl who saw my Urban Ecology Center shirt and responded with animated joy: “I love going to the Urban Ecology Center on field trips with my school!” In the course of the conversation, I asked her if she liked to play outside. She paused for a second and then said “yes, but my mom doesn’t let me because it isn’t safe.As a white kid who grew up in a rural area, it never occurred to me to worry about my safety when I played outside. I think about her from time to time when I see BIPOC children playing together in one of our parks.

As a manager, I try my best to be sensitive to the unique needs and situations of my BIPOC colleagues, but I know sometimes I let them down with my ignorance. One afternoon, I was helping one of my colleagues purchase a fishing license as part of his work at the Urban Ecology Center. We sat down together and I was filling in the information online when I turned to ask him his driver’s license number. Without skipping a beat he rattled it off from memory. Deeply impressed, I turned to him and said “wow, you’ve got your driver’s license number memorized?” He gave me a sideways glance and said: “Yeah, Mike, I’m a Black man living in Milwaukee. I’ve got my driver’s license number memorized.” While for me it was a neat trick, for him, it was a matter of safety.  I think of him from time to time whenever I drive past a police officer in a white neighborhood and am not pulled over.

My work at the Urban Ecology Center sometimes has me sitting at the front desk at our Riverside Park Branch, greeting visitors and introducing them to the organization. One day, a young white woman from Wauwatosa and her kids came to visit us for the first time and were excited to learn about all the cool programs we have to offer. As I was describing our summer camp offerings to her, I casually mentioned that she should consider our camps at Washington Park since that was so much closer to her home. She met my eyes with a look of concern and asked: “but is it safe?” Had I been more informed at the time about issues of racial injustice, I probably would have responded by challenging her racist assumptions by asking her a provocative question like: “why wouldn’t it be safe?” Instead, I was so taken aback by the question that I simply said: “I would send my kids there, but you should check it out for yourself.” I think of her from time to time when I hear news of the protests against the murders of Alvin Cole, Jay Anderson, and Antonio Gonzalez by a Wauwatosa police officer.

WashingtonPark edited 1

Urban Ecology Center at Washington Park

When I first talked with the girl at the pantry, I assumed her mom’s reluctance about playing outside was the fault of criminal activity in her community. It didn’t occur to me until years later that the attitude of the white woman in the third vignette and the complacency of myself and my white community were also culpable for the lack of safety that she and my colleague experienced on a regular basis. As the Urban Ecology Center formalizes its commitment to racial justice with our recent Equity, Dignity, & Justice Anti-Racism Action Statement, I would like to invite my white colleagues, friends, readers, and community to take the important step to learn more about how racial injustice negatively impacts our BIPOC siblings, and become allies in making our parks and communities safe for all people.

Mike Larson

Mike Larson

Mike is a happily married man living with his family in Milwaukee. As a young child he spent days playing along the banks of the Rock River, fostering a love for nature which eventually led him to study biology and pursue a career with the Urban Ecology Center. He enjoys connecting people with nature through his role as the Community Programs Manager. He hopes that the work he does can help make it possible for his two sons and other kids in Milwaukee to grow up with similar experiences to those he had as a child.

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