Saline High School student Dru Campbell has emerged as one of the more eloquent and powerful speakers as the community faces the challenge of racism.
Speaking to about 100 people at the 109 Cultural Exchange after a rally for inclusiveness and diversity in downtown Saline Wednesday evening, Campbell reiterated a point he’s made several times recently.
“Everybody in this room is part of the reason we outnumber the people who don’t want change,” Campbell said to cheers.
#Outnumbered is a popular local hashtag on social media, where many Salinians are denouncing two well-publicized incidents of racism. The racism issue emerged less than two weeks ago, when Saline High School senior Karamba Kaba and other black students were invited by teammates on the football team into Snapchat group chat filled with racist words and images. Kaba recorded the chat and it spread around the community and beyond. Community reaction was swift and strong. The incident garnered the attention of Detroit television stations. But that was just the beginning. On Monday, Saline Area Schools hosted a community conversation on diversity, equity and inclusion. Adrian Iraola, a Saline area resident from Mexico, was describing the racism is son faced in Saline schools when he was interrupted by Saline resident Tom Burtell, who asked, in front of television cameras, “Then why didn’t you stay in Mexico?”
Days later, the shock felt in that Liberty School room is still reverberating around the country. The story has been on Good Morning America and ABC World News Tonight. It was featured in The Washington Post and Time Magazine.
The shock is fading. In its place is a desire to address the issue.
Tuesday night, Suzanna McLeskey decided to organize a downtown Saline rally for diversity and inclusiveness. She expected to rally with a few people at the four corners. Nobody was more surprised than she when 400 people arrived and began marching up and down Michigan Avenue, waving signs and singing chants calling for the end of racism.
‘The comments made at the community meeting were intolerable. The Saline community does not stand for hatred or racism against minorities of any kind,” McLeskey said.
Gretchen Driskell was mayor of Saline for 14 years. Driskell, who’s running for Congress, said she couldn’t recall ever seeing a rally quite like Wednesday’s event. Driskell said she was glad to see so many Salinians willing to take up the challenge of racism.
“It’s a challenge our community has and it’s a challenge our country has. I hope that our community hears that we have work to do. I think every community has work to do. This is an opportunity to some very serious community learning,” Driskell said.
Driskell said she’s begun reaching out to community leaders in hopes creating community awareness about tolerance and encourage citizens to learn about each other.
The rally went off successfully - without further controversy - in front of cameras from at least three Detroit television stations. Motorists on their evening commute honked horns in support of the demonstrators.
After about 45 minutes of marching, a large crowd gathered at The 109 Cultural Center. The center is home to Saline Main Street - a downtown revitalization group. But it’s also becoming a cultural hub - home to music and arts events and community meetings. Saline Main Street Executive Director Holli Andrews introduced the space as “The People’s Space.”
“We are as strong as we are diverse. Everyone is welcome here,” Andrews said.
Mayor Brian Marl recited the remarks he made at Monday night’s council meeting.
“Discrimination will not be tolerated or ignored,” Marl said. “The City of Saline will support any and all initiatives, in our community or our region, that promote tolerance, inclusion and understanding. We ought to do more and, together, we will do more.”
It’s been a painful couple of weeks for Saline residents, Marl said. In addition, he noted, the city’s image had been tarnished.
“But out of this pain and hardship must come something positive. Saline is filled with thousands of good, decent, tolerant individuals. You and I - we’re the majority here. Bigotry and racism will be given no quarter. Not today. And it never will in the Saline community,” Marl said.
Saline City Councillor Christen Mitchell spoke about the need for white people to understand their privilege and open their ears.
“I understand that as a white person, I have a lot to learn. I understand that as a white person, I need to start talking to other white people about, not just being ‘not racist,’ I need to talk to white people about how to be ‘anti-racist,’” Mitchell said.
Away from the rally, elected and appointed community leaders continue to speak to the challenges around racism.
In a statement released on his blog, Superintendent Scot Graden said the district has worked on issues of inclusiveness. It created the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, it has worked with the county intermediate school district to train teachers and administrators on social justice issues and taken steps to create a more culturally diverse curriculum, Graden wrote.
“However, it’s very clear that there is a great deal of additional work that we need to do to educate our students, staff, and community on the painful impact that racism has on our society,” Graden wrote. “This is an opportunity for us – the staff, students, and community of Saline Area Schools – to stand for anti-racism, respect, and inclusion of all students.”
The Washtenaw County Superintendents Association, representing the superintendents from nine public school districts and the ISD, issued a statement condemning acts of racism.
“The stories of students at Saline High School have surfaced in the media recently, but microaggressions and more overt aggression happens in every district. Now is not the time to point fingers at one district or one community, but rather to reflect on the ways in which each of us, individually and collectively, contribute to an environment where racial insults, bullying, and harassment are permitted to take place or are even seen by some as acceptable. It has been said that ‘what you permit, you promote.’ Silence in the face of racism and racist actions is complicity and therefore we will not remain silent.”
State Rep. Donna Lasinski said the incidents in Saline opened the door for people to ask deep questions about identity, race and belonging.
“Adrian’s courage to share his story, and the experiences of his children, have made the ‘unseen’ visible. We must confront racist stereotypes, the comfort and arrogance that some have in making these remarks, and challenge those who share these views but do not make themselves known. The ‘unseen’ is only ‘unseen’ to those of us who do not face racism and discrimination on a daily basis. It is up to us to recognize, stand up against and support our friends, family and community members who face ugliness like this every day,” Lasinski wrote.