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Is this our community?

Published on 5/28/2022

“I was expecting to hear stories of isolation, alienation, tokenism, loneliness. I’m really troubled by the number of stories about threats to personal safety and the sense of not being safe in town or on the campus,” said one man in the back of the audience. An hour into the show, the stage manager came out to explain that the cast would use improvisation to “playback” the audience’s reactions because the “Where is our Beloved Community?” included such intense real-life experiences from Wabash and Crawfordsville’s minority residents.

Each of the dozens of voices recounting their experience revealed a deep divide in our community. Heidi Vogel Winters, the director, made the bold choice to incorporate the “playback” and the cast’s courage in illuminating these under stage lights while the audience sat cloaked in the dark being. Not only did they inhabit the stories they recounted, but they were also open to the range of reactions. By mirroring what they heard with improvisation and allowing the audience to affirm their accuracy they led the first steps of (re)connection.

The inciting incident that inspired the April production was a bottle thrown through a window at a Wabash frat house. The bottle sprayed broken glass from the window that had been curtained by a Black Lives Matter display. Shards like bullets. Anyone who has experienced the trauma of a home invasion, an act of violence, an assault, or being accosted by hate might find it easier to understand the layers of shock such an event would provoke: the fear for safety and the right to exist or live in that space. 

What do people do after such traumas? We tell the story over and over, combing the details, processing for a cause. The young men in the room lost a sense of safety, of calm, of the freedom to be themselves. As students, staff, and community members shared their stories for the original play, a truth stood out. Crawfordsville is divided by “two realities that co-exist but do not intermingle.”

In one story, an international student recounted why minority students warn each other about when to avoid Walmart. A fellow student went there too late one night, he said, and witnessed people gathered in the parking lot, flying confederate flags, wearing hoods, and burning a cross. In another account, a freshman sitting at his house on campus had “a group of four big white dudes with guns and a truck” stop and tell him to “Get the F out of here, N word.”

We might to tempted to dismiss these events as hearsay or unbelievable, they are so grievous. Is this truly Crawfordsville? How can we “trust but verify,” as we tend to do when we encounter overwhelming truths? For starters “Where Is Our Beloved Community” can be found on YouTube. It helps to observe our community with an “outsider’s eyes.” We’ve all heard that confederate flags send a message of threat to Black Americans. As we drive around town, do we notice the signs and symbols that might be interpreted as unwelcoming to others? Aside from certain flags, what other signals insinuate threat, violence, and danger? 

Caveat here: We all want to claim our liberties, such as freedom of speech, yet we live in a nation committed to the right to everyone’s life and liberty, everyone’s pursuit of happiness. So we co-exist in a system that operates on forbearance, where we choose not to use all of our rights and liberties in extremes, though we could because we mutually tolerate each other. Tolerance is a useful starting point, as it allows us to hold onto our deeply held beliefs and values, honors that others get to do the same, and intersect with each other through conversation and listening, seeking to understand each other without having to change the other.

The boldness of “Where is Our Beloved Community” was in both its truth-telling and its invitation to listen to the audience. Listening is a powerful tool. Beyond the walls of the theater, we can use listening as a way into the truth that comes before reconnection (and perhaps to reconciliation someday, as Nelson Mandela’s government aspired to do in South Africa). We’ve begun that process, with the public conversations in autumn 2021. When Mayor Barton, Bob Rivers, Kenny Lee, the Human Rights Commission, and others came together to discuss the division. On the second anniversary of the death of George Floyd and just weeks after the tragedy in Buffalo, we are reminded to return to the commitment of listening. To do so, we may need to detour from our usual paths and find the places where others work, shop, worship, and relax. This is a call to action. As individuals, we may need to frequent a different store, festival, or restaurant until we become a familiar face in that space. All of us need to feel comfortable in order to connect.

A final thought about this call to action: it often feels inauthentic or “fake” when we try new techniques for listening or relating to other people, but when we seek to reduce others’ isolation, loneliness, feelings of being treated as a token, or being alienated, we strengthen our own sense of belonging.