‘I Feel Validated’: Five Years of Anti-Racism Efforts in Oshkosh

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Fit Oshkosh, a local nonprofit dedicated towards teaching racial literacy and advocating for racial equity, is celebrating its fifth year of existence. It did so at its recent annual fundraising dinner, which attracted more than 200 attendees.

For the next piece in my ongoing series about issues related to diversity in Oshkosh, I asked co-founder and executive director Tracey Robertson and board member Angie Lee to discuss their work, and incorporated some additional reflections.

Lee and Robertson

How do you feel about Fit Oshkosh reaching the 5-year mark?

Robertson:

I feel validated. I remember when our cofounder, Dr. Jennifer Chandler, and I incorporated Fit Oshkosh in July of 2014. We decided to immediately meet with community leaders and stakeholders to tell them that we planned to develop and deliver anti-racism education in Oshkosh. Many of those leaders said the residents of Oshkosh did not need anti-racism education. A handful said that having conversations about race would never work. Five years later, Fit is the premier racial literacy educator in the region with clients across the United States and Canada.

Lee:


Having started my own small business and knowing how difficult it is to be viable and sustainable, I can deeply appreciate this remarkable milestone. There is so much behind-the-scenes work and hustle, especially in the early stages of creating an entity. When you think about how many hurdles had to be cleared to get to this point, it is truly a testament to the work that Fit is doing.

Robertson:

The demand for our work proves what we were saying five years ago which is that racism is a disease that our community is not immune to and that “just being nice” and “having access to more people” is not a cure.

Lee:

This month makes it my two year anniversary with Fit Oshkosh and I am so grateful to be a part of this amazing movement. Volunteering with Fit has allowed me to grow in many facets of my life, so I see the time and energy I give being reciprocated through the invaluable lessons I am learning.


What are some of the key things that you as an organization have accomplished during this initial period?

Robertson:

As of today, we have 87 volunteers who lend their time and talent to the organization. In 2019 alone, these volunteers have worked more than 1,750 hours and counting. We have also recruited an excellent and diverse Board of Directors. We have clients in every sector, including private, public, nonprofit, government, and education.

Lee:

In the two years that I have been with Fit Oshkosh, I have witnessed transformational conversations taking place. I have heard people talk about race openly, despite their discomfort and vulnerability. I have had people thank me for our work and tell me that our work fuels hope in a better community. Those experiences are difficult to quantify – they certainly fill my cup and motivate me to continue this important work. 

Robertson:

I regularly hear from community members how our community programming like our reads, film discussions, Kids and Cops Basketball game, our lending library to name a few has given them more perspective. When we receive those accolades, it feels like a significant accomplishment.

What has changed in Oshkosh during this time related to inclusion/diversity/racial literacy?

Robertson:

Sadly, not enough.

In the last three months alone, residents have shared many stories of incredibly racialized incidents being perpetrated in our community by our larger employers, social service providers, and educational institutions, for example.

These very places often brag publicly about all of their “diversity and inclusions” efforts, but it sounds like few have resulted in real change. We all have more work to do.

Like most things, the answer to this question depends in part on one’s perspective. Lee had somewhat different take.

Lee:

In the four years that I have lived here, I believe more conversations have taken place and there has been a gradual increase in openness to talk about race issues. But I’m also cognizant of the fact that I myself have been more open about talking about race and my identity. Before moving to Oshkosh, I took for granted that when I would share my story, there would be others who would nod in agreement because they had similar stories. I always felt safe to express my heritage, my culture, my foods, my history, my traditions – my authentic self – because there were others who could relate to my story. When people talk about going through a “culture shock,” I think a big part of that is an internal struggle of wondering, will my authentic self be accepted into this dominant culture? Will I be deemed the perpetual foreigner or my culture fetishized?

Lee continued,

Moving here, I found myself feeling very self-conscious – always questioning how my identity and actions would shape people’s perceptions about my culture. There were several people for whom I was the first Korean-American or even Asian-American they had ever had a conversation with. It made all interactions feel high-stakes because I felt like I had to represent and speak for all Korean-Americans or all Asian-Americans or all People of Color. But, I gradually learned (and am still working on learning) to let go. I certainly would not judge a whole group based on the interactions with one individual, why did I put that kind of pressure on myself? In creating a hyper self-consciousness, I was giving into the idea that I would either fulfill or disrupt a stereotype. I didn’t mean to make this all about me, but in a way, it still responds to the question of what has changed. I have changed. Fit Oshkosh has given me the platform to speak my truth. When people think about dismantling racism, it’s not just about changing those in the dominant majority culture. It’s also about empowering and giving voice to those in the marginalized groups. When space is made for people like me, then we will start to see real change.

What have been the most important events or biggest challenges related to Fit’s work during this time?

Robertson:

Our Annual Fundraising dinner has been one of the most important events this year.

This past August, it was attended by more than 220 people from across the state of Wisconsin and beyond who attended to show solidarity and to support our work financially. This year’s speaker, Ajamou Butler, from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was terrific! People are still talking about how he challenged us that evening…. Equally important is our Annual Kids and Cops basketball game which gives kids an opportunity to play non-competitive basketball with local law enforcement and have some hard-hitting, facilitated conversations about topics about safety and community….

The biggest challenge is the same as other Person of Color-led organizations. Local organizations often want to leverage our expertise as long as it is free. They claim they don’t have the funding to contract with us, but manage to find consultants from other places to whom they pay significantly more money. Like many social justice organizations, our staff, while incredibly talented, is not paid a fair wage.

Lee’s answer focused more on events that demonstrate the importance of Fit’s ongoing work.

Lee:

The most recent event that shook me was when the photos of the student apartment with the swastika flag and whiteboard that declared, “No…Liberals, Jews, Muslims, Queers, or Hmongs” surfaced. It was so blatant. And right here. Not a neighboring community or even a different state, but right here, in my hometown. Tracey always says, “Anger into action” and I realized that that event increased my urgency and passion to create a safe and inclusive space in our community. Those events reignited my passion to be proactive about spreading our mission. Those photos were the proof I needed as I met with movers and shakers of our community about the need to invest in additional social infrastructure. I incorporated them into my presentation – I know it made some people uncomfortable. But I needed people to confront the idea that such hateful intolerance was right here in their hometown and that we need to do take meaningful steps towards dismantling those destructive beliefs.

Further, this five-year period included one of the greatest recent challenges to local race relations: the first officer-involved shooting death in Oshkosh in many years, which occurred in August 2017. Isaiah Tucker, a local, 28-year old African American man, was killed. The circumstances were questionable, given that Tucker did not have a weapon, but rather was attempting to flee a domestic situation in a vehicle. The officer was not charged in the case.

The incident didn’t trigger widespread outrage as similar cases had in other cities, however, perhaps due in part to the simple fact that the local black population remains relatively small and continues to develop its voice. The victim’s family was certainly greatly impacted and troubled by Tucker’s death. At a commemoration event a year later, Tucker’s grandmother stated, “We’re here today to make sure that what took place is not swept under the rug.” She continued, “We want accountability and justice for Isaiah.” Family members and other concerned residents wondered why lethal force was justified in this scenario, particularly when in a similar incident that occurred around the same time in (a different jurisdiction in) nearby North Fond du Lac – in which a middle-aged, white man drove his car at officers attempting to arrest him and then led them on a high speed chase – the suspect ended up being apprehended without injury outside his home.

Shortly after the Tucker incident, I asked Robertson for her take on it, as did a number of others, given her de facto status as the voice of local African Americans because of her work with Fit. She first noted that she had been working closely with Oshkosh Chief of Police Dean Smith on the annual kids and cops basketball game that Fit started and, prior to the incident, had also provided training for police supervisors on racial profiling and implicit bias. She noted, Chief Smith “and I work well together. I think it’s important that we continue to stay present and work together—even though we sometimes find ourselves on polar opposite sides—we both continue to sit at the table.” In the local paper after the incident, Robertson lamented, “It pains me to know we find ourselves here again.” She later told me, “I have gotten a lot of flak for saying this, but I say it again. I am not surprised that the investigation came out on the side of law enforcement. These incidents typically do.”

When I interviewed Smith for a planned article some months prior to the Tucker incident, he stressed that his department is accredited at both the state and national levels, which is unusual and demonstrates its high standards, in general receives few citizen complaints, and has been attempting to be proactive with training around de-escalation and related topics. I asked him about a report from the U.S. Department of Justice arguing that police academies spend about 110 hours training their recruits on firearms skills and self-defense, but just eight hours on conflict management and mediation. Smith disputed the notion, calling it “inaccurate”, and mentioned a variety of related training procedures that his officers go through. I also interviewed UW Oshkosh Chief of Police Kurt Leibold around the same time, and he had a different take on the Department of Justice report, noting, “That basic assessment is correct.” Both chiefs emphasized the importance of community policing and building relationships.

I checked back with both departments after the Tucker incident. Smith, who publicly expressed his regret about the incident, calling it a “tragedy”, said no policy changes (e.g. to its use of force policy) had been made in its wake, but that the department continued following its accredited procedures and working to diversify its ranks. UW Oshkosh Police Captain Chris Tarmann noted that his team frequently discusses cases like Tucker’s in its regular in-service trainings and they “believe using force is always the last option, which is why we put more emphasis on communication and de-escalation when we’re training and updating our staff.”

I also interviewed Timber Smith, an Oshkosh resident and the Veterans Resource Coordinator at UW Oshkosh, in regards to local race relations. Among other things, he noted,

As for my thoughts on Isaiah Tucker, two things bother me about that scenario. Why didn’t the police from the very beginning say the situation was a domestic one? From the minute I heard the story I knew that the situation was domestic. It would be very important to me that public knew the situation was really a domestic one and not a car theft, as it was portrayed. That changes the public perception drastically. Secondly, I didn’t like how hush-hush the police made the situation seem nor how they ran to the black community to try and smooth things over and give the appearance that everything was OK…One more thing that I didn’t like is how they didn’t really mention that Isaiah was a product of this community. Isaiah went to and graduated from Lourdes High School, for God’s sake. That also is a narrative/perception changer.

Timber Smith

Also related to policing and people of color, concern about local racial profiling was one of the first issues that Robertson pursued in terms of advocacy for race equity, given her own experiences and numerous other stories she had heard in this vein. In response to a public statement by Chief Smith that the Oshkosh Police Department does not racially profile, Robertson asserted,

I think it’s hard to say ‘we don’t racially profile.’ How can anyone say that with absolute certainty? I think you can say that it’s our goal not to. We hope not to. I think saying that ‘we’ don’t needs to be qualified. Who is the ‘we’?  How do you know ‘we’ don’t? Is there data that supports that? Do they collect traffic stop data? If the ‘we’ is every single officer, every single time that’s a broad stroke and raises an eyebrow for me. 

Brianna Jackson, a 2017 graduate of UW Oshkosh, was interviewed by some of my sociology students for a project that gathered portraits and narratives from local black residents (similar to Fit Oshkosh’s ColorBrave Photo Project) a couple years back. I then did a separate interview with her. While Jackson did not generalize that the entire institution operated in a biased fashion, she felt strongly that she had been profiled by the city’s police department through several incidents over multiple years while attending UW Oshkosh. According to her, it all stemmed from mistaken identity based upon the police seeking a person with the same name – but with different spelling – and nothing else in common aside from being women of color. Jackson told me, “When they had me get out of the car, those were very scary moments for me.” Regarding the way she was treated overall, she noted, “I don’t believe that would happen to a white girl.”

Jackson’s “Portraits of Color” portrait, taken by Savannah Shaw

As Oshkosh continues to evolve and reckon with its increasing diversity, Fit Oshkosh will no doubt play a role in navigating challenging issues such as these.

What gives you the most hope or fuels your fire to keep working for change?

Robertson:

Lately, I have felt very hopeful about the work Fit Oshkosh is doing to support Black and Brown business owners. Last year, we started an informal group called the Regional People of Color Business Association to help POC entrepreneurs and business owners whose needs are not being met or considered by traditional associations, foundations, funders and the like.

Earlier this year, we received a grant to partner with UW-Madison Fond du Lac Extension that enabled us to interview fifty Black business owners throughout the region. The goal of the interviews was to understand the success that they were able to create without access to the financial backing resources available to their white counterparts. The interviews have opened our eyes to some urgent needs specific to these entrepreneurs and business owners.

One thing we have been able to do in response, thanks to a sponsorship by Prospera Credit Union and some generous donors, is to open a co-working space that gives them access to technology, office supplies, printers and other experts that look like them. The camaraderie and networking that has happened in the space in just a few short days is infectious. I am hopeful that we will be able to solidify more partnerships to keep it running.

Lee:

My family and my friends. And this community. There is something so special about Oshkosh. I’ve been ruminating on why I fell so hard and so fast for this community. I think part of the reason is because of the natural beauty that surrounds Oshkosh. I think another piece of that answer is the indigenous legacy of this area. But mostly, I love Oshkosh because of the people. The people of this community make Oshkosh so magical. And when I have conversations with people about positive changes in Oshkosh, I get excited and hopeful because they too want to make it better for future generations.

Robertson:


I am incredibly hopeful that we can find some major funders and corporate sponsorship to support our vision of a new community center to expand our footprint. The space we envision will allow us to provide more impactful community programming, including the work we have been able to do with the co-working space.

Lee:

I believe our collective efforts will create forward waves and lasting changes in a positive direction.

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About Author

Paul Van Auken

Paul Van Auken has been a member of the sociology and environmental studies faculty at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh since 2007, after completing a Ph.D. in sociology from UW-Madison. A native of Iowa but resident of Wisconsin since 1999, Paul conducts research on issues related to neighborhood, community, land use planning and access to public space, sustainability, and teaching and learning. He also practices public sociology, regularly writing a column called “Shortening the Distance” for Oshkosh Independent. He lives with his wife and two daughters on the historic, walkable, and interesting east side of Oshkosh, near the shores of Lake Winnebago.

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