Mankatoans support BLM movement; NAACP begins Mankato chapter

People of multiple demographics gathered in Sibley Park for the social justice rally June 26 — young and elderly, town and gown, Black and white.

Most wore masks. Some held signs that embodied George Floyd’s cry for help, “I CAN’T BREATHE!” The grass smelled as fresh as it looked, like a filter of hope offering the possibility of change.

Minnesota State University students Taylann Russ, Vanessa Vivas and Lizzie Putnam attended and were impressed by the gathering.

“Amazing,” said Taylann Russ, a third-year student, after she was asked about how she felt about her local protest experiences. “It feels like my community cares and that I am not alone.”

When she was in the process of picking a college, MSU stood out to her because of its emphasis on diversity.

“Obviously, you see people who look like me and who don’t look like me, but I didn’t realize just how much the community cared until the protests started,” Russ said.

“Because of the pandemic, a lot of big events are not happening and are paying more attention to issues that might not have been brought up with such a bright light,” Vivas said.

They also talked about how differences could be bridged.

“I think when people stop seeing other people with different backgrounds as something they can’t connect with instead of finding things that they can identify with, they will learn more about themselves,” Putnam said.

Joaquin Warren, of Mankato, has participated in local protest rallies since they started a couple of months ago.

“For me, it feels good to be involved in any way you can,” Warren said. “For me, protesting feels like an obligation, something I have to do.”

He believes in not only standing with Black Lives Matter but also for all minority groups.

“In the world, it’s the oppressors versus the oppressed,” Warren said. “How am I going to stand for Black Lives Matter, then watch as someone else is stomped to the ground? I think this is a time where we are discovering how much power we have as people and how much power we have united together.”

Part of accomplishing that, he said, is each person recognizing the inherent privileges they have with their backgrounds and personal struggles.

And in part, that change can start in becoming an active member and ally in the Black community.

‘We believe we’ll get there’

Mankato has increasingly become a place of ethnic diversity, so organizers of the NAACP chapter in Mankato think their work has only begun. At the same time, a glimmer of hope and change has sparked, as others in the community have expressed their clear support for social justice.

Since the early spring of 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was created in New York as an organization for civil rights. While talks were long in the works about the local chapter’s formation, the process was expedited in May after George Floyd’s death..

“It’s been intentional about speaking to the needs and plight of colored people,” said Maurice Staley, acting president of the NAACP chapter in Mankato. “Since Mankato is predominantly white, another thing we have been stressing is that white folks can be a part of (the chapter). The majority of the founders were white people. There has always been this coalition between Black people who have wanted to lead and white folks who wanted to support them in that leadership to bring about advancement.”

Staley added that the main thing the NAACP has appreciated is the white founding allies who trusted their Black brothers’ and sisters’ voices in how they envisioned leadership.

“One, we understand that we can be better as far as providing access and opportunity,” said Bukata Hayes, the forming committee leader and head of the Greater Mankato Diversity Council. “The NAACP has always acted as an organization to open up community. In growing more diverse, we have to be as proactive as possible to make sure the community is ready for those folks who are coming.”

Unfortunately, the NAACP has noted that when ethnic groups have moved to Mankato, there are times those people don’t stay, he said..

“That’s the other reason the NAACP is important is to provide the connection for communities of color, to be immediately entered into a network that is there to support them, to fight for their rights, to help move a community towards being more inclusive,” Hayes said.

But Staley also pointed out the answer is bigger than the question of the NAACP’s importance and that the organization should be nationally present, prevalent and operable.

“Because of the inequalities that are built into our society,” Staley said, “I think it’s a great time for everyone to be against racism. The word ‘racism’ is — and should be — becoming more commonplace in our language among our people. It’s not a bad word. It’s simply a major part of our society. It’s not just Mankato that needs it. It’s the nation.”

In Hayes’ mind, racism is a pandemic much like COVID-19, with various precautions needing to be taken, especially with organizations.

“To (Staley’s) point about racism being commonplace in our language, we (are) acknowledging that racism has been a pandemic since we got here,” Hayes said, adding that communities have taken preventive measures with COVID-19 and that communities should exercise the same intention to dismantle racism.

The NAACP understands and recognizes that racism has existed before the pandemic and will continue to for quite some time. Hayes described it as planting tree seeds and watching the seed grow into a sapling. Then from there, trimming the matured trees.

“We probably won’t see the finished product with our own eyes,” he said. “But we believe we will get there.”

Hayes and Staley have been encouraged to see that many have started responding to the systemic issues regarding racism and racism in general.

“We should be responding in much the same way. That is really concentrated and intensive effort to stop the spread, to make sure that those who get infected are healed,” Hayes said.

There is also a common universal thread among people of color, with their experiences of interactions with public safety, or trying to go find employment or housing.

“When you talk about Ta-Nehisi Coates and how he grew up, that’s a good large portion of Black community,” Hayes said, adding that other Indigenous people are coming forward with their stories now, too.

“Mankato is small, but it’s growing. We’re small enough that we can take a right where other communities took a left, simply because they weren’t engaged in doing the work or maybe they weren’t as intentional as they needed to be. Mankato taking a right leads us to a place where we’ve never been at.”

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